Lead Ingots on Ship That Sank Off Canaan 3,200 Years Ago Came From Far, Far Away

Ore from Sardinia was transformed into ingots with Cypro-Minoan markings and then shipped everywhere. This boat didn’t make it

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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The lead ingots found on a shipwreck off the coast of Caesarea in the 1980s.
The lead ingots found on a shipwreck off the coast of Caesarea in the 1980s. Credit: Hebrew University
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Around 3,200 years ago, a ship sank off the coast of Canaan. Whatever else it had on board, its cargo included four lead ingots.

The ingots were found in the late 1980s off Caesarea beach by Prof. Ehud Galili of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa. However, only now have they undergone advanced isotope analysis and study, and these bits of ancient metal have a story to tell.

The ingots date to roughly the 13th or 12th century B.C.E. They originated in lead ore in southwestern Sardinia, the isotope analysis shows. But they bear markings in Cypro-Minoan script.

The ingots’ subsequent arrival in the Levant – or rather, their accidental loss off the coast of Caesarea – attests to the vast reach of likely informal trading networks in the Late Bronze Age, posit Prof. Naama Yahalom-Mack, Prof. Yigal Erel and Ofir Tirosh of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Prof. Assaf Yasur-Landau and Galili of the University of Haifa and colleagues in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

The Sardinians had boats and quite the maritime tradition, Yahalom-Mack says. And in some fashion the lead was shipped more than 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) to Cyprus, which doesn’t have to mean direct trade between the two countries, though it might. In any case, the Cypriots were clearly importing the lead in massive amounts, while the Sardinians were availing themselves of Cypriot copper.

Whether they imported the ore-bearing rock or already smelted metal, in Cyprus the lead would be processed again and marked (“rebranded,” as Yasur-Landau puts it). The markings were made on molten metal, it bears adding. Then, once it had cooled etcetera, the Cypriots would ship the ingots onward.

Transporting metal ingots that they hadn’t manufactured was quite the ancient Cypriot occupation, it turns out from this and numerous other shipwrecks. In the case of this doomed boat, its destination was the Bronze Age Levant.

The marks on the lead ingots consist of just one syllable but sufficed to be identified as Cypro-Minoan script, says Yasur-Landau, who adds that similarly marked Cypriot ingots have been found off the Israeli shore before – for instance, at the foot of the Carmel range north of Caesarea.

What does it say? Nobody has ever deciphered the early Cypro-Minoan script, which stems from Aegean Linear, but ample examples of it exist on Cyprus from the 13th century and early 12th century B.C.E., which helps date this shipwreck, Yahalom-Mack explains. Likely it is the first syllable of the name of the ingots’ owner.

Why might ancient Cypriots brave the treacherous seas – note all those wrecks – sailing hundreds or even thousands of kilometers to import lead originating in Iglesiente, Sardinia?

Bronze figures from ancient Cyprus. The Cypriots were big fans of bronze works, despite having to import the metals necessary to make them. Credit: Gary Todd

A passion for bronze

Trading by land and sea goes back to prehistory, and the Mediterranean seabed is littered with wrecks. Along the northern Israeli coast alone, 22 have been identified from the Bronze Age, characterized by single-holed stone anchors.

Then as now, people import what they don’t have. Ancient Cyprus, Egypt and Israel too were rich in copper. Note the so-called “King Solomon’s mines” in Timna, today a site in southern Israel, which had been exploited by all the locals. But Cyprus has and had no lead, or tin, to speak of, and both were crucial to making bronze.

“That’s why we believe the Cypriots went to Sardinia, not the opposite,” Yahalom-Mack explains.

Shoring up the hypothesis of Cypriot importers as opposed to Sardinian exporters, she points out that Sardinians did sail – but they were engaged in Atlantic trade too, not only Mediterranean, and did not seem to have had a consolidated political identity in the Late Bronze Age.

Looking out toward the Mediterranean from the beach at Caesarea.Credit: Rami Shllush

Neither did Cyprus at the time, it seems, but what it had was a flourishing economy with a mad passion for elaborate bronze pieces, such as cultic stands. So mad that they would sail far to get the precious lead; they would have had to import tin from afar too – perhaps from Spain or even as far distant as Cornwall.

Further supporting the thesis that the Cypriots were importing lead, rather than buying it from motley traders plying the Mediterranean, past studies have shown a huge amount of Sardinian lead in Cyprus in contexts of the Late Bronze Age and in Cypriot shipwrecks, Yahalom-Mack says.

The ancient Cypriots not only imported the metals: they resold them around the region, including to what is today Israel.

In short, we have no proof that the sailors from Crete were also shipping tin they had obtained from elsewhere to the Levant, but it’s a plausible hypothesis, Yahalom-Mack adds. The Cypriots also sold lead and probably tin to ancient Egypt – it has been found, just for one example, in Ramesses III’s capital in the Nile Delta.

Meanwhile, Sardinia was importing Cypriot copper ingots, which have been found at dozens of sites all over the island. Also, a distinct style of ancient Sardinian tableware pottery was found on Cyprus at a site called Hala Sultan Tekke. It was dated to the 13th century B.C.E. No question, trading did go in both directions.

A bronze helmet from ancient cyprus, on display at the Ancient Cyprus Gallery, Neues Museum, Berlin. Credit: Gary Todd

When kings fall

The fact is, people got about since time immemorial. An obsidian blade from Anatolia was found in a Neolithic village in central Israel dating to 9,000 years ago. That doesn’t mean Neolithic proto-Jerusalem was in touch with prehistoric Turkey – the blade could have meandered its way around the Mediterranean basin, changing hands, for centuries if not more. But signs of actual trade go back to the dawn of modern civilization.

However, the intense Bronze Age trade around the Mediterranean apparently began between palatial centers, Yahalom-Mack explains. Those were the entities of the time: for instance, Babylon, the Hittites, Tyre and city-states such as Hazor. There is both abundant archaeological evidence of such trading, shipwrecks, and textual evidence attesting to trade and gifts between rulers.

Gradually, on top of this formal exchange of goods between great rulers, the hoi polloi became involved. An entrepreneurial trade developed between jes’ folks sailing small boats, not gigantic state-owned behemoths of the sea, and it grew and flourished throughout the late Bronze Age.

And then came the Late Bronze Age collapse around the year 1177 B.C.E., which Prof. Eric Cline at George Washington University has attributed to a “perfect storm” of misfortunes.

A Cypriot wheeled stand for a cauldron, dating to the 12-11th century B.C.E. Currently in the Neues Museum, in Berlin.Credit: Vassil

Even when the Bronze Age collapse happened, this informal trade of small ships, with lots of cargoes of metal and scrap metal, continued. One proof is that the Levant continued to import hacksilber (little fragments of silver), separate research has shown.

Now that the lead ingots found off Canaan have been identified as Sardinian in origin, it is the easternmost appearance of that metal, Yasur-Landau says. They date roughly to the time that Sherden mercenaries appear in the historic record.

The Sherden are one of the groups believed to have comprised the Sea Peoples, who, as the great empires around the Mediterranean collapsed, sailed into the void and became ascendant.

Could the Sherden, or Sherdana, pirates mentioned in ancient Egyptian and Ugaritic texts – and even served as bodyguards to the unfortunate Ramesses II – have been … Sardinians?

“Their connection with Sardinia is not clear, but the appearance of Sardinian trading systems in the 13th and early 12th century B.C.E., at exactly the same time the Sherden make their big appearance, would be quite a coincidence,” Yasur-Landau observes.

In any case, it seems the shipwreck from Caesarea was before the Bronze Age collapse, but trade did continue and it could have postdated the implosion because trading ties between the Levant and Cyprus did continue, and do to this very day.

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