Civilization May Have Collapsed in 1200 B.C.E. but the Silver Trade Didn’t, Researchers Discover

Ancient Israelites, Canaanites and others in the southern Levant had to import silver. Now we know from where

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Hacksilber found in Megiddo, in northern Israel.
Hacksilber found in Megiddo, in northern Israel.Credit: Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Before the invention of coinage bearing images of religious icons, emperors and local egomaniacs, the peoples of the prehistoric southern Levant were using bits and bobs of practically pure silver as money, or as pre-money, depending on whom you ask. It is perhaps ironic that the silver the ancient Israelites and their predecessors in the region used had itself to be imported, and would have been “paid for” by barter, i.e., with other commodities.

The provenance of the silver exchanging hands in the prehistoric, Canaanite and Israelite southern Levant was reported at the Goldschmidt Geochemistry Conference this week by a collaboration of French, Israeli and Australian scientists and numismatists: Liesel Gentelli, Janne Blichert-Toft, Francis Albarede of the CNRS and Université de Lyon, Gillan Davis of Macquarie University, and Haim Gitler of the Israel Museum.

To be clear, the outcome is not a huge shock. There is no silver ore in the Levant.

“Even before coinage there was international trade, and Hacksilber was one of the commodities being exchanged for goods,” Gentelli told the conference.

Modern bars of silver. Hacksilber was one of the prehistoric commodities that people exchanged for goods.Credit: Michael Dalder/REUTERS

So where did the silver pieces, known in scholarly argot as Hacksilber – the German word for bits of cut silver – come from exactly? The team performed geochemical analysis of lead traces on 45 pieces of Hacksilber found at 13 different sites dating from 1,300 B.C.E. to 586 B.C.E. in today’s modern-day Israel and the Palestinian territories, including from Ein Gedi, Ekron and Megiddo.

Matching their findings with ore samples, they found that most of the silver had been mined in the southern Aegean and Balkans: Macedonia, Thrace and Illyria. Some was also found to have come from as far away as Sardinia and Spain, the researchers say.

Here, have a goat

Before money, people could share, barter, lend: I give you a goat today and vaguely expect recompense tomorrow. Or they could give outright and trust in karma. In any case this boils down to a direct trade of value.

Over time, indirect representations of value and wealth began to emerge. In Mesopotamia over 7,000 years ago, and throughout the Near East and Indus Valley somewhat later, as agriculture and sedentarism developed, pre-literacy people used clay tokens bearing simple symbology that are interpreted as representing value. Simple ones could be shapes such as disks with engraved lines, representing a unit of wheat, barley or oil, for instance. More sophisticated ones could include zoomorphic images such as a cow and symbols we take to indicate the bovine’s ownership and value.

And then over yet more time, in different forms in different places, money began to emerge. To this day researchers argue over how it was used. It was an indirect trade of value.

Some feel that Hacksilber was simply an early form of money in the Late Bronze Age in this part of the world. Some argue that Hacksilber was a pre-money commodity and we shall not get into that argument.

The point is that the pieces of silver, some originating in ruined finery, were used in the Near East as a means of payment before coins were invented, which was roughly 2,700 years ago in Lydia, insofar as we know.

Silver cuts from ingots used for pre-currency trade.Credit: Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority

In what is today Israel, Hacksilber was used as money or pre-money from about 4,000 years ago to 300 B.C.E. In other words, trading using this agent predated the foundation of Rome and the rise of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah.

Bits of silver were changing hands as the Trojan war raged, the researchers evocatively pointed out.

This Hacksilber consisted of silver bullion that could include fragments of broken silver ingots and jewelry, and was clearly used both in local and international trade. It bears adding that any given hoard of Hacksilber didn’t necessarily all originate in the same place.

Its irregularity didn’t have to make a difference because, the researchers believe, its value was determined by weighing it on scales against standardized weights. The merchants of yore would keep it in the ancient version of cash registers: inside clay pots.

If there was a surprise here, it’s that the trade in silver from the Aegean and western Mediterranean continued, albeit to a lesser extent, following the so-called collapse of civilization in 1200 B.C.E.

The great empires of the Hittites, ancient Egyptians and Babylonians descended into chaos and violence; the Aegean civilizations of the Minoans and the Mycenians imploded. Some even think the events described in the Iliad, such as the destruction of Troy and the Odyssey, pertain to this period. The coastal cities in Canaan and Ugarit in Syria were levelled and meanwhile, the Sea Peoples, whoever they were, arose and waxed strong.

Yet in that howling, humongous mess, what continued? At least to some extent? The silver trade.

“Previous researchers believed that silver trade had come to an end following the societal collapse at the end of the Late Bronze Age, but our research shows that exchanges between especially the southern Levant and the Aegean world never came to a stop,” Gentelli says. “People around the Eastern Mediterranean remained connected. It’s likely that the silver flowed to the Levant as a result of trade or plunder.”

It is true that the import of silver decreased to such a degree that the locals, whether deliberately or desperately, resorted to fraud, separate research has shown. In the turmoil that descended over the Canaan as its cities fell and the armies of Egypt retreated to nurse their wounds by the Nile, it seems the local Late Bronze Age merchants – or others – began debasing the Hacksilber.

Hoards predating the Bronze Age collapse were almost pure silver; hoards after the period of the collapse were silver again; hoards dating to the period of the implosion were alloyed with copper, which was local. It came from Timna – a copper mine in the Negev.

The greenish tinge attests to a high proportion of copper in the alloy.Credit: Yael Yelovitz, Israel Antiquities Authority

Other ingredients were added too, such as arsenic, to make the bits look like they were still made of almost pure silver.

In fact the researchers suspect the first miscreants to doctor the silver and create fake Hacksilber may have been the ancient Egyptians themselves: As the chaos reared its head, they needed hard currency, so to speak.

The current team disclaims any ability to match their findings on the silver trade with specific historical events, but adds that their analysis “shows the importance of Hacksilber trade from before the Trojan War, which some scholars date to the early 12th century BCE, through the founding of Rome in 753 BCE, and up to the end of the Iron Age in 586 BCE, marked by Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.”

And that was when coins began to arise. Early ones were no more uniform than the Hacksilber; not all were made of metal, some were stone. Anyway, by about 450 B.C.E. the southern Levant had taken a shine to coins and that was the end of Hacksilber as a currency, if such it was.

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