The journey of a cargo of tin on board a ship that sank in the Mediterranean Sea more than 2,000 years ago has finally been pieced together.

More than two millennia before the Titanic hit its iceberg in the north Atlantic Ocean, another famous ship sank in the Mediterranean Sea off the eastern shores of Uluburun – in present-day Turkey – carrying tons of rare metal.

Since its discovery in 1982, scientists have been studying the contents of the Uluburun shipwreck to gain a better understanding of the people and political organisations that dominated the time period known as the late Bronze Age.

Now, a team of scientists, including Michael Frachetti, professor of archaeology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, have uncovered a surprising find: small communities of highland pastoralists living in present-day Uzbekistan in Central Asia produced and supplied roughly one-third of the tin found aboard the ship – tin that was en route to markets around the Mediterranean to be made into coveted bronze metal.

The research was made possible by advances in geochemical analyses that enabled researchers to determine with high-level certainty that some of the tin originated from a prehistoric mine in Uzbekistan, more than 2,000 miles from Haifa, in modern-day Israel, where the ill-fated ship loaded its cargo.

But how could that be? During this period, the mining regions of Central Asia were occupied by small communities of highlander pastoralists – far from a major industrial centre or empire. And the terrain between the two locations – which passed through Persia and Mesopotamia – was rugged, which would have made it extremely difficult to transport tons of heavy metal.

Frachetti and other archaeologists and historians were enlisted to help piece together the puzzle. Their findings unveiled a shockingly complex supply chain that involved multiple steps to get the tin from the small mining community to the Mediterranean marketplace.

Frachetti said: “It appears these local miners had access to vast international networks and – through overland trade and other forms of connectivity – were able to pass this all-important commodity all the way to the Mediterranean.

“It’s quite amazing to learn that a culturally diverse, multi-regional and multi-vector system of trade underpinned Eurasian tin exchange during the late Bronze Age.”

Adding to the mystique is the fact that the mining industry appears to have been run by small-scale local communities or free labourers who negotiated this marketplace outside of the control of kings, emperors or other political organisations, Frachetti added.


See also: Analysis of Middle Ages wreck’s cargo provides journey clues

a glimpse into Bronze Age life

By 1500 BC, bronze was the ‘high technology’ of Eurasia, used for everything from weaponry to luxury items, tools and utensils. Bronze is primarily made from copper and tin. While copper is fairly common and can be found throughout Eurasia, tin is much rarer and only found in specific kinds of geological deposits.

Frachetti said: “Finding tin was a big problem for prehistoric states. And thus, the big question was how these major Bronze Age empires were fuelling their vast demand for bronze given the lengths and pains to acquire tin as such a rare commodity. Researchers have tried to explain this for decades.”

The Uluburun ship yielded the world’s largest Bronze Age collection of raw metals ever found – enough copper and tin to produce 11 metric tons of bronze of the highest quality. Had it not been lost to sea, that metal would have been enough to outfit a force of almost 5,000 Bronze Age soldiers with swords.

Frachetti added: “The current findings illustrate a sophisticated international trade operation that included regional operatives and socially diverse participants who produced and traded essential hard-earth commodities throughout the late Bronze Age political economy from Central Asia to the Mediterranean.”

Unlike the mines in Uzbekistan, which were set within a network of small-scale villages and mobile pastoralists, the mines in ancient Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) during the late Bronze Age were under the control of the Hittites, an imperial global power of great threat to Ramses the Great of Egypt.

long-distance trade networks

The findings also show that life more than 2,000 years ago was not that different from what it is today.

Wayne Powell, professor of earth and environmental sciences at Brooklyn College and a lead author on the study, said: “With the disruptions due to COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine, we have become aware of how we are reliant on complex supply chains to maintain our economy, military and standard of living.

“This is true in prehistory as well. Kingdoms rose and fell, climatic conditions shifted and new peoples migrated across Eurasia, potentially disrupting or redistributing access to tin, which was essential for both weapons and agricultural tools.

“Using tin isotopes, we can look across each of these archaeologically evident disruptions in society and see connections were severed, maintained or redefined. We already have DNA analysis to show relational connections. Pottery, funerary practices, etc., illustrate the transmission and connectivity of ideas. Now with tin isotopes, we can document the connectivity of long-distance trade networks and their sustainability.”

The current research findings settle decades-old debates about the origins of the metal on the Uluburun shipwreck and Eurasian tin exchange during the late Bronze Age.

The research is published in Science Advances.

Image: Uluburun excavation i © Cemal Pulak/ Texas A&M University.