Ancient world

Analysis of 3,000-year-old shipwreck reveals international Bronze Age trade route

The Uluburun shipwreck opens a window to the ancient world.

Cemal Pulak/Texas A&M University

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In 1982, a sponge diver made an incredible discovery in the waters off the coast of Turkey.

A massive ship

had lain at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea for more than 3,000 years after sinking near the eastern shore of what was then called Uluburun.

Cemal Pulak/Texas A&M University

Between 1984 and 1994, more than 22,000 dives to the Uluburun shipwreck revealed its cargo: food, tools, jewels, pottery — and, most importantly, metal.

Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M

When the Uluburun shipwreck was excavated, scholars used it to describe a far-ranging sea trade route circa the late 14th Century BCE. Now, a new analysis of tin carried by the ship has uncovered a trade route that carried goods overland from the Mediterranean to Central Asia.

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Cemal Pulak/Texas A&M University

For a recent study published in Science Advances, researchers performed tin isotype analysis on metal recovered from the Uluburun shipwreck, allowing them to determine where it originated.

Combining metallurgical analysis with the work of archaeologists and historians, the team put together a compelling — and surprising — picture of the region’s Bronze Age tin trade.

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Michael Frachetti

Their research shows most of the ship’s tin came from within Turkey, but one-third came from the Mušiston mine 3,000 miles away, in modern-day Uzbekistan.

Tin and copper are the main ingredients of bronze, the most important technological development at the time of the Uluburun shipwreck. Copper is relatively common, but tin’s scarcity made it much more sought-after.

Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M

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The Uluburun ship held the copper and tin needed to produce 11 metric tons of bronze — enough, researchers say, to create 5,000 swords for a Bronze Age army.

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The importance and difficulty of sourcing that much tin made it necessary to look far beyond Uluburun, to small-scale tin miners who traded their goods outside of established empires in Central Asia.

“This would be the trade equivalent of the entire United States sourcing its energy needs from small backyard oil rigs in central Kansas.”

Study author Michael Frachetti

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Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M

The finding not only solves the mystery of the Uluburun’s ship, but also paints a fascinating picture of multicultural economic cooperation in the ancient world.

Researchers outline a trade network through multiple nations transporting goods across the Bronze Age world.

Michael Frachetti/Washington University in St. Louis

Next, there’s another question to tackle. With the known borders of Bronze Age trade routes expanded, researchers plan to study the distinct ingot shapes that served as signifiers for metal’s origin, as it’s possible they originated farther from their destinations than previously imagined.

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