Minoan Crete and Western Tin-trade Routes

In this post we present selected parts of the very interesting paper titled “Towards a reconstruction of Tin-trade routes in mediterranean protohistory“, by Fred C. Woudhuizen.


Sometime during the Early Bronze Age artefacts of tin-bronze appear for the first time. The earliest attestation of this alloy is reported for Tepe Yahya in southern Iran. Sometime afterwards, from c. 2600 BC onwards, artefacts of tin-bronze make their appearance on the island of Crete. The Akkadian emperor Rimush (2279–2270 BC) even had an entire statue of himself made from tin. From c. 2200 BC alloys of copper with tin gradually replaced those of copper with arsenic and became the dominant material in the bronze industry of the Near East and the eastern Mediterranean up to the end of the Bronze Age c. 1200 BC.

Now, one of the most fundamental problems in Mediterranean protohistory is formed by the question: “where did the tin come from?”, as there are no tin mines of any note in the region of the Near East and the eastern Mediterranean. In fact, there are only two options: the far East or the far West. Tin mines of industrial importance already in antiquity, namely, are found on the one hand in Afghanistan and in the region of the Amu Darya or Oxus along its northeastern border, and on the other hand in the Erzgebirge in central Europe, Cornwall in England, Brittany in France, and Galicia and Portugal on the Iberian peninsula. As a matter of fact, therefore, the presence of tin in bronze artefacts of the Near East and the eastern Mediterranean can only be explained by long-distance trade connections either with the far East or the far West.

The latter inference can further be substantiated by the fact that the importation of tin in the Near East is associated with that of lapis lazuli, a precious stone for which there is only one source, namely in the Amu Darya or Oxus region along the northeastern border of Afghanistan, where as we have just noted tin mines can also be found. Similarly, the importation of tin from the west is associated from the beginning of the Late Bronze Age (c. 1600 BC) onwards with that of amber, a precious material for which there is also only one source, the Baltic region in northern Europe.

In fact, the long-distance trade connections with the far East and the far West do not need any archaeological proof: the simple fact that there is tin in the Near Eastern and eastern Mediterranean bronzes provides such proof. Still, it might be elucidating if we could distinguish between eastern and western tin and determine the specific routes along which this metal was imported. Such an endeavour is of particular interest for our understanding of the development of the civilization in the eastern Mediterranean in general, and that of Minoan Crete in particular.

The eastern trade route is not in doubt. The Akkadian cuneiform sources inform us that annaku ‘tin’ was imported overseas from the south via Dilmun (= Bahrein) and Magan (= Oman and the Persian side of the Gulf) in the Persian Gulf and ultimately originated from Maluḫḫa (= Indus valley) near the Indian continent (Foster 2016: 115). A prerequisite for this route is the assumption that the Indus civilization was in contact with the Amu Darya or Oxus region where the tin mines are situated or imported the tin in question from further east, i. c. Thailand. Alongside this recorded overseas route, there are also suggested overland routes, from Afghanistan via Susa to Mesopotamia and from the Amu Darya or Oxus region along the southern edge of the Caspian Sea to Assyria. In any case, it is clearly attested in the Assyrian texts from their trading stations in Anatolia that the Assyrians traded in tin and textiles in exchange for silver and gold with the indige-nous population of Anatolia during the Kültepe-Kanesh period c. 1920–1750 BC.What is in doubt is the western trade route. Such a route is reconstructed by J. D. Muhly for the Mycenaean Greeks from the period of the shaft graves at Mycenae c. 1600 BC onwards. The tin in question is cogently argued by this author to originate from Wessex along a route through the river valleys of the Seine and Rhône in France and along the central Mediterranean islands of Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily to the Peloponnesos in Greece. A strong argument in favor of this reconstruction is the presence of amber in the shaft graves of circle B. Obviously, from c. 1600 BC the importation of tin went hand in hand with that of amber from the Baltic. This period is in a most fascinating way exemplified by the famous necklace from Exloo in the Netherlands, which consists of beads made from tin, faience, and amber.

Eastern tin would have been more expensive in Crete than in the Near East for the simple fact that it needed to be transported over a longer distance. On the other hand, for its mere geographical location, tin from the west would be cheaper in Crete than in the Near East. Moreover, the tin from the west may theoretically have been available at a lower price than the tin from the east. If so, Crete’s involvement in the tin trade might go a long way in explaining the rise of the Minoan civilization during the Middle Bronze Age, which, with its large palaces, is of an unprecedented greatness against the backdrop of the much humbler housings of the Early Bronze Age. Therefore, I believe it might be worthwhile to investigate whether there are indications for the involvement of Crete in the trade in tin from the west before that of the Mycenaean Greeks from c. 1600 BC onwards. Furthermore, I would maintain that evidence of later date might be of relevance in this investigation if we consider that longstanding long-distance trade connections possibly become visible to us only by relatively late archaeological material.


Minoan Crete and Western Tin-trade Routes

One of the most important documents on western tin trade and Cretan association with it is a copy of a text of which the core of the contents originates from the reign of Sargon I of Akkad (2334–2279 BC). In transliteration and translation, the relevant section of this text runs as follows:

“Land of tin (and) Crete, lands beyond the Upper Sea,” “Dilmun (and) Magan, lands below the Lower Sea,” “and the lands from sunrise to sunset,” which Sargon, king of the world, conquered with his hand.”

Dilmun refers to Bahrein and Magan to Oman and the Persian side of the gulf, so that the Lower Sea can positively be identified with the Persian Gulf situated to the south of the Akkadian Empire. In like manner, given the fact that Kaptara refers to Crete, the Upper Sea can positively be identified with the Mediterranean Sea located to the northwest of the Akkadian Empire. This being so, the “Land of tin” has to bear reference to a source of tin situated in the west. Ergo: we have a direct reference here to the western tin trade, with which in turn Crete is directly associated.

A second argument for Cretan involvement in the western tin trade is formed by the faience industry. We have already noted above that faience beads were combined with those of tin and amber in the necklace from Exloo in the Netherlands. The technique of faience-making is a Mesopotamian invention, but soon spread to Egypt. As far as the archaeological evidence goes, at first, during the Early Bronze Age, faience is imported in Crete from Egypt, as attested by a necklace of stone, faience and shell from an Early Minoan grave at Mochlos. In the following Middle Bronze Age period, however, the Cretans start to produce their own faience; industrial faience production in the Vat Room Deposit at Knossos, dated to Middle Minoan IB (19th century BC), bears testimony to this fact. Now, the faience industry is connected with the trade in tin in two ways. Firstly, faience beads and the technique to produce them are exported between c. 2000 BC and c. 1400 BC from the eastern Mediterranean to, amongst others, those regions of Europe in which the tin mines are located, namely the region of the Erzgebirge, Wessex (Cornwall), Brittany, and the Iberian peninsula. This category of evidence therefore exemplifies contacts between the eastern Mediterranean and the western regions with tin mines.

Secondly, the faience beads happen to contain a percentage of tin, which may vary per region, the British beads scoring the highest percentage, their Mediterranean counterparts the lowest, and the Egyptian ones somewhere in between. It follows from this latter observation that Crete must have been involved in the tin trade, for the simple fact that it had a faience industry. What is more: against the backdrop of the distribution of the faience beads we may even be more specific and conclude that Crete was involved in the western tin trade.

Thirdly, it is noteworthy in this connection that, in the earliest group of hieroglyphic seals, dating from c. 2000 BC to c. 1750 BC, Cretan dignitaries advertise themselves as entrepreneurs in the metal industry. Thus we come across seals with ships, ingots, and pots, the latter most likely functioning as crucibles. One seal from central Crete is decorated on one side with a metal ingot of Buchholz type 1.

The involvement of Minoan Crete in the metal industry, or more specifically in the metal trade, is further indicated by archaeological evidence from the Late Bronze Age. It so happens, namely, that copper ingots of Buchholz type 1 are found in Crete at various locations (Tylissos, Mochlos, and Knossos) and at a real depot at Hagia Triada.

Based on the fact that Cretans are involved in the international trade in metals, or more specifically in copper, during the Middle and early Late Bronze Age, it may perhaps be deduced that they traded in tin as well, because in this period tin-bronze is the standard and copper and tin therefore form an industrial package. This latter inference can be substantiated by the parallel provided by Cyprus.

The importance of Cyprus in the international trade in copper during the Middle and Late Bronze Age is not in doubt. International trade in copper appears to be combined with that in tin – these two metals forming an industrial package.


Contacts of the Near East and Egypt with the Aegean and Cyprus

As Crete, or more in general the Aegean, and Cyprus presumably functioned as hubs in the long-distance trade in tin between the Orient and the sources in the west, it may be of relevance to present an overview of the references to the Aegean and Cyprus in the Near Eastern and Egyptian texts from the Early, Middle, and Late Bronze Age, as such references are a conditio sine qua non for our model. From this overview it can be deduced that the Near East and Egypt were acquainted with Crete already during the Early Bronze Age and with both Crete and Cyprus during the Middle Bronze Age.

According to Fritz Schachermeyr the Cyclades were in contact with the Baleares c. 2000–1700 BC. Unfortunately, however, the relevant evidence consists only in a single Middle Cycladic beaked jug supposedly found in Minorca.

Muhly cogently argued for a long-distance trade connection between the Mycenaean Greeks and Wessex from c. 1600 BC onwards.

On the basis of the evidence from Luwian hieroglyphic cylinder seals (= the entry ticket into Near Eastern trade) from the Middle Bronze Age, a certain Tarkuntimuwas, who owing to the correspondence of his name to that of the later king of Mira, Tarku(ntimu)was or Tarkondemos, may reasonably be identified as a Luwian from western Anatolia, traded overseas together with an Athenian henchman with the Levant. As this trader made use of a trading station at Malia in Crete, and for this purpose even had his seal made in the local Cretan hieroglyphic, he may well have been regarded as a Cretan by his oriental customers.


Reconstructing Western Trade Routes

Crete was in contact with Egypt during the period of the late 11th or 12th dynasty. Middle Minoan II or Kamares ware has been reported for Ugarit and Byblos in the Levant.

Crete had a special interest in the north-Aegean region from the Middle Minoan period onwards. This interest is exemplified by the discovery of Cretan hieroglyphic sealings from the Middle Minoan II or III (c. 1900–1600 BC) in Samothrace.

The contacts with the region in question were continued after the development of Linear A at the end of Middle Minoan II (c. 1700 BC), as deducible from the distribution zone of Linear A inscriptions which not only includes Samothrace, but also affects Troy, Drama in Thrace, and Amisos along the Pontic coast of Asia Minor. Two of the four from Troy are assigned to an early stage of Troy VI, which, with a view to the date of the development of Linear A, in actual fact would boil down to the 17th century BC. The Cretan influence in the north-Aegean region may be explained by their interest in the metalliferous region of Thrace along the upper Hebros or Maritsa river. In this latter region there are no tin mines, but the Bronze Age exploitation of copper mines here may well have attracted trade in tin and, if so, this tin likely originated from a western source.

For a more westerly trade route there are the following indications. In the first place the Linear A inscription on an idol from Monte Morrone along the Adriatic coast of Italy may reasonably be explained within the framework of Minoan traffic along the Adriatic up to the head of this gulf. In ductus, three of the signs of this inscription show close affinity to a counterpart in the ancestral Byblos script, and therefore it likely belongs to the earliest group of Linear A inscriptions and no doubt should be assigned to Middle Minoan IIIA (c. 1700–1650 BC).

In so far as Crete is concerned, this trade connection can further be underlined by a Middle Minoan III–Late Minoan I vase from Pazok in Albania.

Minoan trading interests can be positively shown to have reached the island of Lipari to the north of Sicily and west of the toe of the Italian boot. Here four Minoan sherds dating from the Middle Minoan III and Late Minoan I periods have been found. In Gallo di Briatico, situated in the part of Calabria facing Lipari, also some Late Minoan I ware was found together with a Minoan seal stone. In numbers, however, the Minoan material in the central Mediterranean is outmatched by that of Late Helladic I, and therefore the Mycenaean Greeks appear to be the dominant commercial factor in this region. In the reconstruction of the Mycenaean tin trade-route by Muhly Lipari and Gallo di Briatico only form stepping stones on the way to the ultimate source of the tin in Wessex (Cornwall).

Minoan trade connections with Lipari can be further substantiated by evidence from the Minoan seals, as a functionary from this island had his seal made with a legend in the Cretan hieroglyphic script (# 301), no doubt to facilitate his trade re-lations with Crete. If Muhly is right in his reconstruction of the Mycenaean tin trade-route with Wessex (Cornwall), it may safely be deduced from the preceding data that the Minoans at least had a part in it. Perhaps this part was a legacy from the Middle Bronze Age, when the relationship between Crete and Wessex can be assumed on the basis of the distribution of faience beads.

In the final stage of the Bronze Age, and perhaps continuing in the earliest stage of the Early Iron Age, trade connections are particularly close between Cyprus and Sardinia. To this period presumably belong the Sardinian oxhide copper ingots with marks sometimes resembling signs from the Cretan Linear and/or the related Cypro-Minoan scripts. Clearly, these ingots were designed for the international market and shipment to the eastern Mediterranean. An indication that tin was involved in this trade may be provided by the amber necklace from the Ausonian II period cemetery at Lipari, in which also Late Helladic IIIC pottery was found. However, the actual discovery of 10 kg of cassiterite only belongs to the later Early Iron Age period. This came to light in a founder’s hoard of the Sardinian nuraghe Forraxi Nioi, dated to the 7th or 6th century BC. In all probability, we are dealing here with tin from a western source, particularly so because in the same hoard were found beads of amber, and as such this find might be symptomatic for what went on earlier along this trade route, when the Mycenaean Greeks and before them presumably the Minoans were active here.

In sum, then, Minoan shipping during the Middle Bronze Age and the beginning of the Late Bronze Age is directed to (1) the northern Aegean, (2) the Adriatic, and (3) the Lipari islands and the adjacent region of Calabria in Italy. Apart from the faience beads and the technique to make them, there is a gap in the material evidence between the aforesaid regions and those of the tin mines in the Erzgebirge, Brittany, Cornwall, and Galicia. In short: Minoan material did not radiate so far into western Europe, nor do we find material evidence from these latter regions in Crete. However, this does not mean that the given routes were abortive: the gap may be indicative of the fact that trade connections were indirect. As a parallel it may be pointed out that during the Early Iron Age the Phoenicians imported tin from the Cassiterides or Scilly islands, but to date no Phoenician material has been found on these islands, nor in Cornwall for that matter. The explanation for this observation is that the trade in question was indirect, the Phoenicians shipping on Tartessos in the region between Cadiz and Huelva in southern Spain, the Tartessians shipping on Oestrymnia in Brittany, and the Oestrymnians finally shipping on the Cassiterides – and vice versa. In a similar vein, it stands to reason that, concerning the bronze industry of Athens of the 5th century BC, Herodotos in his Histories (III, 115) has to resort to the rather desperate sigh that “I am not certain that the Cassiterides exist, which are supposed to be the source of tin. (…) despite my efforts, I have been unable to find anyone who has personally seen a sea on the other side of Europe and can tell me about it. Nevertheless, it is true that our tin and our amber come from the outmost reaches of the world [in the west]”. That notwithstanding, I would maintain that merchants from the Aegean knew exactly those locations in the central Mediterranean where middlemen used to come to sell their shipments of tin from the west – in the Classical period as well as in the Middle and Late Bronze Age!


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides


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