Bronze Age settlement of Scoglio del Tonno, Apulia, Italy; maritime routes connecting the eastern and central Mediterranean

Scoglio del Tonno is presently part of the urban area of Taranto (Apulia) and is among the most important sites of Bronze Age southern Italy. The period of interest examined here is the local Late Bronze Age (LBA), i.e., the Recent Bronze Age (RBA), ca. 1350-1200 BC, and possibly the earliest part of the Final Bronze Age (FBA), ca. 1200-1000 BC.


In the overall context of Italy’s present territory, Apulia shows a number of distinctive features and specific potentials. From an Italian Peninsular perspective, it is characterized by the homogeneous morphology that reigns over a large part of the area it occupies; unlike most of Italy, Apulia is an exceptionally large natural region not occupied by high mountains. Moreover, it is a naturally circumscribed region, its eastern and western borders being formed by the Adriatic and Ionian coasts. In the Mediterranean context, the region occupies the southwestern end of the Adriatic sea, the maritime passageway between the eastern Mediterranean and Central Europe, and is that part of Italy which is first sighted by ships coming from the East. Thus, this region is particularly suited to interior and interregional communication by land and sea.

Apulia’s coasts gradually became occupied from the end of the 3rd/beginning of the 2nd millennium BC. Settlements were mainly sited on small peninsulas or promontories, often in connection with lagoons (generally drained over time). Along the Adriatic coast there is consistent evidence of contact with the Balkan coast. Occupation was particularly dense in the eastern Ionian area. A recurrent feature is the artificial isolation of these settlements by means of strong walls, generally built to coincide with the isthmus joining the peninsula or promontory to the mainland.

The interior was also systematically settled, with some major sites controlling the main natural routes towards the north and the Tyrrhenian coast, e.g., Santa Maria di Ripalta. Both the coastal and the interior sites were usually rather small (= 5 ha). However, and despite the limited degree of intraregional integration, systematic contacts between the coast and the interior are indicated by the overall homogeneity of the material culture as well as by the circulation of metal and metal artefacts.

In the 17th-16th centuries BC, the coastal areas of Apulia were among the main destinations of the earliest systematic sailing ventures from the Aegean, the coasts and islands facing the southern Tyrrhenian sea, and southern Sicily. LH I, II and III A1 pottery has been found in several Apulian sites (e.g., Manaccora, Molinella, Punta Le Terrare, Santa Sabina, Giovinazzo, Porto Perone: see Cinquepalmi, Radina 1998). The main reason for the sailing ventures from the Aegean to the central Mediterranean was to search for raw materials such as copper and tin, as well as amber from the Baltic sea which travelled throughout Europe before reaching the northern end of the Adriatic sea (the Caput Adriae).

During the final phase of the MBA and RBA (ca. 15th-13th centuries BC, LH III A2-III B), several settlements on the Adriatic and Ionian coasts of Apulia were fully involved in the Mycenaean connection, although this interest was not based on any overall organized strategy.

Apparently, it was not a political enterprise dependent on the palaces of Mycenae but a series of independent, freelance actions aimed at participating in local exchange networks. An effective means to this end may have been the establishment of small groups of Aegean origin within the indigenous communities; these may have  attained different degrees of integration. Two sites that played an apparently more organized and formally defined role in this context are Roca Vecchia on the Adriatic, and Scoglio del Tonno on the Ionian coast.

The site of Scoglio del Tonno is one of the most important Bronze Age complexes of southern Italy. Its most notable archaeological feature is the particularly intensive and systematic occurrence of Mycenaean-LH pottery dating from the second half of the 2nd millennium BC.

The chronology of the settlement (ca. 18th-11th cent. BC) comprises the local MBA, RBA and FBA. The site was excavated in 1899 by Quintino Quagliati, under pressure due to the construction of the railway station at Taranto. No stratigraphic data have been preserved for most of the finds made.

Overlooking the sea, the site lies on a small terraced hill of the local calcareous rock. The settlement has a strategic location in one of the best natural harbours of the entire Italian Peninsula, at the junction between the Mar Grande and Mar Piccolo.

This was apparently one of the main factors resulting in the structural difference between Scoglio del Tonno and the majority of contemporaneous coastal sites in this area. Other elements that point to special political and economic roles for this site are the presence of exceptionally large and complex buildings (such as the well known apsidal building, ca. 20 × 15m), and the high proportion of imported Mycenaean pottery compared to that seen at other sites in the Ionian region (e.g., Broglio) in which the pottery of Aegean type is mainly locally-made. Apparently, Scoglio del Tonno was an emporion, a privileged and permanent landing place for ships sailing between the Aegean and the Italian Peninsulas.

Several metal artefacts dating from the MBA and LBA were found during the excavation mentioned above. Except for one piece (an eyelet pin, inv. 203931), all are made of copper alloys.

The material from Scoglio del Tonno includes locally made wheel-turned grey pottery (so-called Mynian). However, a specific feature of Scoglio del Tonno is the very high proportion of imported LH-Mycenaean pottery; locally produced pottery is usually found at the majority of contemporaneous sites in this area. Moreover, it includes two Mycenaean cult figurines.

Closed vessels, probably shipped for their contents, prevail among the abundant Mycenaean pottery, while large transport amphorae are not represented. This contrasts with the situation seen at Roca Vecchia, where mainly open vessels have been found (presumably opened for consumption) along with a substantial number of large, coarse stirrup jars of a well known Minoan type.

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Most of the artefacts were found to be made from a tin-copper alloy, with varying, non-systematic proportions of lead. The majority of the items (more than 1/3) contain less than 2 % lead.

Only seven objects have more than 5 % lead. Intentional low quantity additions of lead are difficult to distinguish from natural levels. Generally, a content of less than 2 % can be regarded as unintentional in prehistoric artefacts. The proportion of tin in the weapons is generally higher than in the other objects.

One pin (inv. 203931) stands out since it is made of an alloy of silver, copper, lead, tin and gold. The analysis was repeated in different areas to check the composition of the alloy and to rule out the possibility of it being a gilded piece.

The occurrence of several bronze pieces of northern Italian type (Peschiera dagger, winged axe, violin-bow fibulae, pins, razor etc.) probably indicates a systematic connection with the Palafitte-Terramare region for the acquisition of both raw material and the models for objects. In turn, this region acquired copper from the Alpine area.

Bronze melting and recycling were performed at Scoglio del Tonno, as indicated by the finding of stone moulds and crucibles (mould inv. 7096: L. 14.2 cm, W. 7.6 cm; crucible inv. 5626: L. 5.9 cm, W. 3 cm). The examined artefacts were subsequently finished with whetstones (inv. 5703: L. 8.9 cm, W. 5.1 cm; inv. 7099: L. 14.8 cm, W. 4.3 cm).

That a metallurgical workshop was active within the settlement is indicated by the occurrence of a bivalve sandstone mould for spearheads and by a small crucible. Significant evidence of local production has also been found at Roca Vecchia. The average tin content for the overall sample is 10.9 %, while that of lead is 2.3 %. Thus the alloys are generally rich in tin but have a rather low lead content. The presence of this lead may lie in it being an impurity of the copper ore used. Apparently, these objects represent local production of high quality, which would have been dependent on a plentiful and steady supply of raw materials, especially tin.

The iron content of the objects is generally low (average 0.06 %); this probably indicates that in Italy, as well as in Central and Western Europe, the smelting of copper involved a poorly reducing process rather than the slagging-smelting process used in the Aegean Peninsula and the Middle East.

Several bronze pieces were apparently found within or around hut II, the large apsidal structure noted above. About 6 m from this building a group of hearths was found associated with a stratified heap of ashes and charcoal. The combination of these two features might be reasonably interpreted as representative of workshop activity.

It seems likely that hut II, the largest structure at Scoglio del Tonno, was not an ordinary house, but was probably connected to some public/political function. Metal-related activities, from the procurement of both raw materials and finished objects to the local production and finally the shipment of part of these material, might be associated with the central functions of the building.

An interesting parallel to the apsidal hut is represented by the large FBA building of Roca
Vecchia, where there is important evidence of the practice of rites, metal storage and manufacturing, among other activities.

A significant feature related to the metals and metallurgy at Roca Vecchia and the Salento area in general is the frequency (as well as the local production) of bronze pieces of the Aegean type. At Scoglio del Tonno, bronze artefacts of the Aegean type are the exception. One of these exceptions is a flat tanged knife. Cypriot parallels of this type are also known. In Apulia, similar pieces have been found at Roca Vecchia, in tomb 12 of the Santa Sabina barrow, the settlement of Torre Castelluccia, and in the bronze hoard of Scorrano. The second knife from Scoglio del Tonno belongs to a south Italian type, which has parallels in central European and northern Italian Baierdorf types. These two knives differ in terms of the alloy used to make them: the Aegean type piece has 0.5 % lead and 19.5 % tin while the second knife has 6.8 % lead and 13.9 % tin.

One of the daggers, of the Pertosa type, could be an Aegean import. Despite this type’s wide distribution throughout continental Italy, the piece from Scoglio del Tonno is typologically very close to knives from Crete and Philakopi. Compared to that of the main body of the dagger, the tin percentage of one of the rivets is very high (23.6 % compared to 14.6 %). The remaining daggers all belong to northern Italian (Peschiera) types.

Two pieces, PBF 1157 and 1158, belong to the Torre Castelluccia type, a type generally seen in mainland Italy, particularly in the northern regions. Other types include a dagger with a narrow tang and wide blade, a dagger with a composite handle similar to an antler handle from Frattesina, and an earlier (MBA) dagger of the Sant’Ambrogio type (a type widely distributed over mainland Italy). Another northern Italian type is the openwork symmetrical razor (Scoglio del Tonno type). Its alloy has a high tin content at 18 %, and 2.5 % lead.

A pin with an ovoid head (inv. 203809), made from arsenical copper (89.8 % Cu; 10.2 % As), may have originally belonged to the earliest layers of the settlement, which begin in the Neolithic.

Other pieces include a small bar of quadrangular section and of almost pure copper (inv. 203828; 99.7 % Cu; 0.3 % As; perhaps used as metal for repairs), a broken bracelet made from a thin rod of circular section with an unusually high tin content (21.1 %), and a cylindrical bead with an incised chevron decoration (inv. 203836) with a composition of 10.8 % tin and 2.6 % lead.

One eyelet pin (inv. 203931) has a unique composition: 3.7 % Sn, 17.2 % Pb, 44 % Ag, 10.2 % Au, 24.6 % Cu, 0.3 % Fe. This alloy of precious metals has no known parallels in Italy, where both silver and gold were extremely rare throughout the Bronze Age. Some good typological parallels can be found in Cyprus.

This exotic piece is a further indication that Scoglio del Tonno played a role in the maritime routes connecting the eastern and central Mediterranean. The identification of Cypro-Mycenaean III B pottery in the same context, and further elements from Roca Vecchia and the Adriatic area (from Frattesina to the region of the Caput Adriae), should also be remembered.

Another important characteristic of the metal artefacts of Scoglio del Tonno is the consistent presence of northern Italian types, some of which might be imports from the Palafitte-Terramare region. The supply of copper for the metal industry of this region, clearly the main producer of bronze artefacts in Italy during the RBA, came from Alpine ores. The order of magnitude of the copper production in the eastern Alpine zone is indicated by the substantial evidence of smelting activities at Acqua Fredda di Bedollo (Trento) near the Redebus Pass: a battery of six smelting furnaces with an estimated production of 800-1000 tons of slag for the period between the 13th and 11th centuries B.C.. During the RBA, mining and smelting were carried out by Alpine communities, while casting, the actual manufacture of bronze artefacts, was performed by Palafitte-Terramare communities, especially those around lake Garda. The location of Apulia, however, at the southernmost end of the Adriatic rendered it an important terminus for raw or semi-processed materials, particularly metals. These travelled along the peninsula from northern Italy, probably both by land and sea. The findings made at Scoglio del Tonno are confirmed by those made at Roca Vecchia, especially the so-called ripostiglio dei bronzi, a bronze hoard dating from the FBA, which comprises a collection of broken pieces, many of which belong to types specific to Friuli and the northern Balkan region.

[Source: “Metal finds at the Middle and Late Bronze Age settlement of Scoglio del Tonno (Taranto, Apulia): results of archaeometallurgical analyses”, by Anna Maria Bietti Sestieri et al.]


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides

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