Lesson 22: Narrative

Aspects of Mycenaean Trade

  1. The Cape Gelidonya Shipwreck
  2. The Amber Trade
  3. General Remarks on Trade in the Aegean Late Bronze Age

The Cape Gelidonya Shipwreck


The wreck lies in ninety feet of water on a rocky bottom off the point of a small island located just offshore from Cape Gelidonya, which forms the western end of the Gulf of Finike, the major gulf on the south coast of Asia Minor. The cape is known today, and was known in antiquity, as a dangerous point for coastal shipping.

The Wreck

Very little of the ship itself was preserved because of the rocky bottom on which it settled and the strong currents in the area which prevented the wood of the ship from being covered in the marine silts necessary for the preservation of ship timbers in submarine environments. Most of the archaeological remains consist of the ship’s cargo, whose distribution on the bottom indicates that the ship settled evenly rather than tipping over in the process of sinking. The most striking portion of this cargo is a series of copper and bronze ingots, mostly of the four-handled or so-called “oxhide” type weighing ca. 20 kgs. (= 45 lbs.) apiece. The oxhide ingots were found stacked in three major piles, although some of these stacks had slid apart down the rocky slope of the bottom over the centuries. Traces of matting on many of the ingots suggest that there were layers of matting between the individual ingots in the stacks. Most of the smaller “bun” and “slab” ingots were also found in stacks. The rest of the metal cargo, consisting of both complete and fragmentary bronze implements, was found scattered throughout the site, although often patchily concentrated in the form of small clumps. These tools had probably been stored originally in wicker baskets, one partially preserved example of which was found. The distribution of the metal finds suggests that the ship was some ten meters long. The small amount of pottery found on the site had no meaningful distribution. A concentration of artifacts which are best interpreted as personal possessions (scarabs, ship’s lamp, maceheads, a sheep { astragal}, a cylinder seal, weights, and traces of food in the form of fish bones and olive pits) was found in Area G and indicates that some kind of cabin was located at this end of the boat, in all probability the stern. Between some wood fragments interpreted as the inner lining of the hull and the metal cargo was found a layer of sticks which presumably protected the ship’s hull from possible grinding action caused by shifts in the heavy cargo on top of it. The ship was a small merchant vessel, comparable to modern caïques/kaïkis, which was carrying at least a ton of non-perishable cargo. It may also have been carrying perishables, but these have not survived. There is no evidence from the remains of the ship itself, in the form of preserved portions of a distinctive method of ship construction, for the nationality of the ship.

The Ingots

The Oxhide Type

Measuring on the average ca. 0.60 m. long by 0.45 m. wide by 0.04 m. thick, at least thirty-four such ingots were part of the cargo. No less than twenty-four of these had signs stamped into them while the metal of the ingot was still soft. A few have had secondary, incised signs scratched into them since the metal cooled. Similar oxhide ingots have been found in Syro-Palestine (Tell Beit Mirsim, Ras Shamra), Cyprus (Enkomi, Mathiati), the sea off the coast of Asia Minor near Anatalya and Kas, Crete (Palaikastro, Zakro, Mochlos, Knossos, Kommos, Ayia Triadha), Mainland Greece (Mycenae, the sea off the coast of Euboea), Sicily, and Sardinia. Small models of this type of ingot have also been found in Egyptian Thebes. All full-sized ingots of this type which have been analysed are of pure copper, aside from those of pure tin found more recently on the Ulu Burun wreck (see below). Representations of such ingots occur quite commonly in Egyptian art, mostly in tomb paintings from the reign of Thutmosis III (1490-1436 B.C.) onwards. Particularly well-known are the paintings in the tombs of Useramon, Rekhmire, and Meryra. The latest of these representations, a relief of the reign of Ramesses III (1192-1160 B.C.) at Medinet Habu, is probably simply a copy of a representation in the Ramesseum of Ramesses II (13th century B.C.) at Thebes. In other words, no Egyptian representations portraying such objects still in use date after ca. 1200 B.C. Oxhide ingots also appear to be represented on several Linear B tablets from Knossos and also possibly on a few Minoan and Cypriot seals of the Late Bronze Age. Ingots of this kind are also represented on two major works of Cypriot 12th century B.C. art, a bronze stand from Kourion and the famous “Dieu au Lingot” (= god standing on an ingot) from Enkomi.

The term “oxhide” is almost certainly a misnomer in the sense that such ingots were not intended to be copies of an actual dried oxhide nor were they somehow equivalent to an ox in value. The four handles were developed simply to make the ingots more easily portable. These ingots were cast in open terracotta moulds, but were not always cast in the same size and certainly did not always weight the same. They therefore cannot be interpreted as units of currency. The stamped and incised marks which they often bear are not signs of any particular script and are probably best interpreted as miners’ or smelters’ symbols, loosely comparable in significance to the marks found incised or impressed quite frequently on pottery in the Bronze Age Aegean. These marks thus may have identified the source of the copper in an ingot. The distribution of such ingots, particularly those known from underwater sites, suggests that they were produced to facilitate the transportation of copper as a raw material. Because of the paintings in the Egyptian tomb of Rekhmire where the carriers of such ingots are labelled as “men of Keftiu”, it has been assumed that the principal carriers of such ingots were Minoans or possibly Mycenaeans. However, there is considerable debate over the precise location of “Keftiu” and, in any case, we have no firm basis for believing that the “men of Keftiu” had a monopoly of the trade in oxhide ingots. George Bass feels that the Levantines, whether Syrians or Canaanites, could equally well have trafficked in such ingots. The balance of our evidence suggests that the copper of the ingots themselves was mined on Cyprus where, Bass feels, production of the ingots themselves was managed at various times under Minoan and Syrian control. After ca. 1400 B.C. and the collapse of Minoan palatial civilization, Bass feels that control of ingot manufacture passed into the hands of the Syrians, but others feel that the Minoans may have been replaced in this role, as they were in so many others, by the Mycenaeans. Vassos Karageorghis, the director of the Cypriot Antiquities Service, feels that the copper industry on Late Bronze Age Cyprus was entirely contolled by the Cypriots. At the moment, we simply do not have convincing evidence as to which, if any, national group dominated the production of copper and its distribution throughout the eastern Mediterranean in the 14th and 13th centuries B.C.

Samples from a substantial number of copper ingots of “oxhide” type have been subjected to lead-isotope analysis with the aim of establishing the source of the copper they contain. The ingots from the Cape Gelidonya and Ulu Burun wrecks are (almost?) without exception cast from Cypriote ores, as are all the LM III ingot fragments from the Minoan harbor site of Kommos. But the LM I ingots from Ayia Triadha have a lead isotope “signature” incompatible with a Cypriot source and may be derived from Anatolian ores. Sardinian ingots have been claimed to be products of Cypriot ores on the grounds of their lead isotope ratios, although this makes little sense in view of the frequency of copper ore sources on Sardinia itself; of course, the Sardinian sources have not yet been shown to have been exploited during the Bronze Age, so it is just conceivable that Cypriot metal may have been transported to the island from the eastern Mediterranean when the traffic in metal ingots was dominated by Cypriot and Aegean (whether Minoan or Mycenaean) carriers.

The “Bun” or Plano-Convex Type

Measuring ca. 0.20 m. in diameter and 0.03-0.04 m. thick, twelve complete ingots, eight almost complete, nine broken half-ingots, and fragments of other miscellaneous ingots of this type were found in the Gelidonya wreck. Of three such ingots analysed, one analysed by Bass was of bronze (87% copper, 7% tin) while two others analysed in 1976 were of pure copper. It has now been suggested that all of these ingots were actually of pure copper, Bass’ bronze analysis having somehow resulted from a confusion of samples in the laboratory. None of the ingots of this type bear markings. Plano-convex ingots are common throughout the eastern Mediterranean in the Late Bronze Age and are normally of pure copper. Early examples of Middle Bronze Age date are known from Acemhüyük and Alaca Hüyük in central Anatolia. Although similar in terms of metallic composition to the oxhide ingots, bun ingots are smaller, hence more portable, and were probably cast more simply within the base of the smelting furnace rather than in moulds located outside the furnace.

The “Slab” Type

Measuring ca. 0.20-0.30 m. long by 0.06-0.08 m. wide by 0.01-0.015 m. thick, all nineteen of these ingots were found in Area G. The three such ingots analysed had tin contents of 1.83%, 1.0%, and 5.27% but are mostly of copper. The low tin content, too low for good bronze, may indicate that they were produced from remelted scrap metal. There are no markings on these slabs, but since they have a uniform weight of ca. 1.0 kg. and were all found in the hypothetical cabin area of the wreck, they may represent a primitive form of currency.


Under the copper ingots in Areas G and P were found three piles of powdery, white tin oxide, seemingly all that remained of the tin which the ship was also carrying as part of its cargo. The source of tin for the Bronze Age cultures of the Aegean is a very hotly disputed question. Although the ultimate source of the Gelidonya tin is unknown, specialists are quite sure that it did not~come from Cyprus. The tin from this wreck is significant in a larger sense as the earliest known, purely industrial tin after that recently found in much greater quantities and in the form of oxhide ingots of metallic tin at the Ulu Burun wreck, which dates some 100-150 years earlier.

Bronze Scrap

This material includes a wide variety of objects useful in agriculture, woodworking, metallurgy, warfare, and several purely domestic activities: picks, hoes, shovel, mattock, pruning hooks, sickle, double axes, adzes, axe-adzes, chisels, hammer, swage block, awls, nails, punch, needle, knives, spearheads, razor, spatula, bronze vessel fragments, tripod stand fragments, spit, bracelets/anklets, rings, and hooks. Most of these were already fragmentary at the time of the wreck and were presumably being transported for their scrap value. The best parallels for most of these objects come from Cyprus, and it is therefore theorized that the last port of call in the merchantman’s voyage west to the Aegean had been on Cyprus.


Relatively little pottery was found, and what there was was poorly preserved. The pottery may be characterized as “cosmopolitan” and could have been readily obtained in Lebanese, Syrian, or Cypriot ports. There is some Mycenaean pottery, but all of this is of types current in the Levant. Both Cypriot and Syro-Palestinian ceramic types have also been identified. Unfortunately, the pottery cannot be closely dated; a fairly broad chronological range of ca. 1250-1150 B.C. has been suggested for it.


Weights would have been necessary for a merchant captain conducting trade in any commodity but would have been especially needed by one who dealt with metals which were normally alloyed, for the creation of such alloys would have required reasonably precise measurements of the constituent metals, tin and copper in the case of bronze. Of the sixty weights found on the wreck site, all but two were found in the cabin area. In view of the difficulties encountered in excavating at a depth of ninety feet and because of the diminutive sizes of the weights themselves, it is likely that the number of weights on the ship when it sank was a good deal higher. In shape, the weights are sphendonoid (shaped like sling-bullets), domed, truncated conical, spherical with a flat base, cylindrical, and discoid. Eight are of metal, fifty-two of stone. At least six “weight standards” were claimed by Bass to be represented, namely:

(1) A standard based on a unit of 7.30 gms., identified as the “Phoenician standard” of 7.32 gms. Multiples of 4, 5, 6, 8(?), 9, 15, 20, 28, 32, and 64 units were identified among the weights.

(2) A standard based on a unit of 9.32-9.33 gms., identified as the Egyptian qedet. Multiples of 1, 3, 6, 7(?), 10, 19, 20(?), 25, 30, 49, and 50(?) units were identified among the weights.

(3) A standard based on a unit of 9.50 gms, identified as the Syro-Palestinian qedet. Multiples of 1, 5, 7, 8, 9(?), 30, and 4 1/2 (?) units were identified among the weights.

(4) A standard based on a unit of 10.30 gms., identified as the Syrian nesef. Multiples of 1, 2, 5, 18, 3 1/2, and 4 2/3 units were identified among the weights.

(5) A standard based on a unit of 10.50 gms, identified with some hesitance as the Phoenician nesef. Multiples of 1, 1/3, 4 1/3, 2 1/2, 7 1/2, 3 2/3, 3 1/3, 4 2/3, and 6 2/3 units were identified among the weights.

(6) A standard based on a unit of 11.50 gms, identified as the Canaanite shekel. Multiples of 4, 5, 6, 8, 7 1/2, 6 2/3, and 8 2/3 units were identified among the weights.

(7) A standard based on a possible unit of 12.30 gms., the identity of which remains unknown. Multiples of 1 and possibly of 4, 7, 4 1/2, and 5 1/2 units were identified among the weights.

These weights were viewed by Bass as allowing the merchant to trade with Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Cyprus, the Hittite Empire, Crete, possibly Troy, and probably the Greek Mainland. Unfortunately, the wide geographical range of the identified weight standards, as well as our relative ignorance of the prevalent weight systems in use in the prehistoric Aegean, preclude any conclusions about the route of the ship or its nationality.

Since the publication of the Gelidonya wreck, the large collection of similar weights from the earlier Ulu Burun wreck have been analysed by Pulak, while the Minoan weight system prevalent throughout the southern Aegean in Neopalatial times has been treated in depth by Petruso. Further analysis of the distribution and interpenetration of different metrological systems during the Late Bronze Age in the eastern Mediterranean will no doubt provide valuable insights into socio-economic conditions within this region in the years to come.


Five scarabs found in the cabin area were probably used as charms or talismans, or perhaps as seals, and presumably belonged to one or more members of the ship’s crew. In date they range from the Second Intermediate Period (1785-1567 B.C.) through the late 18th or early 19th Dynasty (late 13th century B.C.). Some of them were obviously several hundred years old by the time of the wreck, but the latest suggests a date for the wreck in the late 13th century B.C.

Cylinder Seal

A single cylinder seal, arguably the property of the ship’s captain, was found in the cabin area. It is an heirloom of the 18th century B.C., probably made in Syria.


The ship loaded with metal ingots and bronze scrap which was wrecked off Cape Gelidonya sank around 1200 B.C. or a little later. It was nine or ten meters long and probably served both as a carrier of raw materials and as a sort of itinerant smithy, the merchant-captain being both a supplier and a craftsman who dealt in finished goods to order. The course of the ship has been argued to have been east to west, from Cyprus into the Aegean, but neither this nor the beginning and end points of the ship’s voyage can be specified with any precision. Bass has argued that the ship was Phoenician or Canaanite, but Muhly and others have argued that it was Mycenaean. Certainty on this point is equally impossible in view of the available evidence. Indeed, one may question whether most cargo ships of this period were considered to have any “nationality” at all in the sense of being part of a given political entity’s “merchant marine”. There is no literary evidence whatsoever for the identification of the nature, much less the individual identity, of the authorities who owned or managed vessels of this sort during the Late Bronze Age in the Aegean world. Before the discovery of the relatively nearby Ulu Burun wreck near Kas, now dated to ca. 1310 B.C., that at Gelidonya was the earliest ship ever to have been excavated. It remains an invaluable source of evidence for the study of trade, metallurgy, and metrology in the Late Bronze Age of the cosmopolitan eastern Mediterranean world.


The Amber Trade

The source or sources of the amber found in the Aegean can be determined by means of infrared spectroscopy. Most of the amber from Mycenaean Greece, as well as that from Italy and elsewhere in the Mediterranean, comes from the Baltic Sea. In Mycenaean contexts, amber occurs almost exclusively in the form of beads and of multiply perforated rectangular plaques known as {spacer plate}s.

The presence of amber, which is not an artifact per se but rather a material, in areas where it does not naturally occur is not necessarily an indicator of intercultural contact, but only of some sort of exchange system operating between or through two or more cultures. In other words, the presence of Baltic amber in southern Greece is not necessarily evidence that the Mycenaeans travelled north to the Baltic nor that northern Europeans visited Mycenaean Greece. The amber in question could easily have passed through a multitude of hands in an exchange network which brought the material by a series of relatively short hops over what in the end was a long distance. In any case, amber is light and a great deal of it can be carried by one man. Numerous finds of it need therefore not imply that several trips were made to obtain it.

Amber was in antiquity, and still is, valuable. It is attractive for its color, is smooth and warm to the touch, and possesses certain electrical properties which in ancient times may well have been considered magical. As an organic substance, amber weathers badly and thus can easily have disappeared entirely from the archaeological record. It can even decompose in a museum collection after its recovery, if not properly treated by conservators.

There is no evidence from Egypt for true amber, as opposed to other fossil resins, before the 18th Dynasty (ca. 1570 B.C. onwards). The earliest amber in the Near East may date from ca. 1800 B.C. at Assur and Hissar (level IIIC), or it may date from as early as ca. 2400 B.C. in the finds from a grave at Tell Asmar. Further study of the material described as “amber” in these contexts is needed to confirm such a high dating for the initial use of the material in this part of the world. In Greece itself, there is no certain evidence for amber before the very end of the Middle Helladic period, and there is no certainly earlier amber from any other area of the eastern Mediterranean.

Greece’s earliest amber comes from Shaft Grave O in Grave Circle B at Mycenae and from an early tholos at Pylos in Messenia, both of which contexts are dated to the latest phase of the MH period (ca. 1725-1675 B.C., on the high Aegean chronology). Other finds of this substance, from Peristeria Tholos 3, from Pylos Tholos IV, and from the Shaft Graves at Mycenae, date from the immediately following Late Helladic I period. A total of over 1560 pieces, 1290 of these from Shaft Grave IV in Circle A alone, is known from latest MH and LH I contexts.

In LH II, amber finds amounting to some 820 pieces in all are confined to the Argolid and the Pylos area within Messenia, with the exception of a few pieces from Thebes in Boeotia. The grand total of 2380 pieces of LH I-II amber easily outnumbers the total of all other pieces of Aegean amber from all prehistoric contexts postdating the end of LH/LM/LC II. But the early Mycenaean amber, though abundant in terms of total pieces, comes from just twelve different Aegean sites.

In LH/LM IIIA, amber is found in the Peloponnese, central Greece, and Cycladic islands, as well as at other sites to the south and east (Kos, Crete, Cyprus, Syria) and also in islands to the west (Zakynthos, Sicily, Aeolian islands). The finds come from fewer individual contexts of discovery, but from a larger number of distinct sites (17). The number of pieces known shrinks to 182, 160 of which are dated to LH/LM IIIA1 alone, while only 22 date to LH/LM IIIA2. The appearance for the first time of amber at Knossos in this period has been taken as further evidence for the presence of Mycenaean Mainlanders at that site during LM/LH IIIA1. the later part of the Warrior Grave horizon at that site.

Only about forty pieces from eight sites are dated to LH IIIB. Within the Peloponnese in this period, amber is found only in the Argolid. Amber now appears for the first time in northwest Greece, in Aetolia and in Epirus.

During the LH IIIC period, there appears to have been a minor revival in the popularity of amber, with more than sixty pieces known from a total of fourteen sites. The distribution is now broad, including Rhodes, Alalakh in Syria, Crete, Egypt, and the western island of Kephallenia. From late LH IIIC and in “Submycenaean” contexts, only nine pieces are known from just three sites on Salamis, in Elis, and in southern Italy.

The quantity and concentration of amber at just a few sites in the LH I and II periods is striking. Renfrew has suggested that amber reached the Mycenaean kings by means of a “prestige chain” of royal gift-exchanges stretching across Europe in which the Mycenaeans formed the southernmost link, but the reason for the creation of such a chain is at present a puzzle. In LH IIIA, less amber is spread over a wider area. Single beads now appear in tombs, in contrast with the whole necklaces of LH I-II times, and were perhaps considered to have had amuletic powers. The source of LH IIIA amber may simply have been the residues of LH I-II amber rather than new imports. Indeed, a system of gift-exchange in this commodity may now have operated within the Mycenaean world, the old one across Europe having broken down for some reason. While amber excahange in the LH IIIB period suffers a still further decline, the evidence for this material increases in LH IIIC times and this fact may indicate renewed contact with Balkan suppliers at this time.

The first Baltic amber arrived in Greece ca. 1725-1675 B.C., possibly in only three consignments (one each for Mycenae, Pylos, and Kakovatos [Messenia]). The next consignment need not have arrived until the transition from LH IIIB to LH IIIC ca. 1200 B.C., this time possibly through middlemen in northwest Greece, as suggested by finds of the material in Aetolia and Epirus. The early consignments, it has been argued, probably came to the Peloponnese by sea, possibly from as far away as Britain on the basis of remarkable similarities between Mycenaean and British spacer plates. The later consignment, much smaller in size, is more likely to have come overland to the head of the Adriatic, then down the west coasts of what are now Yugoslavia, Albania, and Greece, and hence finally into the Aegean.


General Remarks on Trade in the Aegean Late Bronze Age

Other items that were clearly exchanged during the Late Bronze Age, many of them in the context of genuine commerce or trade, include:

Raw Materials

Precious metals such as gold, silver, and electrum; ivory from both elephants and hippopotami; ostrich eggs; stones for use in architecture (e.g. gypsum), jewelry (e.g. lapis lazuli), and stone vases and seals (e.g. lapis Lacedaemonius, carnelian), and tools (andesite, obsidian); spices utilized in the production of perfumed oils and unguents (e.g. coriander, frankincense, myrrh).

Manufactured Goods

Pottery; seals; carved ivories; textiles; furniture; stone and metal vessels; weaponry.

Agricultural Produce

Wine; olive oil; flax; hides; wool.

Many of the above items, just as the two explored in greater detail above (bronze; amber), were probably exchanged through distinct and largely independent distribution networks.


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