Isotope analysis reveals origins of Uluburun shipwreck cargo

Researchers have successfully traced the origin of tin ingots found aboard the shipwreck to ore deposits in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

A study has shed new light on the origins of the tin ingots found aboard the famous Late Bronze Age Uluburun shipwreck, revealing the scope of Eurasian trade networks at play 3000 years ago.

Uluburun excavation uncovered ten metric tonnes of copper oxhide ingots.
IMAGE: Cemal Pulak/Texas A&M University

Discovered in 1982 off the southern Turkish coast, the Uluburun shipwreck (c. 1320 BC) yielded ten metric tonnes of Cypriot copper ingots and one metric tonne of tin ingots – the world’s largest Bronze Age assemblage of raw metals ever found.

By the mid-second millennium BC, bronze was considered a ‘high technology’ in Eurasia. Ancient states such as Assyria (Iraq), Mycenae (Greece) and Shang (China) sought access to its components (tin and copper) to create tools, objects of prestige, and weaponry.

The Uluburun shipwreck carried enough metal to supply a force of 5,000 Bronze Age soldiers with swords.

Uluburun yielded the world’s largest Bronze Age assemblage of raw metals ever found. IMAGE: Cemal Pulak/Texas A&M University

Previous analysis conducted in the 1990s suggested that the ship’s tin had two sources: the Taurus Mountains of Turkey and another in Central Asia.

In this latest study, the findings of which have been published in Science Advances, a team of researchers conducted trace element and lead and tin isotope analysis on 105 tin ingots from the shipwreck.

They found that two-thirds originated from Turkey’s Taurus Mountains, whilst the other third could be traced to ore deposits in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, more than 2,000 miles (3000 km) from their final resting place.

During the Late Bronze Age, the mines of Central Asia were occupied by mobile pastoralists and small villages, and the terrain between this region and ancient Anatolia (Turkey) would have been rugged and difficult to navigate.

Tin from the Mušiston mine in Central Asia’s Uzbekistan traveled more than 2,000 miles to Haifa, where it sunk off the shores of Uluburun. Map: provided by Michael Frachetti/Washington University in St. Louis

‘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,’ said Professor Michael Frachetti from Washington University in St. Louis, a co-author of the study.

‘It’s quite amazing to learn that a culturally diverse, multiregional and multivector system of trade underpinned Eurasian tin exchange during the Late Bronze Age.’