Scientists Track Silver Trade From Trojan War to Roman Republic
A team of French, Australian, and Israeli scientists has collected evidence proving there was an active and thriving silver trade network in the eastern Mediterranean region in the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age (approximately 1200 BC to 400 BC). Participants in this pre-coinage network included civilizations in the southern Levant (modern-day Israel, Jordan, and Palestine), and nations or city-states located on or near the Aegean Sea on mainland Greece, Crete, and the Cyclades Islands.
An ancient mining shaft in the Lavreotiki area of Attica (ancient Greece) which was an important silver-mining center and supplied silver throughout the Aegean in the Bronze Age up until the 6th century AD. (C messier / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Reconstructing the Mediterranean Silver Trade
During the centuries-long time period studied, the scientists discovered that pieces of silver bullion of all shapes and sizes were used as a form of currency. Because silver was valued throughout the region, its use helped facilitate trade between nations and across long distances. Since silver couldn’t be found in the Levant, it had to be imported from other places. Much of it came from mines located to the northeast of the Mediterranean Sea, while some of it came from as far away as the Iberian Peninsula (modern Spain and Portugal).
Dr. Liesel Gentelli, an archaeologist and expert in numismatics affiliated with the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon in Lyon, France, led the innovative research project responsible for this discovery. According to a release from the Goldshmidt who has its conference this week, Dr. Gentelli is presenting his team’s findings at the online event organized for July 4-9 to discuss recent discoveries in geochemistry and related fields.
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Previous evidence suggested that the Mediterranean trade in silver ended at the same time as the Late Bronze Age. Multiple Mediterranean civilizations collapsed simultaneously around the year 1200 BC, throwing the region into social, cultural, and economic turmoil. But Gentelli’s international team of archaeologists and numismatists (coin collectors and scholars) have proven that the silver trade survived this regional catastrophe.
“Our research shows that exchanges between especially the southern Levant and the Aegean world never came to a stop,” Dr. Liesel said. “People around the eastern Mediterranean remained connected. It's likely that the silver flowed to the Levant as a result of trade or plunder.”
Eastern hacksilber from the Levant from between 425 to 420 BC. (Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Isotopic Analysis Reveals the Surprising Truth
To gain more insight into the ancient Mediterranean silver trade, the scientists analyzed 13 collections of silver pieces recovered from various archaeological sites around the southern Levant. The sites in question were occupied between 1300 BC and 586 BC.
These collections were comprised of pieces of hacksilber (sometimes spelled hacksilver), which are silver bars, jewelry, or other items that have been cut, broken, or bent. These pieces of non-uniform silver would be weighed on a balancing scale, measured against objects with known weights to determine their exchange value.
The scientists wanted to find out exactly where all of this silver came from. To do so, they used a process known as high-precision isotopic analysis, which allowed them to find and tag minute traces of lead ore found inside individual pieces of silver. Isotopic analysis works like fingerprinting. This means it can be used to trace a sample of metal back to its place of origin.
With the data the scientists obtained in this case, they were able to prove that hacksilber used as money in the southern Levant had actually come from mines located in the southern Aegean, in the Balkans, and from as far away as Sardinia and Spain. This included mines that were only active during the Iron Age, which showed the silver could only have been acquired after the ancient Mediterranean silver trade had supposedly collapsed.
Implications for Understanding Trade Routes
“We do see periods of silver scarcity around the time of the Bronze to Iron Age transition, around 1300-1100 BCE,” Gentelli confirmed. “Some hoards from this period show the silver displaying unusually high copper content, which would have been added to make up for the lack of silver.”
But any interruption in the available supply of silver was apparently only temporary. As Gentelli and his team showed, silver was widely in circulation and exchanged for goods quite frequently throughout the Iron Age. Much of that silver was being freshly supplied from mines in far-off locations, revealing just how vibrant and active the Eastern Mediterranean currency market actually was.
“This is important new work that confirms our understanding of trade and exchange routes in the Early Iron Age Levant,” explained University of Liverpool archaeologist, Dr. Matthew Ponting, when asked to comment on Liesel Gentelli’s presentation and findings. “The fact that all silver found in the region would have had to have been imported presents exciting possibilities to investigate trade routes more generally as well as to learn more about alloy use and preference during this important period of history.”
Greek historian Herodotus claimed that the first coins were minted in Lydia. Above a silver Croeseid from circa 560 to 546 BC. (Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. / CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Rise of Coinage and the Development of the Modern World
Coins began to replace hacksilber in the region in approximately the sixth century BC. However, there is some dispute about who created the very first coins. The Greek historian Herodotus claimed the first coins were minted in the kingdom of Lydia (located in modern-day western Turkey). The philosopher Aristotle, on the other hand, wrote that coins were first created and used in the kingdom of Phrygia (in modern-day eastern Turkey).
Many modern numismatists believe the practice of minting coins got its start on the Greek island of Aegina, which was located south of Athens in the Saronic Gulf. What is known for sure is that after Lydia was conquered by the Persian Emperor Cyrus the Great in 546 BC, the Persians (living in what is now Iran) soon adopted the Lydian practice of converting raw metal into coins with uniform sizes, shapes, and designs. From this point on, the use of coins in the region spread gradually but steadily.
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The Phoenicians (in modern Syria, Lebanon, and northern Israel) minted their first coins in the fifth century BC, with the Carthaginians (in modern-day North Africa and Spain) taking up the practice soon after. The Romans minted their first coins in 326 BC, officially signaling the triumph of standardized coins over other types of currency.
As this new research has revealed, silver was the ancestor of both the ancient and modern coin. While it is no longer traded directly as a form of currency, silver is still recognized as having inherent monetary value. This is a legacy of trading practices that date back to the early second millennium BC, which shows how the study of ancient history can be relevant to what is happening today.
Top image: A hacksilber hoard dated to the middle of the eleventh century BC found by the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon. Source: We are grateful to L. E. Stager and D. Master, directors of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon, and to D. T. Ariel, for allowing us to publish these photographs. Photo © The Israel Museum, by Haim Gitler and © Israel Antiquities Authority, by Clara Amit.
By Nathan Falde