Imported Lead Ingots Offer Evidence of Complex Bronze Age Trade Networks

A new analysis of shipwrecked metals inscribed with Cypro-Minoan markings suggests the objects originated in Sardinia, some 1,550 miles away from Cyprus

Caesarea Ingots
Four lead ingots found in a shipwreck off the coast of Israel feature Cypro-Minoan markings but actually originated in Sardinia. Ehud Galili / University of Haifa’s Institute for Maritime Studies

Four 3,200-year-old lead ingots found in a shipwreck off the coast of Israel point to the existence of previously unknown Bronze Age trade links in the Mediterranean Sea, reports Judith Sudilovsky for the Jerusalem Post.

According to a study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, researchers determined that the ingots, which are marked with Cypro-Minoan inscriptions typically associated with Cyprus, actually originated in Sardinia. Isotopic analysis of the objects showed the lead ore was mined in the southwestern part of Sardinia, an island off the coast of central Italy, in the 12th or 13th century B.C.E.

“It was a bit of a detective story,” study co-author Naama Yahalom-Mack, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, tells the Times of Israel’s Amanda Borschel-Dan. “We started from the markings and went on to the metal itself to understand where it comes from. First of all what it is, then to see in isotopic analysis that the lead’s ‘fingerprint’ points us to Sardinia.”

Map of the Mediterranean Sea
Map of the Mediterranean Sea D.M. Finn / Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, 2022

Yahalom-Mack adds that her team was surprised to trace the ingots to Sardinia, which is “beyond the western Mediterranean, beyond the [Cypriots’] regular route of trade, which is Egypt, the Levant, Anatolia and the Aegean.” Though Cyprus was once considered a passive player in the Bronze Age metal trade, simply producing copper for other countries, more recent research has painted a portrait of a “small but agile nation with both formal and informal trade ties that may well have helped fill the power vacuum that occurred with the collapse of entranced empires around 1200 B.C.E.,” per the Times of Israel.

Divers discovered the ingots in a shipwreck near the ancient city (and modern town) of Caesarea in the late 1980s. How the metal made its way from Sardinia to Cyprus, which is located more than 1,550 miles away, is unclear. The ingots’ existence “doesn’t have to mean direct trade between the two countries, [but] it might,” writes Ruth Schuster for Haaretz.

During the Bronze Age, Cyprus had access to a steady supply of copper. But it lacked lead and tin, both of which were needed to smelt bronze. The team’s analysis suggests that the Cypriots traded copper for lead ore or smelted metal from Sardinia. Once in Cyprus, the lead was stamped with Cypro-Minoan markings—“rebranded,” as co-author Assaf Yasur-Landau, an archaeologist at the University of Haifa, describes it to Haaretz—before being shipped further afield to Caesarea and other ports across the Levant.

3-D Ingots
Image of the lead ingots created with 3-D modeling software Avshalom Karasik / Israel Antiquities Authority

The new research supports earlier studies that identified “a huge amount of Sardinian lead in Cyprus,” according to Haaretz. Though it’s possible that isolated traders brought these lead objects to Cyprus, the sheer scale of the trade points to a more coordinated, ongoing effort.

“We realized that the ingots from along the Israeli coast and ... other [previously analyzed lead] artifacts all came from the same source, which means this was not just a one-time journey to bring these ingots to the coast, but rather a continuous and elaborate trade system which was probably initiated by the Cypriots,” Yahalom-Mack tells the Jerusalem Post.

The planned recipient of the shipwrecked lead is unknown, but Yahalom-Mack speculates that the Canaanites of ancient Israel may have been involved in the exchange.

“Who exactly is behind this trade?” she asks the Times of Israel. “We know it’s going on but to really understand the mechanism? We’re still working on it.”