‘Of Shoes and Ships and Sealing Wax’

International Trade and the Late Bronze Age Aegean

By: Eric H. Cline and Martin J. Cline

Originally Published in 1991

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Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, was no stranger to classical antiquity. It is, however, extremely unlikely that the Walrus, who never finished the above speech, was going to talk about trade and commercial enterprise in the ancient world. If be bad, his lecture may have been as follows.

During the years from 1600 to 1100 B.C., the Mediterranean area was host to many small nation-states and a few mighty empires. These years are known as the Late Bronze Age, for the best and most sophis­ticated weapons and implements were made of the amalgam of cop­per and tin we call bronze. Living in the western Mediterranean at this time were the peoples of Italy, Sicily, and Sardinia. In the eastern Mediter­ranean were the Egyptians of the 18th to 20th Dynasties, the Hittites of central Anatolia, the Babylonians and Assyrians of Mesopotamia, and the inhabitants of Syria-Palestine. In between, in the area known as the Aegean, were the Mycenaeans of mainland Greece and the Minoans of Crete (Fig. 2, Table 1).

A complex network of ancient trade routes connected the lands of the Aegean with those of the western and eastern Mediterranean during the Late Bronze Age, despite the fact that the distances involved were enormous and the available trans­portation limited to ships, animals, and humans. Study of these ancient relationships entails a virtual odys­sey back through time and space, but results in some fascinating dis­coveries.

Our guides to these ancient trade routes are mainly the physical arti­facts that have been dug from the lands around the Aegean Sea or found in its waters. Although rela­tively abundant, these objects must be used with caution. First, they must be assigned accurate dates and proveniences, a task not always possible. Second, they are only a partial record of the goods exchang­ed more than three millennia ago. Not only are we to some extent dependent upon luck for the things we find, but also many of the goods traded during the Late Bronze Age were perishable and unlikely to leave much in the way of identifiable remains. Fortunately a comple­mentary class of evidence survives in wall paintings, inscriptions (Figs. 5-6), and literary references in which missing or perishable trade goods can sometimes be identified. For example, a letter sent by Tushratta, King of Mitanni (in northern Syria), to Amenhotep III, the Pharaoh who ruled Egypt from 1405-1367 B.C., provides testimony to the kind of goods exchanged between heads of state: “I have sent you…one chariot, two horses, a male servant (and) a female servant…As a present to my brother, I have sent you five chariots and five teams of horses. As a present to honor Ciluhepa, my sister, I have sent her…one pair of gold earrings…and a stone bottle full of sweet oil.”

Together, these artifacts, texts, and paintings provide us with the only material we have to retrace Late Bronze Age trade and trade routes across the Mediterranean.

The Archaeological Evidence for Trade

Trade between the East and the Aegean during the Late Bronze Age was clearly reciprocal. The best-known guideposts to this commerce are the distinctive Minoan and Myce­naean ceramic vessels which were used to transport oils and perfumes—luxury trade goods. Such vessels have been found in great quantities at archaeological sites in Egypt, Syria-Palestine, Cyprus, and on the coasts of Anatolia. They have been the focus of numerous detailed in­vestigations by scholars (Stubbings 1951; Hankey 1967; Kemp and Mer­rillees 1980). However, the guide­posts which fascinate us the most are objects of Eastern origin which have been found in the Aegean and which are known as “Orientalia” in the parlance of archaeologists who study the Late Bronze Age civilizations of the Mediterranean. Oriental are small objects manufactured in Egypt and the Near East, including Ana­tolia, Cyprus, Syria-Palestine and Mesopotamia. We are most inter­ested in Orientalia excavated in Aegean contexts dating to the 16th through the 11th centuries B.C.—the Late Helladic or Late Minoan 1-IIIC periods of the Bronze Age (see Table 2).

Orientalia come in many forms: figurines (Fig. 1), amulets, jewelry, scarabs (Fig. 7), seals (Fig. 3), ves­sels (Fig. 9), weapons, tools, and weights.

Cite This Article

Cline, Eric H. and Cline, Martin J.. "‘Of Shoes and Ships and Sealing Wax’." Expedition Magazine 33, no. 3 (November, 1991): -. Accessed September 25, 2023. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/of-shoes-and-ships-and-sealing-wax/

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