Enigma of origins of Bronze Age Levant’s tin supply solved through isotope and chemical composition analysis that shows 13th–12th century BCE tin bars likely came from Cornwall.

“Bronze was used to make weapons, jewelry, and all types of daily objects, justifiably bequeathing its name to an entire epoch. The origin of tin has long been an enigma in archaeological research,” said Prof. Dr. Ernst Pernicka in a press release this week. Study co-author Pernicka, now retired, worked at both the Institute for Earth Sciences of Heidelberg University and the Curt Engelhorn Centre for Archaeometry.

The scholars used an earth-shattering approach to figure out the mine’s locus. “By using a combined approach of tin and lead isotopes together with trace elements it is possible to narrow down the potential sources of tin for the first time,” they write.

Ancient bronze model bull-driven cart
Ancient bronze model bull-driven cart © Jerusalem Bible Lands Museum

Daniel Berger et al, Isotope systematics and chemical composition of tin ingots from Mochlos (Crete) and other Late Bronze Age sites in the eastern Mediterranean Sea: An ultimate key to tin provenance?, PLOS ONE (2019).  

DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0218326

The origin of the tin used for the production of bronze in the Eurasian Bronze Age is still one of the mysteries in prehistoric archaeology. In the past, numerous studies were carried out on archaeological bronze and tin objects with the aim of determining the sources of tin, but all failed to find suitable fingerprints. In this paper we investigate a set of 27 tin ingots from well-known sites in the eastern Mediterranean Sea (Mochlos, Uluburun, Hishuley Carmel, Kfar Samir south, Haifa) that had been the subject of previous archaeological and archaeometallurgical research. By using a combined approach of tin and lead isotopes together with trace elements it is possible to narrow down the potential sources of tin for the first time. The strongly radiogenic composition of lead in the tin ingots from Israel allows the calculation of a geological model age of the parental tin ores of 291 ± 17 Ma. This theoretical formation age excludes Anatolian, central Asian and Egyptian tin deposits as tin sources since they formed either much earlier or later. On the other hand, European tin deposits of the Variscan orogeny agree well with this time span so that an origin from European deposits is suggested. With the help of the tin isotope composition and the trace elements of the objects it is further possible to exclude many tin resources from the European continent and, considering the current state of knowledge and the available data, to conclude that Cornish tin mines are the most likely suppliers for the 13th–12th centuries tin ingots from Israel. Even though a different provenance seems to be suggested for the tin from Mochlos and Uluburun by the actual data, these findings are of great importance for the archaeological interpretation of the trade routes and the circulation of tin during the Late Bronze Age. They demonstrate that the trade networks between the eastern Mediterranean and some place in the east that are assumed for the first half of the 2nd millennium BCE (as indicated by textual evidence from Kültepe/Kaneš and Mari) did not exist in the same way towards the last quarter of the millennium.