Exploration and Long-Distance Trade

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Exploration and Long-Distance Trade


Prehistoric Exploration. It would appear to be an essential part of human nature to explore one’s surroundings. As early as about 1.5 million years ago, tools belonging to the Oldowan tradition were being made by mankind’s prehuman Homo erectus forebears. Originating in East Africa, these hominids migrated across Africa and then entered and spread across Asia and Europe. By about 500,000 years ago, tools of the Acheulian tradition had spread across Africa, Europe, and Asia as far east as India. Between circa 100,000 and circa 40,000 years ago, tools of the Mousterian tradition, made by Homo sapiens, were in use across the Old World.

Prehistoric Trade. Toward the end of the Paleolithic Period, following the end of the last Ice Age, bands of hunter-gatherers entered the Levant and Syria. The members of this Natufian culture settled in semipermanent villages, where they harvested local, naturally growing cereals by employing newly developed microlithic stone tools (typically made from small flakes of flint or obsidian). Natufian sites are often characterized by the presence of obsidian from Anatolia and of seashells most commonly coming from the Mediterranean Sea but also from the Red Sea; there are also some known examples from the Nile River and the Atlantic Ocean.

Obsidian. Obsidian is a hard, dark-colored volcanic glass capable of being made into sharp-edged tools. Obsidian from four Mediterranean island sources was shipped all over the central Mediterranean region in the most extensive long-distance trade network of its time. By circa 7000 b.c.e., obsidian from the island of Melos was being acquired by people who left remains in the Franchthi cave on the Greek mainland, implying some sort of early boat traffic. Obsidian found at Jarmo (circa 7500 - circa 6500 b.c.e.) in northern Iraq is three hundred miles from its source to the north.

Trade and Expansion. Beginning in the late sixth millennium b.c.e., the desire for survival at a level beyond mere subsistence may have been the motivation for the occupants of the southern Mesopotamian alluvial plain to establish centrally located towns, administered in part by the leadership of the local temples and set amid satellite rural villages. During this period, the peoples of the Ubaid culture (circa 5500 - circa 4000 b.c.e.) in southern Mesopotamia began to produce more grain, dates, wool, and woven goods than they themselves could consume. They may have begun to barter some of the excess for such locally unavailable raw materials as hardwoods, building stone, and copper. In time, the distinctive Ubaid painted pottery spread across northern Mesopotamia and Syria to the southern flanks of the Anatolian plateau, all along the flanks of the Zagros, and along the Arabian shore of the Persian Gulf. It is unclear whether this Ubaid “expansion” was motivated by any or all of such seemingly obvious economic factors as the desire to barter surplus goods in exchange for needed raw materials, the wish to maintain control over trade routes, or the hope to exploit for themselves resources lacking at home; other social factors may have come into play as well.

The Uruk Expansion. Beginning about 4000 b.c.e., a new culture emerged across southern Mesopotamia. By 3600 b.c.e. elements of this distinctive Uruk culture, named for the largest settlement of its type, existed at sites across an arc running from Susa in southwestern Iran northward along the Euphrates valley to Tell Braq in northern Syria and beyond into southeastern Turkey, as well as along the Tigris to Nineveh in northern Mesopotamia. The Uruk period is defined through its walled, well-ordered settlements—among them the world’s first cities—

with elaborate monumental temples featuring sacred precincts. The period is also known for its monumental art, cylinder seals, mass-produced wheel-made and mold-made pottery, standardized units of measurement, accounting system (which later gave rise to writing), and extensive system of irrigation canals. Significant elements of the Late Uruk and immediately succeeding Jamdat Nasr (circa 3000 - circa 2900 b.c.e.) cultural assemblages—collections of material artifacts, including distinctive weapons, tools, utensils, and ceramics, that set one culture apart from another—have been identified in the Levant and in pre-Dynastic Egypt. Early scholarly assumptions that the Uruk expansion was motivated by the political or commercial interests of southern Mesopotamia do not appear to be substantiated by the archaeological evidence. There is no obvious evidence of conflict between the colonists and the local population; rather, they appear to have coexisted side by side, and at no Uruk colonies is there evidence for large-scale production, storage, or distribution of local resources directed toward the south. The expansion seems rather to have been driven by population growth sustained by agricultural and technological developments at home and a new social ideology reinforced by the ruling elite.

Trade across the Lower Sea. The author of the Sumerian legend Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta, probably composed toward the end of the third millennium b.c.e. and preserved in copies from the early second millennium b.c.e., envisioned a period in history before the advent of long-distance trade. He described it as a time

before the land of Dilmun yet existed … before commerce was practiced; before gold, silver, copper, tin, blocks of lapis lazuli, and mountain stone were brought down together from their mountains. (Black et al.)

The land of Dilmun, located in the Lower Sea (that is, the Persian Gulf), is generally identified with the island of Bahrain and the mainland opposite it on the Arabian Peninsula. Sumerian and Akkadian kings of the latter half of the third millennium b.c.e., whose economies were strongly centralized and dominated by temple and palace bureaucracies, wrote of how they exchanged Mesopotamian agricultural surpluses, textiles, and dairy products for such high-status luxury items as rare woods, ivory, semiprecious stones, and copper. Dilmun was not the producer of these goods but rather an entrepot (a point of exchange), where goods from Mesopotamia were traded for exotica from Magan and Meluhha, lands further south along the Persian Gulf and beyond, perhaps as far away as the Indus Valley.

Magan. Magan is generally identified with the coastal regions of the Arabian Peninsula west and east of the Strait of Hormuz, across the present-day United Arab Emirates and Sultanate of Oman. During the third millennium b.c.e., Magan was the supplier to Mesopotamia of much-needed metals, stone, and exotic woods, either produced locally or trans-shipped from yet-further shores. Magan, the “land of copper,” was probably the principal source of copper for the Sumerians. The Akkadian king Naram-Sin (circa 2254 - circa 2218 b.c.e.) and the city ruler of Lagash, Gudea (circa 2100 b.c.e.), both reported obtaining esi-stone, or diorite, from Magan for royal statuary. An Ur III (circa 2100 b.c.e.) text refers to an ivory tusk from Magan weighing 38 minas. Modern excavations in the region of ancient Magan have produced objects that are evidence of widespread contacts, including bronze objects made with tin that likely came from southern Afghanistan and an assortment of ivory and carved-stone objects, as well as ceramics, from Elam in southwest Iran, Bactria in central Asia, and Baluchistan and the Indus Valley in southern Asia. Mesopotamia appears to have lost direct contact with Magan at the end of the third millennium b.c.e.

Meluhha. In texts of the late third millennium b.c.e., Meluhha is called a land beyond Dilmun (Bahrain) and Magan (Oman). Meluhha was a source of gold, silver, exotic woods, and carnelian. Most scholars today agree that the sources of these materials in this period were the cities of the Harappan civilization in the Indus Valley of modern Pakistan and northwest India. Among the funerary deposits in the Royal Tombs of Ur (circa 2600 - circa 2500 b.c.e.) are many examples of distinctively Harappan exotica, including “etched” carnelian beads, long drilled biconical beads, and cosmetic containers made from seashells from the Arabian Sea or fashioned in gold and silver in the shapes of such shells.

Lapis Lazuli. As near as can be determined, all examples in the ancient Near East of lapis lazuli, the most highly prized of blue stones, originated in mines located in the Badakhshan district of modern Afghanistan, some 2,400 kilometers (1,500 miles) east of Mesopotamia. Examples of lapis lazuli are regularly reported from excavations of early fourth millennium b.c.e. sites in northern Mesopotamia; isolated earlier examples (late sixth millennium b.c.e.) have also been noted. The trade in lapis lazuli appears to have been interrupted early in the third millennium b.c.e. The resumption at the onset of the Early Dynastic II period (circa 2750 b.c.e.) may be marked in the epic of Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta, in which Enmerkar, the ruler of Uruk, demands shipments of lapis lazuli, gold, and silver from the city of Aratta, presumably located nearer to the Badakhshan mines.

Carnelian. In ancient Mesopotamia, carnelian ranked second in popularity behind lapis lazuli as the stone of choice for manufacturing beads, amulets, and occasionally seals. In literature the two stones are often linked; in the Epic of Gilgamesh honey in a carnelian bowl and ghee (clarified butter) in a lapis-lazuli bowl are offered at daybreak to the sun god Shamash. Possible sources for carnelian included India, Iran, western Arabia, Oman, Anatolia, and Egypt. During the middle of the third millennium b.c.e.,

the Indus Valley was the principal source of carnelian both as a raw material and in the form of finished beads. Among the most characteristic and widespread of the Indus-type beads from this period are long biconical beads drilled lengthwise for stringing and “etched” carnelian beads. To make an “etched” bead, linear or circular designs were painted on a bead with a bleaching agent; heating gave the carnelian a brilliant red color while the bleaching agent left behind a white surface design, perhaps intended to imitate naturally occurring eye designs on jasper. After long exposure to damp soils, the weakened stone in the bleached areas often fell out, leading early archaeologists to conclude mistakenly that the designs on the stones had been etched. Examples of bleached or “etched” carnelian beads, both Harappan exports and locally made imitations, have been excavated at mid to late third millennium b.c.e. sites in Central Asia, Iran, the Persian Gulf, and Mesopotamia. In jewelry from the Royal Graves at Ur (circa 2500 b.c.e.), long biconical carnelian beads and carnelian beads with bleached circular designs are often strung with gold beads and blue lapis-lazuli beads, creating a dramatic effect. The most westerly known examples of Harappan-style carnelian beads were recovered from a small jewelry hoard excavated from a late third millennium b.c.e. context on the island of Aegina, across from Piraeus, the port of Athens in Greece. In Mesopotamia during all periods, carnelian, as with all precious stones, was appreciated as much for its beauty as for its magical properties, which included protecting the wearer against paralysis of the right hand, hair loss, and black magic.

Base Metals. Mesopotamia lacks natural deposits of virtually every metal. Thus, metals found in Mesopotamia must have been imported, directly or indirectly, from a source elsewhere. Base metals were used to manufacture vessels, tools, and weapons at reasonable cost for more or less everyday use. Prior to the first millennium b.c.e., copper was the cheapest and most widely used metal in Mesopotamia. Foreign sources of copper included Oman, Iran, Anatolia, and Cyprus. During the late fourth and much of the third millennia b.c.e., copper with a high arsenic content was preferred because, when cast, it produces a beautiful silvery surface. By the end of the third millennium b.c.e., Mesopotamians were deliberately alloying copper with small amounts of tin to produce bronze. The tin they used probably originated in Afghanistan. Anatolia has also been suggested as a source for tin; however, the Assyrians of the early second millennium b.c.e. exported to Anatolia tin that they had previously purchased, presumably from Afghanistan via Iran. Anatolia did provide lead, a metal sought after for its softness and high density. Copper and bronze were largely replaced by iron during the first millennium b.c.e. Early modern studies suggested that the first iron used was meteoric in origin, but this view has come under considerable scrutiny of late. Iron ores occur widely in the lands surrounding Mesopotamia, but Anatolian sources seem to have been of greatest significance.

Precious Metals. Gold was imported into Mesopotamia in the form of nuggets, prepared as a powder, and cast in ingots. Cuneiform texts referring to the importation of gold rarely distinguish where the gold was mined from where it was trans-shipped to Mesopotamia. At different times in the history of ancient Mesopotamia, gold might have originated in Iran, Afghanistan, Anatolia, Egypt, or Nubia. Most silver in the ancient Near East was produced from ores mined in Anatolia; other sources include Iran and Egypt. Precious metals were also imported in the form of manufactured objects including all sorts of jewelry, vessels, and utensils. Such objects might also be made of electrum, an alloy of gold and silver that was both naturally occurring and man-made and is often difficult to distinguish from other, more-pure forms of gold.

The “Intercultural Style”. Excavations at more than a dozen Mesopotamian sites—predominantly in the south but also at Mari on the middle Euphrates in Syria—have revealed imported carved-stone vessels and handled “weights” made of a soft greenish stone often identified as chlorite or steatite. These objects, which have been dated to the middle and latter half of the third millennium b.c.e., share a distinctive foreign style of carved decoration. The motifs rendered in this style include anthropomorphic figures with a characteristic physiognomy, snakes, felines, humped bulls, birds, scorpions, palm trees, and such geometric patterns as rosettes, mat weaves, and a running wavy pattern termed a “guilloche.” Often the bodies of the figures show dense patterns of drill holes that were originally inlaid with other brightly colored stones. Obviously related pieces have also been discovered at sites along the Arabian coast of the Persian Gulf, and in southern Iran, Central Asia, and the Indus Valley. Two sites have been positively identified as places of manufacture, each located close to a local source of the raw material: the island of Tarut in the Persian Gulf near the modern Arabian city of Qatif and Tepe Yahya in south central Iran.


Among the nearly four hundred cuneiform tablets found in the Egyptian royal archives at Amarna (ancient Akhetaten) are records detailing the sometimes-lavish diplomatic gifts that the “great kings” gave each other. Some half dozen letters were exchanged between the Kassite Babylonian king Burna-Buriash II (circa 1359 - circa 1333 b.c.e.) and the Egyptian kings Amenophis III (circa 1390 - circa 1352 b.c.e.) and his successor Amenophis IV, better known as Akhenaten (circa 1352 - circa 1336 b.c.e.). Though these kings call each other “brother,” the tone of the letters is at times anything but cordial, as in this letter from Burna-Buriash:

Because I (Burna-Buriash) was told the road is dangerous, the water is cut off, and the weather is hot, I did not send you (Akhenaten) many fine gifts. (Now) I have sent 4 minas (about 2 kilograms, or 4 pounds) of fine lapis lazuli as a gift to my brother, and I have sent five teams of horses to my brother. When the weather is good, future messengers who come will bring many fine gifts to my brother. … I have taken up a task and thus I wrote to my brother. Let my brother send me much fine gold so that I may use it for my task! And as for the gold that my brother sends, my brother must not leave it to any official. Let my brother’s eyes inspect (it) and let my brother seal (it) and send (it) to me! As for the previous gold that my brother sent me—as if my brother did not inspect (it), just an official of my brother sealed (it) and sent (it) to me—when I placed the 40 minas of gold which were brought to me in a kiln nothing of value (?) came out. (translated by author)

In response to the Babylonian king’s letter, Akhenaten must have sent some gold, but obviously not in the quantity expected. Burna-Buriash complained bitterly:

Because my forefathers and your forefathers communicated in friendship, they sent fine gifts to each other and they did not withhold from each other (any) friendly request. Now, my brother has sent me 2 minas of gold as my gift. But now, (if) there is much gold, send me as much as your forefathers (sent)! But if there is scant gold send me half as much as your forefathers! Why did you send me (only) 2 minas of gold? Now my task I have undertaken and am carrying out in the temple is very great: Send me much gold! And as for you, anything you desire in my land, write me and it shall be brought to you! (translated by author)

Another tablet in the Amarna archive itemizes in more than three hundred lines of text quantities of objects made of gold, silver, and bronze, as well as textiles, stone vessels, and elephant ivory, sent to Buma-Buriash by Akhenaten. Unfortunately, none of the tablets in the Amarna archive is dated, so it is difficult to know whether this gift preceded or was in response to Burna-Buriash’s many complaints.

Source : J. A. Knudtzon, Die El-Amarna-Tafeln, Vorderasiatische Bibliotck 2, 2 volumes (Leipzig, 1915).

The “International Period.”. Cuneiform tablets belonging to a royal archive were excavated at Amarna in Egypt, the site of the capital city of Akhetaten, home

to the late Eighteenth Dynasty king Akhenaten (circa 1364 - circa 1352 b.c.e.) and his wife, Nefertiti. The tablets record the direct correspondence between several Eighteenth Dynasty kings from circa the fourteenth century b.c.e. and their royal counterparts in Assyria, Babylonia, Mitanni, and Hittite Anatolia, as well as local princes in the Levant, Syria, and Cyprus. Several of the tablets itemize lavish exchanges of gifts by which the Egyptian and foreign kings demonstrated their wealth and power to each other. The items they exchanged might include ingots of gold, silver, and copper; a wide variety of precious stones and utensils made of gold, silver, or bronze; vessels filled with rare oils; and furniture made of rare woods, perhaps embellished with gold and ivory. A shipwreck found off the coast of Turkey, near Uluburun, demonstrates that, just a half century later (circa 1300 b.c.e.), international trade throughout the eastern Mediterranean basin continued to thrive. Perhaps a royal merchant ship, it carried some ten tons of copper ingots and about one ton of tin, the ingredients for making bronze. Other raw materials found in this shipwreck included ingots of glass, jars of terebinth resin, hippopotamus teeth, an elephant’s tusk, ostrich eggshells, and ebony logs. The ship also carried a range of finished goods in smaller quantities, including storage jars packed with pottery from Cyprus, copper vessels, containers made of wood and ivory, glass beads, faience beads and drinking cups, and seashell rings. Among the personal effects of the crew were Mycenaean Greek weapons, pottery, seals, and jewelry. The variety of goods suggests that the ship made regular calls at ports throughout the eastern Mediterranean in Egypt, the Levantine coast, Syria, the Turkish coast, Cyprus, Crete, and Greece.

Carved Ivory. Throughout the ancient Near East, a variety of objects, including beads, seals, sculpture, and inlays for sculpture and furniture, were carved from ivory. A large artistic industry based on carved hippopotamus ivory was centered in the Levant during the third and second millennia b.c.e. Always produced for the luxury trade, carved-ivory objects might be inlayed with semiprecious stones and overlaid with gold leaf. During the first half of the first millennium b.c.e., elephant ivory became available to craftsmen in Syria and Phoenicia; whether this ivory was from some soon-to-become-extinct Syrian elephant or was imported from India or Africa remains unclear. Vast quantities of Syrian, Phoenician, and locally made carved-ivory decorations for chairs, footstools, and beds were discovered in the ruins of the Assyrian capital city of Kalhu. The various Syrian and Phoenician styles are readily distinguished from each other, but the respective artisans often relied on a similar pool of motifs, including sphinxes, griffins, heroic figures wearing Egyptian-like costumes and crowns, and various floral elements. As a general rule, the Phoenician carvings are slightly later in date (mid eighth through seventh centuries b.c.e.) and somewhat more “Egyptianizing” than the Syrian (ninth through mid eighth centuries b.c.e.). The imported material, both in the form of raw tusks and finished works, was likely shipped to Assyria as gifts and tribute or as booty seized by the Assyrians from their western neighbors. During the fifth and fourth centuries b.c.e., ivory from Ethiopia and the Indus Valley was worked by artisans in Lydia in western Anatolia and in Egypt, from which it reached the capitals of the Persian Empire.

Carved Tridacna Shells. Engraved shells made from the Tridacna, an Indo-Pacific giant clam, have been found at such Mesopotamian cities as Kalhu, Ashur, Babylon, and Uruk, in levels dating from the late seventh to the early sixth century b.c.e. During the eighth and seventh centuries b.c.e. the shells, obtained from the Red Sea, were incised with decorations on the back and interior perimeter by Phoenician craftsmen and were probably used as containers for cosmetics. The incised scenes depict natural and fantastic animals set among floral designs. The umbo—the tip of the valve hinge—was carved into the shape of the head of a human female or a bird. Although most commonly found throughout the Levant, carved Tridacna shells have been excavated from as far west as Vulci in Etruria, Italy, and at the Greek colony at Cyrene in Libya, to as far east as Susa in southwestern Iran.


Robert J. Braidwood, Prehistoric Men, eighth edition (Glenview, III.: Scott, Foresman, 1975).

Paul Collins, The Uruk Phenomenon: The role of social ideology in the expansion of the Uruk culture during the fourth millennium BC, BAR International Series 900 (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2000).

C. C. Lamberg-Karlovsky, “The Archaeological Evidence for International Commerce: Public and/or Private Enterprise in Mesopotamia?” in Privatization in the Ancient Near East and Classical World, edited by Michael Hudson and Baruch A. Levine, Peabody Museum Bulletin, 5 (Cambridge, Mass.: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, 1996), pp. 73-97.

P. R. S. Moorey, Ancient Mesopotamian Materials and Industries: The Archaeological Evidence (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1999).

D. T. Potts, “The Gulf: Dilmun and Magan,” in Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus, edited by Joan Aruz with Ronald Wallenfels (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003), pp. 307-308.

Cemal Pulak, “The Cargo of the Uluburun Ship and Evidence for Trade with the Aegean and Beyond,” in Italy and Cyprus in Antiquity: 1500— 450 BC: Proceedings of an International Symposium held at the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America at Columbia University November 16-18, 2000, edited by Larissa Bonfante and Vassos Karageorghis (Nicosia: Costakis and Leto Severis Foundation, 2001), pp. 13-60.

Rolf A. Stucky, The Engraved Tridacna Shells, Dédalo 19 (Säo Paulo: Museo de Arqueologia e Etnologia, Universidade de Säo Paulo, 1974).

Irene J. Winter, “Phoenician and North Syrian Ivory Carving in Historical Context: Questions of Style and Distribution,” Iraq, 38 (1976): 1-22.

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