Bronze tools found in Sweden dating from 3,600 years ago were made using copper from the Mediterranean, archaeologists have shown. They now also believe that rock carvings of ships found in Bohuslän, Sweden were visual documentation of trade between ancient Scandinavia and the Mediterranean.
Most of the copper circulating in Bronze Age Europe apparently originated from Sicily, Sardinia, the Iberian peninsula – and Cyprus, going by isotope analysis. (Although there seems to have been some exploitation of the copper mines in Timna, ancient Israel during the Bronze Age, it was small in scope and not involved in this trade.)
The ancient Cypriot copper industry produced relatively pure stuff, which was smelted into “oxhide ingots”. Oxhide ingots were not made of cow pelts. They were Bronze Age copper slabs that looked like nothing so much as stretched hides, with four extruding corners that were used to carry them. Corners to carry them would have been a great convenience because they were horribly heavy – about 37 kilos each.
Vast quantities of ingots have been found in Cyprus, Sardinia, mainland Greece and Crete. The biggest collection was found in the “Uluburun shipwreck,” that sank in the late 14th century BCE off Turkey. Underwater excavation shows that the ship carried 10 tons of ingots, all of which seem to have originated in Cyprus.
The copper trade around the Mediterranean Sea is evident from around 1550 BCE – but going by the bronze finds dating to about that same time in Scandinavia, it apparently began earlier. In any case, Gothenburg University researcher Dr. Johan Ling thinks however that Cypriot copper was not massively and purposefully imported to northern Europe, but trickled along the Bronze Age trade routes.
Isotope analysis of some 70 bronze daggers and axes from Bronze Age Sweden by scientists from Sweden’s University of Gothenburg, headed by Dr. Johan Ling, proved that at least some originated in Cypriot copper mines. Most probably, it was traded for amber.
“Bronze was as valuable a raw material as oil is today,” says Prof. Kristian Kristiansen of the University of Gothenburg´s archaeological department. It and amber were the twin engines of the Bronze Age economy, to the extent that marriage alliances are believed to have been forged between powerful families in ancient Europe in order to secure the amber trade.
Amber was used not only to pay for copper, which was turned into bronze weapons, but also for fripperies, such as glass beads imported from the Levant. A separate study recently found that 290 glass beads found in Danish Bronze Age graves dated to around 1400 BCE and not only originated in ancient Egypt – but were made by King Tut’s own glassmaker.
And now the archaeologists think they have recognized images of the ships that brought the copper north.
Thousands of elaborate rock carvings dating to the Bronze Age have been found in Scandinavia, mostly in the region of Bohuslän, on the Swedish west coast. A recurring motif on the rock carvings is ships – and intriguingly, most of these ship carving sites also have images that resemble Mediterranean oxhide ingots.
Metals in Bronze Age Weapons Discovered in Sweden Came from Distant Lands
Researchers analyzing bronze daggers, swords, and axes found in bogs and graves at various places in Sweden over the years have made a surprising find. Some of the artifacts date as far back 3,600 years ago, and they say the objects were made with copper from southern Europe, Turkey, and Cyprus.
The researchers determined the place of the origin of the copper and tin in the tools by analyzing isotopes and comparing it to metals from places in Europe where there were mines in prehistoric times.
Photo of two massive shaft-hole axes that match Cypriote ores - a shaft-hole axe of Valsømagle type, dated to 1600-1500 BC and a shaft-hole axe of Fårdup type, dated to 1600-1500 BC. The former axe was discovered in a bog together with horse bones and a stone paving with post holes. (Photo by L Granding)
Copper, which is a pure element, when mixed with tin or other metals becomes an alloy called bronze. The mixing of the two metals makes bronze stronger than copper alone. This development revolutionized tool- and weapon-making.
Some peoples around the world fashioned copper into tools and weapons before the Bronze Age, but those implements were not as strong.
The production of bronze allowed for more intensive farming, a population increase, and, unfortunately, more widespread and devastating warfare. The Bronze Age lasted from the 3rd to 1st millennium BC in Eurasia.
Early Bronze Age ('Beaker') metal-worker about 2000 BC; by Paul Jenkins, about 1980. ( National Museum Wales )
Researchers also believe that rock carvings near where a few of the copper tools were found, in Bohuslän, Sweden, depict ships that were trading from the Mediterranean region.
The distance from Cyprus to Sweden is about 3,000 kilometers or 1,865 miles as the crow flies. The actual route would have taken traders across the Mediterranean Sea and up the Atlantic coast of Europe or the reverse route from Sweden. Or, traders could have carried it overland, through thick forests and sparsely populated areas.
Rock carving with the shape of a flock of birds and other features at Tanun, near Tanumshede, Bohuslän, Sweden. ( Legumvra/ CC BY 2.5 )
No matter how the copper from which the knives and axes got to Sweden, the journey was sure to have been an adventure for the traders and crew.
Dr. Johan Ling of Sweden’s Gothenburg University and his team did isotope analysis on 70-some bronze daggers, swords and axes and proved that some came from Cypriot copper mines. Cyprus is at the far eastern end of the Mediterranean, off the coasts of Syria and Turkey.
Lead isotope ratios of five bronzes from Sweden compared with the copper ores from Cyprus and Bronze Age Cypriot copper based artefacts. Not all Bronze Age metals found on Cyprus are made of Cypriot copper: some of them are made of metal from the Taurus Mountains in south Turkey, and some of copper brought from the Western Mediterranean (After Ling et al 2014).
“Some of the axes and not least the swords were made for combat,” Dr. Ling told Ancient Origins via e-mail. “There exists some concrete evidence of wounded skeletons. Some of the artefacts are from graves with other items and features. Most of the artefacts derive from hoards from a wet environment or from graves.”
Most of the artifacts that dated to 2000 to 1500 BC were made with copper ore mined in North Tyrol and apparently traded north to Sweden. Many of the artifacts during the period of 1500 to 1100 BC were from copper mined in the Italian Alps. During the period of 1100 to700 BC, the ores came from southern Iberia and North Tyrol. Some tin came from Cornwall, England, and from southern Germany, Dr. Ling said in the email. “Well, it should be stressed that the Cypriote copper was rather limited,” he wrote.
Mining archaeological research gap in the western part of North Tyrol (top left) and mapping of surveyed and sampled copper mineralizations during a 2013 study of Copper mineralizations in western north Tyrol in prehistoric times. ( Grutsch, Martinek & Krismer )
There is no evidence for copper indigenous to Bronze Age Scandinavia, he added.
Professor Kristian Kristiansen, Dr. Ling’s colleague at the university’s department of archaeology, told In.Cyprus.com that “Bronze was as valuable a raw material as oil is today.”