PREVIOUS   NEXT   CONTENTS   HOME 

1. Introduction

Ancient authors in both the biblical and classical traditions repeatedly indicate that the Phoenicians were engaged in the mercantile transport of massive quantities of silver and other metals from across great distances to their homeland along the Levantine coast, prior to establishing colonies along the coasts and islands of the western Mediterranean around 800 BC. If such early trade occurred and flourished, it is thought that the catastrophic collapse around 1200 BC of sophisticated and centralised palace-based economies in the Near East created economic space for it. With limited but observable consistencies, surviving documents point to the rich deposits of galena and other silver-bearing ores in Italy and Spain as primary targets for exploitation. Yet the 400 years following the collapse of the palace-economies are often understood as a 'Dark Age', during which the material record of the eastern Mediterranean generally exhibits an acute decline of traditionally recognised indicators of thriving civilisation such as writing and monumental architecture. In particular, the lack of recognised evidence for the production and circulation of silver throughout the Mediterranean during this supposed Dark Age has sustained the centuries-old conservative rejection of the ancient reports that point to Phoenician recovery and expansion in the 10th century BC, or earlier. That is, the earliest written works concerning pre-colonial metals trade are contemporaneous with colonisation around 800 BC, and have been dismissible as archaeologically groundless hyperbole, amounting to factually adjusted or poetically embellished 'histories' sometimes meant to bolster the image of the Phoenicians and their supposed partner in silver-trade, King Solomon.

Such a situation has given rise to the 'Phoenician Question', which, in essential terms, asks whether the Phoenicians traded in the western Mediterranean before settling and colonising it by 800 BC. It remains one of the 'big questions' of Mediterranean archaeology partly because of the great many uncertainties of social, economic and political history that depend on how we answer it. Our perspective on the nature of economy and society in the Phoenician homeland, for example, will be significantly different depending on whether we view Phoenician expansion into the west as gradual and motivated at first by 'silent' trade in trifles in return for metals, or as 'a genuine population strategy, with no previous stages, with all the consequent demographic and colonial implications' (Aubet 2001, 201). María Eugenia Aubet's exaggerated claim that the hypotheses concerning the origins and chronology of the first Phoenician foundations in the west are almost infinite in number (2001, 95) gives a fair sense of the vexed status quaestionis, and it might just as well apply to the controversies that surround the figure and kingdom of Solomon, whose reign over the United Monarchy is traditionally dated to 970-931 BC. The stories of Solomon's prosperous reign have been circulating for a few millennia now, and have from an early stage exhibited an apocryphal quality, which has led some to question his very existence (Schmidt 2007). Such questions are possible because attempts to identify clear and securely datable archaeological evidence for the monarch and his kingdom have proven as challenging as documenting Phoenician expansion in the west prior to c. 800 BC. In short, our textual and material records concerning the years between 1200–800 BC often appear at odds.

Classical texts that mention the beginnings of Phoenician westward expansion tend to place it chronologically just after the destruction of the palaces (represented in the Greek tradition by the fall of Troy), and spatially with enduring toponyms like Sardinia and Cádiz (Diodorus Siculus Bibliotheca Historica V.35.5, Velleius Paterculus I.2, 1-3, and Strabo III.2, 9-14). In this tradition, the far west is sometimes characterised as a worthwhile objective of long-distance trade where the Phoenicians were able to obtain massive quantities of silver for 'almost nothing' or 'trinkets' from the natives who did not value it.

The biblical passages that refer to Phoenician mercantile supremacy before 800 BC, however, do not mention now-familiar place-names; instead they call a major silver and metals-supplying region 'Tarshish', and cite it as a source of Solomon's fabled riches. The sometimes tall-sounding tales in this tradition include 1 Kings 10.27, in which Solomon reportedly made silver 'as common in Jerusalem as stones', and a complex of passages that link his ability to obtain vast quantities of metals to his trading partnership with King Hiram of the Phoenician city-state Tyre, as well as the fleets of the ships of Tarshish that sailed in their service (see, e.g. Beitzel 2010; Gonzalez de Canales et al. 2010). More generally, the minds of biblical authors associated Tarshish with a metals-supplying region located at an extreme distance overseas from the world known to them. Their sometimes inconsistent and always geographically vague use of the term indicates that Tarshish's precise location was not commonly understood in the eastern Mediterranean, and that, at uncertain points in the remote past, it entered the realm of legend. Yet, passages like Ezekiel 27.12 and Jeremiah 10.9 emphatically link Tarshish to supplies of silver, and further philologically rooted inquiries predominantly implicate locations in Sardinia and Spain.

The tendency to equate the 'Tarshish of scripture' with the similar-sounding, silver-rich kingdom of Tartessos of mythic history (Herodotus 1.163; Bochart Phaleg, 1646, iii. 7), with its suspected borders near today's Huelva and Seville, is complicated by inscriptions that oblige us to consider island locations – in a statement attributed to Esarhaddon, the Assyrian king proclaims that the kings of islands as far as Tarshish began paying tribute to him in the late 7th century BC (Pritchard 1955, 290 and infra). Exhibiting some degree of agreement, the tantalising Phoenician inscription on the c. 9th-century BC Nora Stone is reportedly broken precisely where the few words that preceded 'Tarshish' once appeared. One partial translation reads '[...] at Taršīš, and he drove them out. Among the Sardinians, he is [now] at peace ...' (Cross 1972, with references). With the top part of the stone (possibly) missing, along with its original context, its date and translation remain tentative and debated. Its find-spot near Sardinia's Capo di Pula, however, has contextualised the name of Tarshish at ancient Nora, which was arguably the first Phoenician colony on the island, and at least among the earliest in the west. The wider view situates Nora at the edge of Sardinia's lead- and silver-rich region of Sulcis-Iglesiente, at a pivotal anchorage central to Mediterranean connectivity, and so makes both Sardinia and Nora, along with Tartessos, leading candidates for Tarshish. Now, archaeological research has identified a basis for investigating this millennia-old philological question from the perspective of silver.

This article presents the initial evidence from the lead isotope analyses of silver artefacts found in southern Phoenicia that links legends about Tarshish, the supposed source of Solomon's silver, to ores in Sardinia and Spain, and more generally indicates the western Mediterranean as a silver-supplying region to Phoenicia prior to colonisation.


 PREVIOUS   NEXT   CONTENTS   HOME 

Internet Archaeology is an open access journal. Except where otherwise noted, content from this work may be used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (CC BY) Unported licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided that attribution to the author(s), the title of the work, the Internet Archaeology journal and the relevant URL/DOI are given.

University of York legal statements

File last updated: Wed Oct 16 2013