3.1 Initial assessments

As a whole, the Cisjordan Corpus of Iron Age silver hoards is the largest identified concentration of pre-coinage silver hoards in the ancient Near East, and all of the silver in them is necessarily related to inter-regional trade – that is, no native source has been identified in Cisjordan, and there was a clear need or desire to import the metal (Thompson 2003). There is no question that silver had been circulating in Cisjordan and entering Near Eastern economies from regional sources in Turkey and Greece before 1200 BC, and we take it as given that some of it was deposited in the hoards of the Cisjordan Corpus, along with silver derived from western Mediterranean sources that may also pre-date 1200. Ephraim Stern and Willliam Dever had observed well in 2001 that the 8.5kg hacksilber hoard from Tel Dor dated from the 11th to 10th century seems to contradict notions of a Dark Age (Stern 2001; Dever 2001), but, on its own, this large hoard could contain silver obtained and accumulated primarily from, or solely in, earlier periods. Interpretations of the metallic material record are inherently complicated by metal's particular susceptibility to distorting depositional and post-depositional processes; the record is critically and unquantifiably incomplete because archaeological metals are typically accidents of survival and preservation, and are recovered from regions and excavations that are not comparable in the extent and depth of their exposures; at the same time, we do not have the means to assess scientifically whether each preserved artefact is a net result of repeated recycling, or how much time passed between the derivation of its metallic fabric from ore, and its deposition.

Figure 7 Figure 8 Figure 9

Figure 7: Field photo: one of three juglets of silver found at Ein Hofez (courtesy of Y. Alexandre; credit: C.M. Thompson).
Figure 8: Field photo: Hacksilber in the form of silver earrings, Ein Hofez (courtesy of Y. Alexandre; credit: C.M. Thompson).
Figure 9: Field photo: corroded silver in the Tell Keisan hoard (courtesy J.B. Humbert, École biblique et archéologique française de Jérusalem; credit: C.M. Thompson).

In fact, given hacksilber's appearance as 'scrap', the sampling of the Cisjordan Corpus began with a tacit assumption that many of the artefacts might be the end-products of centuries of recycling, with hopelessly muddled or indeterminate isotopic signatures. The ability to establish precise consistencies between sampled artefacts and ores has permitted instead a wide range of questions that might be profitably addressed by data from the Corpus at large. It has become clear, for example, that the advantages to ore-provenance studies inherent to the Corpus include southern Phoenicia's identity as a hub of commercial activity through which Mediterranean metals would have filtered into the Near East. That is, by 800 BC Cisjordan was not a region with a long, established history involving the imperial oversight of the centralised collection and redistribution of silver (Nam 2012), although there are incoming reports of developments in the direction of centralisation before 800 BC at Khirbet Qeiyafa (Israel Antiquities Authority 2013). On present evidence, the chances of encountering recently derived hacksilber of 'unmixed' ore origins seem better in the Cisjordan Corpus than, for example, in Roman or Neo-Assyrian hoards and graves, but by no means absolutely or quantifiably so.

The identification of the Cisjordan Hoards as a qualitatively, chronologically and geographically defined Corpus in 2003 has shown that the frequency of hoards containing dominant quantities of silver increased after 1200 BC in Cisjordan. This is evident not only in the 8th and 7th centuries, when economic growth is already attested, but also throughout Cisjordan’s Iron Age. Whereas conclusions about economic growth or decline drawn solely from the weight quantities of excavated hacksilber would skew interpretations in ways that cannot be appreciated scientifically, the method of frequency-specific sequencing mitigates the impact of depositional and post-depositional distortions in the study of the metallic material record by relying on measured occurrences within defined datasets to identify patterns. Within the context of the wider Mediterranean world, the hacksilber hoards found in southern Phoenicia at the sites of Akko, Ein Hofez, Tel Dor and Tell Keisan are conspicuous as the only identified multi-site concentration of silver hoards datable between 1200 and 800 BC. Outside of Cisjordan, no contemporary silver hoards have been identified in the Mediterranean.

Figure 10 Figure 11 Figure 12

Figure 10: Field photo: one juglet from the Akko hoard (courtesy M. Artzy; credit: C.M. Thompson).
Figure 11: The silver hoard from Tel Dor (Image © Tel Dor excavations. Used with permission).
Figure 12: Field photo: Hacksilber from Ein Hofez (courtesy Y. Alexandre; credit: C.M. Thompson).

The lead isotope data from our selected southern Phoenician samples substantiate both Sardinia and Spain as candidates for Tarshish, but they cannot provide a basis for deciding between them. At the same time, we do not wish to suggest that silver was the only material obtained on voyages connected to Tarshish; silver is simply where our research began. The identification of the silver hoards in southern Phoenician contexts has provided a staging point for the evolving consideration of relatable occurrences of other metals and materials. The lead isotope data from the sampled hacksilber artefacts allow us to make a case for their origins in the silver- and lead-rich regions of the western Mediterranean, but there are a few examples of data from the east, including Seeliger's central and eastern Anatolian group (Seeliger et al. 1985; Figure 4), that plot near some of the older western Mediterranean ores. Galena also occurs on Mt Hermon in Israel, and although its exploitation before c.800 BC has not been detected, it has the potential to be relevant. These considerations, as well as the incomplete mineral characterisation and mining histories of all possibly relevant metalliferous regions, might leave a space for the logical sounding notion that silver found in the Phoenician hoards should have been obtained from more geographically proximate deposits in the east. If one were to make this case, however, it would at least be necessary to ask why the Phoenicians colonised the west at all, and to demonstrate that it was unrelated to the acquisition of metals.

Figure 13 Figure 14

Figure 13: Map of the Mediterranean showing places noted in the text. Insert showing the major mineralizations in the Iberian Peninsula. (Based on map by ColdEel, CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Geological map by PePeEfe, translated by Graeme Bartlett, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
Figure 14: Map of Southern Phoenician hacksilber hoards. Map based on (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Lead isotope and elemental data are like other forms of evidence in that they identify possibilities for building cases, but they are not very often useful for making unequivocal declarations (Harbottle 1982). Tools used to construct cases for provenance using lead isotope data might include any combination of detailed elemental analyses, statistical calculations, refinements in analytical sensitivity, the visual interpretation of plotted data, more traditional forms of archaeological evidence and philological or historical sources, depending on what is available and pertinent to each sample or a given group of samples. In any case, the information that we might bring to bear on interpretations of provenance will often be incomplete or debatable, so that we will (ourselves) prefer to work with ranges of possibilities in many cases. The utility of lead isotope analyses depends upon the propriety of the questions they address; even under ideal working conditions, neither the artefacts nor the data from them, can tell us the location of Tarshish. Nor can the lead isotope and elemental data pinpoint when the Phoenicians first began to engage in silver trade with the west. They can and are now providing, however, evidence consistent with ancient documentary sources that report Phoenician pre-colonial expansion in the west, and understand that its motivations were related to the acquisition of silver. From this perspective, the question of Tarshish's location returns to philology, where the documentary evidence that generated the research questions addressed here can begin to be integrated with the incoming data from metals.


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