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In the Time of the Copper Kings

Some 3,500 years ago, prosperous merchants on Cyprus controlled the world’s most valuable commodity

January/February 2024

Cyprus Copper Kings AerialMore than 40 years ago, a Turkish sponge diver named Mehmet Çakir caused a stir among Anatolian archaeologists when he showed them sketches of objects that he had seen lying 150 feet deep on the seafloor off the coast of Kas, in southeastern Turkey. He described them as “metal biscuits with ears,” but experts immediately recognized them as a type of metal bar known as an oxhide ingot that was commonly traded during the Bronze Age, 3,500 years ago.

 

Authorities immediately began to search for the site, and soon came across the artifacts that Çakir had spotted not far offshore of Uluburun, or the Grand Cape. In addition to the ingots, there were so many other ancient objects scattered about that archaeologists and divers would spend a decade returning to the site. It would take them more than 22,000 separate dives to retrieve all the artifacts from what is one of the world’s oldest and most spectacular shipwrecks.

 

Cyprus Copper Kings Map revised

In many ways, the Uluburun wreck represents a microcosm of the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1650–1150 B.C.) world from which it came. This was a time when mariners and merchants crisscrossed the sea on journeys spanning hundreds, even thousands, of miles. In all, about 18,000 objects have been found at the Uluburun wreck, and together they weigh more than 17 tons. Among them are elephant tusks, hippopotamus teeth, faience and glass beads, and gold and silver jewelry, as well as weapons and musical instruments. There are artifacts belonging to seven different cultures, including Egyptian, Nubian, Assyrian, and Mycenaean. “The Late Bronze Age is the first international period of the Mediterranean Sea,” says University of Gothenburg archaeologist Peter Fischer.

 

The overwhelming majority of the Uluburun wreck’s cargo, however, consisted of one particularly desirable commodity: copper. The ship was transporting an astounding 10 tons of the invaluable metal, which is one-third the amount of copper it took to create the Statue of Liberty. Since the nineteenth century, archaeologists have categorized time periods in human history by the most advanced material used for tool-making and hence speak of the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. Without copper, which can be alloyed with tin to produce bronze, there would have been no Bronze Age. Bronze was a revelation—it is extremely durable and holds an edge better than other materials available at the time. Beginning in the third millennium B.C., and especially during the second millennium B.C., copper was king and could make those who possessed it extremely wealthy and powerful. There was enough copper and tin on board the Uluburun ship to produce 11 tons of bronze, which experts estimate could have been turned into 33,000 swords. Copper, then, could also create armies.

 

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