Thursday 29 December 2022

Bronze Age further away


Still in the Bronze Age, and fascinated by the long anticipated report of the seventeen tons of cargo from a ship wrecked off what is now Uluburun, Turkiye in about 1320 BC.  This Mediterranean coastal trade is the background to all the stories over the alleged fifteen generations (perhaps half a millennium) from Abraham to Solomon. 

The tin on board had come two thousand miles from mines well west of the Caspian Sea and must have crossed modern Turkmenistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria to loaded aboard in Haifa.  There was ten times as much copper, so exactly the proportion needed for making bronze.

There were a hundred and fifty Canaanite amphora with foodstuff like olives and tree resin for making fragrant oils.  Prodigious quantities of murex shells for making purple dye.  Ingots of glass in colours like cobalt blue which could be melted to create glassware.

It has taken me back to the rare Amarna Letters, records from Egyptian court and diplomatic correspondence around 1345 BC, almost precisely the same time.  One had a request from exactly the coast of the shipwreck to exchange a similar range of goods including copper, oil and timber.  Others speak of tribute and mutual gifts from royal daughters to lapus lazuli which would have had to be brought from Afghanisatan.

The letters evidence a range of city states and larger empires, some treated as subservient and others as equal partners, many pleading for assistance as attacked by neighbours and external invaders.  One comes from the guard of the gates of Gaza and Joppa recalling being a young man brought to Egypt where he had guarded the palace gates.

And, oh, how the temptation has always been to use all these rare sources simply to secure the historicity of the biblical narratives - the internet in particular being a trap in which impartial academic analysis is sometimes indistinguishable from partial fundamentalist confirmation bias.   But these two sources give sheer richness in filling in a general background of the trade routes and conflicts in what we read.

From Abraham’s at first finding Canaan famine ridden and travelling straight on to Egypt, to Solomon calling in favours from neighbouring kings to supply timber for building the temple, via Joseph abducted to Egypt but finding a role in the palace there, the Amarna letters and, now, the shipwreck’s cargo, spell out a vibrant Bronze Age context.

The temple’s curtain used blue, purple and red thread, all among the dyes in the shipwreck.  The ‘Habiru’ in the letters are tantalisingly either the Hebrews or generally bandits ranging across areas including those Joshua’s genocides traversed.  And so it goes on.

This time, going back to it all, it is the subservient language of Abi-Milki, overlord of Tyre, which tingles my spine.  Generally the letters are deeply grovelling, the senders describing themselves in standard forms such as ‘dirt beneath your feet, the mire on which you tread’ (bowing seven time and seven times - just possibly proverbially echoed in Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness?).  But some of his particular language could be set out as if half forgotten verses of the Psalms:

My lord’s... words give life and prosperity:

to all lands his power gives peace.

...  He thunders down from heaven:

the earth trembles before him.

...  He who listens to the king his lord:

and serves him with love,

...  a good word from the mouth of the lord:

gives him life.

If he heeds not the commands of his lord:

his city will fall, his house perish.   

Meanwhile, the picture is from my Boxing Day walk and is a hamlet an hour east of here; remote, yet now still within earshot of the city's new eastern bypass; Greetwell's eleventh century church, abandoned mediaeval village and Jacobian manor.