Oxhide ingots are metal slabs, primarily made of copper, although sometimes also made of tin, produced during the Late Bronze Age on the island of Cyprus and later distributed across the Mediterranean.

They were used, at least since 1500 BC, as a means of transporting copper and for bulk sales across the Mediterranean via maritime routes. Their use disappeared around 1000 BC.

The shape resembles that of an ox’s hide, with a protruding handle or grip at each corner, which is why they are called this way, although the original name is unknown.

Oxhide ingots at the Numismatic Museum of Athens
Oxhide ingots at the Numismatic Museum of Athens. Credit: Odysses / Wikimedia Commons

It was thought that the shape indicated that the value of each ingot was roughly equivalent to an ox, but experts now agree that this is just a coincidence, and the shape is more about ease of transportation.

Some researchers, like Cemal Pulak, believe they might have served as a primitive form of currency. In this sense, the ingots found in some shipwrecks of the time are sufficiently similar to allow for a rough but quick calculation of a certain quantity of raw metal. However, the weights of the ingots vary from one finding to another, indicating they cannot be considered as currency.

Archaeologists have recovered many such ingots, mainly from two shipwrecks off the coast of Türkiye: the Uluburun, to which we dedicated the article The Fantastic Cargo of the Uluburun, a Bronze Age ship of uncertain origin, and another at Cape Gelidonya.

The Uluburun contained 317 copper ingots in the typical oxhide shape, 36 with only two protrusions at the corners, 121 in the form of buns, and five in the shape of pillows. The weight of these ingots ranges from 20.1 to 29.5 kg after removing the corrosion. They were found stacked in four rows following a herringbone pattern. Alongside the metal ingots, the cargo included ivory, jewelry, and Mycenaean, Cypriot, and Canaanite ceramics.

Copper oxhide ingots from the Uluburun
Copper oxhide ingots from the Uluburun. Credit: Martin Bahmann / Wikimedia Commons

The wood from the Uluburun corresponds to trees cut between 1316 and 1305 BC according to the study of their rings, indicating that this could be the date of its last voyage and sinking. This is corroborated by the Mycenaean pottery found on board, matching the one found at the destruction level of Miletus by the Hittite king Mursili II, which happened in 1312 BC.

The Cape Gelidonya shipwreck contained 34 oxhide ingots in addition to numerous honeycomb-shaped ingots, rectangular tin bars, and Cypriot agricultural tools made of bronze. Radiocarbon dating of the wood transported by the ship gives an approximate date of 1200 BC.

At the archaeological site of Ras Ibn Hani, in Syria, a mold for casting oxhide ingots was found, made of fine-grained limestone.

Cypriot bronze stand (ca. 1250-1050 B.C.) with figure of a man carrying an oxhide ingot on his shoulders, in the British Museum
Cypriot bronze stand (ca. 1250-1050 B.C.) with figure of a man carrying an oxhide ingot on his shoulders, in the British Museum. Credit: British Museum

The importance of these ingots in the Mediterranean economy, particularly in Cyprus, is evident from the fact that during the Late Bronze Age, Cyprus produced many bronze supports that included figurines depicting a man carrying an oxhide-type ingot.

The ingots have the typical four protruding handles, and men carry them on their shoulders. According to Vassos Karageorghis and George Papasavvas, these artifacts are among the most impressive metal objects produced in the eastern Mediterranean.

Although only a fragment of an oxhide ingot has been found in Egypt, there are numerous painted scenes showing men carrying this type of ingot. The earliest dates back to the 15th century BC, and the most recent to the 12th century BC. The ingots display their typical four protrusions, and they retain red paint (suggesting they were depicted as copper).

Relief of Amenhotep II shooting arrows at an oxhide ingot (Luxor Museum)
Relief of Amenhotep II shooting arrows at an oxhide ingot (Luxor Museum). Credit: Kairoinfo4u / Flickr

In the inscriptions accompanying the paintings, it is explained that the men bringing the ingots came from the north, specifically from Retenu (the Egyptian name for the regions of Palestine and Syria) and Keftiu (Caphtor, a place of disputed location).

In a relief at Karnak, Pharaoh Amenhotep II is depicted riding a chariot and shooting arrows at an oxhide ingot, which already has five arrows stuck in it. It references one of the Pharaoh’s greatest athletic achievements: shooting arrows at a copper ingot while driving a chariot with the reins tied to his waist.

He entered his northern garden and found that four Asian copper targets, one palm thick, were set up with 20 cubits between each post. His majesty then appeared in a chariot like Montu, the war god, in all his might. He grabbed his bow and four arrows at once. He rode northward, shooting them like Montu in his garments. His arrows had come out the other side while he attacked another post. It was truly an unprecedented act, never seen or heard of before: shooting a copper target with an arrow that went through it and fell to the ground—except by the king…

The 'ingot god' found in Enkomi
The ‘ingot god’ found in Enkomi. Credit: Gerhard Haubold, Hattingen / Wikimedia Commons

Shooting arrows at copper ingots was one of the Pharaohs’ favorite sports at that time.

Other representations of people carrying them as tribute are found on the Rassam Obelisk (Ashurnasirpal II), the throne pedestal of Shalmaneser III with depictions of Syrian tribute bearers, and a painting in a Theban tomb, where a person is carrying an ingot on their shoulder and holding a Minoan-style vase in their hand.

In 1963, during the excavations at Enkomi, a Bronze Age site in northwestern Cyprus, a bronze statuette was found, about 35 centimeters tall, representing a god named the Ingot God.

Painting from the tomb of Rekhmire at Thebes, Egypt, ca. 1504-1425 B.C. showing a Cretan carrying an oxhide ingot on his shoulder
Painting from the tomb of Rekhmire at Thebes, Egypt, ca. 1504-1425 B.C. showing a Cretan carrying an oxhide ingot on his shoulder. Credit: Public domain / Met Museum

He holds a spear and a small shield, standing on a base in the shape of an oxhide, identical to the copper ingots. He is a deity of Syrian-Palestinian origin, a god of storms or tempests, but also of genetic and fertility power, identified with the ox or bull.

In the 1980s, another statuette of a deity was found, this time female and from the 12th century BC, placed on an oxhide ingot, and identified as the goddess of fertility of the copper mines.

As Vassos Karageorghis and George Papasavvas state, apparently, no one warned the ancient world to be cautious of Cypriots carrying ingots. So, the Cypriots continued carrying their ingots at home and abroad, and Cypriot smiths continued to depict some of them in action.


This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on August 14, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en Los chipriotas que llevaban lingotes de cobre al hombro en la Edad del Bronce

Sources

Vassos Karageorghis and George Papasavvas, A bronze ingot-bearer from Cyprus | L.I.Avilova y N.N.Terejova, Lingotes normalizados de metal en el Próximo Oriente desde el Eneolítico a la Edad del Bronce | George F. Bass, Peter Throckmorton, Joan Du Plat Taylor, J. B. Hennessy, Alan R. Shulman and Hans-Günter Buchholz, Cape Gelidonya: A bronce Age Shipwreck. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society Vol. 57, No. 8 (1967), pp. 1-177, DOI: 10.2307/1005978 | N. H. Gale and Z. A. Stos-Gale, Oxhide Copper Ingots in Crete and Cyprus and the Bronze Age Metals Trade. The Annual of the British School at Athens Vol. 81 (1986), pp. 81-100, jstor.org/stable/i30102884 | Wikipedia


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