Oxhide ingots are an icon of the Late Bronze Age in the Mediterranean. These artifacts, dating from the 16th to the 11th centuries BCE, are known for their flat, rectangular shape with protruding corners in various styles, and are primarily made of copper.

Though they have long been considered a “trademark” of Cyprus from the 15th century BCE onward, the origin of this distinctive shape had remained unknown until now.

Thanks to the expanded lead isotope database of copper minerals from Eurasia, researchers have been able to determine the origin of the oldest chemically analyzed oxhide copper ingots.

An analysis of 15 pillow-shaped ingots found in Crete reveals that their bimodal lead isotope composition matches that of copper minerals from the Southern Urals, a region known to have been actively exploited during the Bronze Age.

Bearer of a Cypriot oxhide ingot (12th century B.C.) in the Royal Ontario Museum
Bearer of a Cypriot oxhide ingot (12th century B.C.) in the Royal Ontario Museum. Credit: Royal Ontario Museum

In addition to lead isotopes, the trace element composition also indicates that most of these ingots were smelted from copper from massive volcanogenic sulfide-type Cu-Zn (copper-zinc) deposits in the Urals. However, two ingots enriched in nickel, arsenic, and cobalt seem to come from a mineral type characteristic of the Main Uralian Fault, which is hosted in ultramafic rocks.

The characteristic shape of these pillow ingots was likely related to the particularities of land transport, facilitating long-distance transfer on pack animals. Moreover, there are linguistic indications pointing to an eastern origin for this type of ingot, as terms for “ingot”, “copper”, and “hide” in West Asian and Mediterranean languages seem to be related.

The earliest finds of this ingot shape date back to the first half of the 16th century BCE, as evidenced by a small partial ingot found in Tell Beit Mirsim, Israel, whose origin seems to be linked to copper minerals from Oman. However, the oldest and best-preserved specimens come from the island of Crete, dated to around 1450-1430 BCE, just before the eruption of the Thera volcano.

An oxhide copper ingot from Zakros, Crete
An oxhide copper ingot from Zakros, Crete. Credit: Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons

The set of Crete ingots includes fragments and complete ingots from the palaces of Hagia Triada, Kato Zakros, and Tylissos. While some of these ingots can be attributed to Cypriot copper, the origin of others remains uncertain.

Lead isotope analyses suggest that these ingots do not come from the copper deposits in Cyprus, which are geologically more recent, but from older sources, possibly from Western Asia, via the influential Hurrian state of Mitanni.

This new study has helped to clarify the mystery of the origin of one of the most emblematic icons of the Late Bronze Age in the Mediterranean. The oxhide ingots, far from being exclusively Cypriot, seem to have had a more eastern origin, likely linked to the trade networks and technological exchanges that were forming between Asia and the Mediterranean during that era.


Sources

W. Powell, G. Barjamovic, C. Pulak, Copper for the early oxhide ingots traced to the South Urals. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, vol.56, June 2024, 104583. doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2024.104583


  • Share this article:

Discover more from LBV Magazine English Edition

Subscribe to get the latest posts sent to your email.

Something went wrong. Please refresh the page and/or try again.