From Cornwall to Crete? Bronze age trading routes

Fred C. Woudhuizen, ‘Towards a reconstruction of tin-trade routes in Mediterranean protohistory’, Praehistorische Zeitschrift 92.2 (2017), 342-353.

We know that tin was streamed in Cornwall in prehistoric times. But how far was it traded? And how early? When were the links with the Mediterranean, those later linked to fanciful Phoenicians, put in place? This article is relevant as it seeks evidence for a trade route from Cornwall and/or northern and western Europe to the eastern Mediterranean, specifically to Crete during the Bronze Age from 2600 BC or thereabouts. This is earlier than the generally accepted date of 2100 BC for the beginning of tin extraction in Cornwall and 1500 BC for the start of its export.

The earliest tin-bronze objects are attested from around 2600 BC in what is now Iran. A century or so later such artefacts began to turn up in Crete, centre of the Minoan Empire (2700 BC – c.1450 BC), then the most advanced civilisation in the western world. As there was no source of tin in or around the Aegean, the Minoans must have obtained it from elsewhere.

There were two possible sources. The first was the far east – Afghanistan and the Oxus valley to its north. The existence of a trade route from this region to the eastern Mediterranean is well documented. There is far less evidence for the second potential tin trade route, from the ‘far west’, either Cornwall, Brittany or Galicia on the Atlantic margins, or the Erzgebirge mountains between Bohemia and Saxony.

Woudhuizen argues that, as tin in Crete from c.1600 BC was found with amber (which could only come from the Baltic), this is evidence of trans-European trade. Exploring the same logic, but in the opposite direction, the widespread presence in north and west Europe of faience beads, only produced in Egypt and Crete, and dated to 2000 BC-1400 BC, also suggests trading links. He also finds documents from 2334 BC – 2278 BC that suggest, albeit rather obscurely, a western tin trade and speculates that eastern tin must have been more expensive than the western source because of the distances involved.

A seal from Crete dated to 2000 BC to 1750 BC claimed to depict metal ingots

And that is about it. It seems clear that Crete and Cyprus were the hubs of a long-distance trade between east and west. However, while it is known that Minoan shipping extended its reach to the north and west as far as the head of the Adriatic and Calabria there remains a yawning gap between those places and the tin producing regions. The gap is filled by the suggestion that trade would have been indirect, goods traded in relatively short hops from one merchant to another. This would mean that the end users of tin knew nothing of its place of origin.

This is entirely feasible but still falls short of actual hard proof for a trade route between Cornwall and Crete. Furthermore, if a western route existed, it remains unclear whether it was by land or by sea. By both routes there would have been tin-producing regions closer to Crete than Cornwall. It seems at least as likely that the Minoan source may have been central Europe as far-off Cornwall, or that supplies came from different places at different times. Perhaps we’ll never know, but it’s interesting to ponder the possibility that Cornwall’s European trading links extended, albeit indirectly, as far as the eastern Mediterranean in 2000 BC or even earlier.