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BARlines: Bronze Age Source of Tin Found in Turkey? BAR 20:03, May-Jun 1994.

Tunnels Kestel, TurkeyThe sweat and blood of children may have helped to forge the Bronze Age, if recent discoveries prove correct. Aslihan Yener, assistant professor at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, believes that a mine and ancient mining village she has found in the Central Taurus mountains of Turkey show that tin mining was a well-developed industry in the area as early as 2870 B.C.

Tin is the metal that made possible the Bronze Age (3000–1200 B.C.), because, when added in small amounts to copper, it produces bronze, which is harder and more easily cast in molds than copper. This technological advance helped to spur the great economic expansion that occurred thoughout the Near East at that time. Until now, however, scholars have thought that the nearest source of tin was in Afghanistan.d Yener’s discovery therefore may change established theories about economic and metallurgical developments in the Bronze Age Mediterranean world.

The mine, at a site called Kestel—some 60 miles north of Tarsus, on the Mediterranean coast—has two miles of tunnels, some about two feet wide. The narrow width and the discovery of skeletons of some 12- to 15-year-olds buried inside the mine suggest that children served as the miners. Nearby stand the ruins of the mining village of Goltepe, which was probably occupied by 500 to 1,000 persons more or less continuously between 3290 and 1840 B.C. At the village site, Yener found 50,000 stone tools used to dig and crush the ore and ceramic vessels that served as crucibles. The site contains no evidence of copper metallurgy, however, so it was not an alloying industry, that is, it did not produce bronze; instead it produced tin for export. According to Yener, it had become “a fully developed industry with specialization of work. It had gone beyond the craft-stages that characterize production done for local purposes only.”

BAR Editorial Advisory Board member Professor James D. Muhly, of the University of Pennsylvania, called Yener’s claims “a very interesting hypothesis” and said she “is to be congratulated for her work at Kestel and Goltepe” because she “has pointed the way toward what must be done in the future” at other sites. But Muhly insists that “we do not know what they were doing at Kestel and Goltepe during the third millennium B.C.” and that Yener’s statements “cannot be supported by the available evidence.” For example, no tin ingots nor any artifacts of tin have been found to support the claimed discovery of a “mold to make tin ingots.” Muhly points out that the refining process necessary to get tin out of the ore from Kestel would have taken “hundreds of thousands of hours of very labor-intensive work” and asks, “Why would anyone have bothered when much more accessible sources of tin were available?”

Those more accessible sources include a site in the eastern desert of Egypt, which may or may not have been exploited at that time, and tin mines in Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The written record bolsters the claims of the latter four locations. “All of our cuneiform sources for a Bronze Age trade in tin indicate a source for that tin located east of Mesopotamia,” Muhly notes. “No textual evidence for Bronze Age tin points to an Anatolian source.”

The lack of textual evidence notwithstanding, the new evidence from Turkey must be addressed on its own merits, Yener argues. She and her colleagues have analyzed tin-rich slag from 50 crucibles discovered at Goltepe. Within the total one metric ton of metallurgical debris in the form of crucible and vitrified materials, she has excavated some that have 30-percent tin content (a high percentage) and some with tin metal (the product) still intact in the crucible. Yener discounts the significance of the lack of tin ingots or tin artifacts, which she says “are rarely found in any excavations.” In response to the suggestion that the Kestel miners may have been mining gold or silver, she says that no gold or silver has been found at the site or in the crucibles. Countering the argument that the mining and refining process at Kestel was too laborious, Yener suggests that tin was very valuable in the earliest centuries of the Bronze Age, thus making the effort worthwhile, and that the “more accessible” tin from eastern sources may have entered the Near East later and, because of its cheapness, superseded the tin from local sources such as Kestel. She notes that the cuneiform sources come from a later time, as they refer to a Middle Bronze Age (2200–1550 B.C.) tin trade.

Yener is now pursuing research that may lead to a resolution of the debate. She hopes to connect bronze artifacts to ore sources in the central Taurus mountains by matching the ratios of their lead isotopes.

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