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Trading Bronze Age technology

Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade, and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium B.C.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Until 15 March 2009

Credit: T. FARRAJ

Before the BlackBerry, before the iPhone, before e-mailing, texting and instant messaging, was an ivory-hinged boxwood writing board. Originally inlaid with wax, it was probably engraved with a ship's cargo inventory. The hand-sized board, now shrivelled and cracked, might also have carried messages between ancient Near Eastern courts, and sank to the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea at the end of the fourteenth century bc with its ship: a 15-metre-long vessel wrecked off the coast of southern Turkey.

The ship's contents, currently on display in New York in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's dazzling exhibition, Beyond Babylon, are a testament to the globalization of trade and mass communication that existed in the Bronze Age. The earliest seagoing vessel ever excavated, the ship carried 15,000 items from 12 different cultures, including Old Babylonian, Egyptian, Mycenaean, Assyrian, Canaanite, Nubian, Balkan and Baltic. The 17 tonnes of cargo included 10 tonnes of copper from Cyprus; 1 tonne of tin, probably mined in central Asia; 350 kilograms of turquoise and purple glass ingots from Egypt; ebony from Nubia (now northern Sudan); and 150 Canaanite jars, many filled with resin from the terebinth tree, used in scented oils and as an antiseptic. Precious gifts included ostrich eggs, gold pendants, glass beads, hippopotamus teeth, spices such as coriander and cumin, and two delicately carved, duck-shaped ivory pots.

The quest for commodities such as copper and tin, the basic ingredients of bronze — and for exotic materials such as ivory and the semiprecious stone lapis lazuli — drove commerce between these kingdoms of the second millennium bc, and inspired a cross-border blossoming of art and technology. The influence of one culture on another is evident in the mélange of styles incorporated in the artefacts on show, which encompass a sumptuous array of gold diadems and scarabs, jewel-inlaid daggers, bronze deities (detail, pictured), carved seals and ceramic jars from sites stretching from the Mediterranean to the Indus River. Another duck-shaped container, from the reign of Egypt's Amenhotep III (around 1390 to 1352 bc), has carved ivory wings of Canaanite design, but the duck is held in the outstretched arms of a lissom female swimmer with Egyptian features. A silver stag-shaped cup, from the Hittite empire of Anatolia in the fourteenth century bc, incorporates hunt scenes and is inlaid with a copper alloy used earlier in Middle Kingdom Egypt. The transfer of technology is also apparent in the blue glass ingots excavated from the shipwreck: coloured with cobalt, they are chemically similar to vessels made of blue glass from Amarna, Egypt, and to blue beads from Mycenaean Greece.

Artisans and scholars also moved across cultures. A fourteenth-century bc fragment of a cuneiform clay tablet from the ancient Hittite capital Boğazkale, now in modern Turkey, is carved with the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Mesopotamian saga that visiting professors circulated far and wide. Equally fascinating is 'The Game of 58 Holes', a board game similar to snakes and ladders that was found across Mesopotamia, Iran and Anatolia. The exhibition includes an ebony-and-ivory version etched with a palm tree and studded with ten dog-headed pegs; it was found in Egyptian Thebes and dates to 1981 to 1802 bc. It may not be an iPod, but even then, perhaps, tired traders on long trips found entertaining ways to break the monotony.

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Glausiusz, J. Trading Bronze Age technology. Nature 456, 709 (2008).

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