May 12, 2013

Bronze Age Sweden imported its copper

Dienekes' Anthropology Blog mentions this week several papers that dwell in the nature of the Nordic Bronze Age, specifically in Southern Sweden. It turns out that the copper used by the Nordic smiths was not local in almost all cases but imported from elsewhere in Europe (Sardinia, Iberia, Auvergne, Tyrol and British Islands) or even West Asia (Cyprus). This imported copper was exchanged by essentially amber, it seems, an export product of the Nordic area since the Chalcolithic. Nothing is said about the tin needed to make bronze but most likely it came from SW Britain and/or NW Iberia, as these were the two main producers of the strategic metal in old times.

Of the three mentioned papers only one is freely accessible, and also quite interesting to read:

Nils-Axel Mörner & Bob G. Lind, The Bronze Age in SE Sweden Evidence of Long-Distance Travel and Advanced Sun Cult. Journal of Geography and Geology 2013. Open accessLINK [doi:10.5539/jgg.v5n1p78]


The Bronze Age of Scandinavia (1750-500 BC) is characterized by the sudden appearance of bronze objects in Scandinavia, the sudden mass appearance of amber in Mycenaean graves, and the beginning of bedrock carvings of huge ships. We take this to indicate that people from the east Mediterranean arrived to Sweden on big ships over the Atlantic, carrying bronze objects from the south, which they traded for amber occurring in SE Sweden in the Ravlunda-Vitemölla–Kivik area. Those visitors left strong cultural imprints as recorded by pictures and objects found in SE Sweden. This seems to indicate that the visits had grown to the establishment of a trading centre. The Bronze Age of Österlen (the SE part of Sweden) is also characterized by a strong Sun cult recorded by stone monuments built to record the annual motions of the Sun, and rock carvings that exhibit strict alignments to the annual motions of the Sun. Ales Stones, dated at about 800 BC, is a remarkable monument in the form of a 67 m long stone-ship. It records the four main solar turning points of the year, the 12 months of the year, each month covering 30 days, except for month 7 which had 35 days (making a full year of 365 days), and the time of the day at 16 points representing 1.5 hour. Ales Stones are built after the same basic geometry as Stonehenge in England.

The other two are sold under mercantile schemes:

Johan Ling et al., Moving metals or indigenous mining? Provenancing Scandinavian Bronze Age artefacts by lead isotopes and trace elements. Journal of Archaeological Science 2013. Pay per viewLINK [doi:10.1016/j.jas.2012.05.040]

I.B. Gubanov, Grave Circle B at Mycenae in the Context of Links Between the Eastern Mediterranean and Scandinavia in the Bronze Age. Archaeology, Ethnology and Anthropology of Eurasia 2012. Pay per viewLINK [doi:10.1016/j.aeae.2012.08.011]

Ling's paper is the one indicating that Swedish copper had exotic Atlantic and Mediterranean origins, while Gubanov's highlights that amber from the Baltic is found in one Mycenaean grave (specifically Grave Circle B) and not in any known Minoan (Eteocretan) one. For him this means that bronze metallurgy and other associated elements like the quadruple spiral motif arrived with Mycenaean sailors in the Bronze Age. 

Grave Circle B is actually older than the much more famous Grave Circle A (the pseudo "Agamenon's Tomb"), although both belong to the Late Helladic I period (c. 1550-1500 BCE).

(public domain, credit: myself)
This chronology is interesting because it was roughly in those dates when SE Iberian El Argar civilization began its phase B, characterized by Greek influence in burials (pithoi). It is worth mentioning here that while these are the first findings of amber from Nordic Europe in the Eastern Mediterranean, such jewels were common in Iberia since c. 3000 BCE (beginnings of Chalcolithic period). 

It would seem therefore clear that Iberia was a pivotal area in this purported Scandinavian-Greek exchange. The question is: did the early Greek sailors actually reached Scandinavia themselves or were they rather just receiving products by mediation of Iberian traders with a long tradition of Atlantic (and Mediterranean) navigation?

It is probably a hard to answer question. But the studies point to some relevant cues, like the Swedish drawings of ships with rams and the presence of the (originally Mediterranean?) motif of the quadruple spiral, so similar to the Basque lauburu (four heads) icon (probably related to both the svastika and triskel). 

Figure 3.B. the spiral ornament from Sweden and Greece

This spiral icon is not Mycenaean in origin, having been found in Minoan Crete and Megalithic Malta (right), which are respectively older and a lot older than the Mycenaeans. The motif is not even exclusive of Europe, with very similar concepts found for example in the pottery of Western Mexico.

So while the similitude is striking, this evidence is not conclusive on its own. 

The Cypriot copper evidence alone is not enough evidence of Mycenaean presence in Scandinavia, very especially as Cyprus seems important, long before the Mycenaeans in the East-West Mediterranean connections. Cyprus used their own script (probably used for the native Eteocypriot language) up to the 4th century BCE and while Mycenaean presence in the island seems attested in the very late Bronze Age, the island was not a Mycenaean center at all but rather was under Hittite and Ugaritic influence instead.  

So we are left with the claim of rammed ships being coincident with the Mycenaean period. However what I find searching around are dates of c. 1700 BCE (Norway), very early in the Mycenaean chronology and some two centuries older than the single amber finding in Mycenae. It could indeed be a Mycenaean influence but how conclusive is it?

I have a vague memory of a Mycenaean ship (?) found years ago in the waters of Denmark or Germany, however I can't find anything searching online. Does anyone know something more detailed on the matter? This would be key evidence but I cannot trust my memory alone. 

So there seems to be some sort of interaction between the Eastern Mediterranean and Scandinavia but, as far as I can tell, specifically Mycenaean presence in the Far North is circumstantial rather than conclusive. 

Besides the issue of purported trade with the Mediterranean, there are some other interesting elements in Mörner & Lind 2013, notably the description of the Ales Stones ship-shaped megalith ("sun ship") as an astronomical calendar:

Not sure how new this is but it is a very interesting thing to know, right?

Update (May 17): Dispatches from Turtle Island has some interesting and realistic calculations on how long would take an ancient ship to sail from Greece to Sweden and back (c. 112 days, he estimates).


  1. Based purely on wishful thinking and Ancient Greek geographical comments or more importantly the lack of them i think a two stage eastern med -> southern portugal and southern portugal -> sweden network is more plausible as that could more easily lead to the connecting hub beyond the pillars of hercules becoming semi-mythical after the late bronze age collapse.

    That would depend on whether those portuguese civs used mediteranean style rammed ships though.

    1. The really well documented ancient legends are the two versions of Herakles in the Hesperides (Far West) told in the 'Labors': 10th labor (fight against Geriones) and 11th labor (Hesperian apples). Being in ancient Greek apple and cattle the same word: μῆλον [IPA: /mɛ́͜ɛlon/], its very likely that they are two versions of the same story, each emphasizing different elements (original or creative).

      It seems that somehow there was a syncretism between Herakles and Melqart (Phoenician god patron of Tyre, which may well also be at the origin of Lat. Mercurius, Mercury), so the notion of the Pillars of Hercules may well be a Greek-Phoenician-Roman complex synthesis.

      The name "Pillars of Hercules" (or Herakles) seems of relatively late inception as such (Herodotus?) Previously, for what I can find, the names "Gates of Gadir" or "Pillars of Melqart" were used, both with Phoenician connotations.

      The other legendary document is of course the narrations of Atlantis by Plato, attributed to Egyptian sources. Hence, if not an invention by Plato, non-Greek and maybe more accurate in some aspects because of the persistence of Egyptian culture and literacy through the Dark Age of ancient Greece.

      If we are to take the Platonian story of Atlantis as relatively realistic, as I think correct, then the best fit with Atlantis is probably Zambujal (Torres Vedras, Estremadura, Portugal), linked by a canal to the Ocean of exactly the length described in the narration (~10 km), and the "Atlantean Empire" would correspond with the Megalithic area, which in the Bronze Age did reach to Italy and North Africa as described in the story (although it was probably not any "empire" but a much looser system of alliances). A key detail of the Platonian narration is that it does place the "Athenians" fighting in or near Atlantis (and not vice versa) and that this war and the catastrophe (which does not describe the "island" sinking at all, as pop versions have claimed, and may well fit with the later silting of the Zambujal canal - tsunami?) are different events.

      As for rammed ships, I have no idea because there's no evidence either material or artistic of the ships those people used. However it's clear now that the contacts with the Eastern Mediterranean, even if sporadic, existed already in the Chalcolithic (and I would suspect Cyprus as important in this). Therefore, if rammed ships pre-date Mycenae in the East, it's possible that the concept existed also in the West.

      I am willing to give the benefit of doubt to the hypothesis of Mycenaean presence in Scandinavia but I feel that definite evidence is lacking.

    2. "is probably Zambujal (Torres Vedras, Estremadura, Portugal), linked by a canal"

      Yes it was the canal that struck me the most.

      "and the "Atlantean Empire" would correspond with the Megalithic area...although it was probably not any "empire" but a much looser system of alliances"

      Yes, same thought.

    3. Forgot to add

      "I am willing to give the benefit of doubt to the hypothesis of Mycenaean presence in Scandinavia but I feel that definite evidence is lacking."

      I'd imagine a halfway port - if there was one available - would be a lot easier than sailing the whole way.

    4. Indeed halfway ports were necessary because of provisions but also because the Strait of Gibraltar itself, for what I have read, may be hard to navigate in either direction in all seasons with ancient technology like square sails and such. I'm counting on the El Argar civilization as Mycenean ally: after all they were clearly the main beneficiaries of the knowledge of bronze tech early on and seem to be wanting to secure routes to Galician tin (Motillas fortified march in La Mancha).

      A more intriguing case are the SW Iberian "horizons", also with some bronze (daggers at least) and totally different to the previous Megalithic urbanized cultural landscape and who expanded northwards rather quickly. I tend to associate them with El Argar and Mycenaeans, the latter because of the "grabsystem" (i.e. crab-shaped) princely burials which remind me of Mycenae walled tombs (although different in details, same basic concept of a walled cuasi-circular walled tomb).

      North of Estremadura they probably could also find harbors, especially if the sailors were armed and the locals did not want trouble. A key issue however would be how to navigate along the coast of Estremadura (assumed hostile), so if they did arrive to Scandinavia, that must have been after the epic wars reflected in the legends.

      Otherwise not impossible at all considering the voyages of Hanno and other Phoenicians (probable circumnavigation of Africa) with similar technology. And also, of course, the sailing that was going on all along the Atlantic coasts since the beginnings of Megalithic expansion. We don't know if their ships had rams but we know that they were very seaworthy, because the Ocean is very treacherous.

    5. * "provisions": I meant "supplies".

  2. Excellent and insightful analysis that adds a great deal to the data points in the original three papers. This post is probably worthy of a scholarly published comment in its own right.

    1. Thanks for the praise, Andrew, very encouraging. :)

  3. "provisions": I meant "supplies"

    From one non-native English speaker to another, provisions is just fine in this context. On the other hand, you probably meant "work" instead of "labor", above. While scientific work is quite laborious and may even involve a laboratory, it's based on having earned a degree - so it's not at all [more or less skilled] labor. ;)

    I think the connection to the Atlantic Megalithic area must be important one way or another, since there were also fairly safe and much shorter alternative inland routes. In addition to the usually-cited one connecting Scandinavia (partially via land routes) to the Pontic, one can also sail up the Rhine, take a left at the Neckar, and then walk literally just a couple of miles along a flat, high plateau (and/or transport by cart) to the beginnings of the Danube. Sure, the last/first few miles would have been in small boats, southwards uphill perhaps drawn, and weather permitting - but still beats navigating the Mediterranean, Gibraltar, the Atlantic, the Channel, and the Skagerrak & Kattegat.

    1. Well, let's see what Wikitionary says:

      Labour (labor): 1. Effort expended on a particular task; toil, work.

      Other meanings include what you say about the working class (2,3) and also birthgiving (4,5).

      In the first meaning it seems similar to Spanish: labor (=labor) is essentially the same as trabajo (work), i.e. synonyms.

      As for provisions being the same as supplies, I'm not sure if you're right either. Wikitionary says:

      1. An item of goods or supplies obtained for future use.

      Supplies may be for immediate or nearly immediate use, so at least in usual language there's some difference between both words, 'provisions' being more similar to 'reserves' than to 'supplies'.

    2. "Sure, the last/first few miles would have been in small boats, southwards uphill perhaps drawn, and weather permitting - but still beats navigating the Mediterranean, Gibraltar, the Atlantic, the Channel, and the Skagerrak & Kattegat".

      Of course those other routes were actually active in the Bronze Age but inland routes may have other problems besides the mere orographic ones, like the presence of hostile tribes or polities who may want to monopolize or tax the trade. This kind of issues actually hampered Medieval trade a lot, so they probably did also in late prehistory.

      Let alone that maybe the riverine-land trade routes were not just unsafe but also probably unknown in any detail, unexplored.

      Also sailing is quite fast in comparison with oxen carts, mules or human pace, not just the ship goes normally much faster but the crew can rest, sleep or eat as the journey goes on uninterrupted, provided that the winds and weather are not hostile, factors that would also hamper inland routes (mud or snow for example).

      But I think that the key issue here is probably that the Iberia-Scandinavia trade route (for which navigation was necessarily the easiest and fastest route) was already established by the early Chalcolithic, while the Iberia-Eastern Meditterranean route (also necessarily by boat) may have been created later in the same period. So the easiest thing to do was to join both, either by Iberian mediation or by colonialist usurpation of it.

    3. Quite interesting in this regard are Andrew's calculations on how long it'd take for a Greek ship to do the journey to Sweden and back in antiquity. He estimates a total time of 112 days (not counting the inevitable stops at ports of call). The journey is therefore quite plausible in this aspect at least, however this alone does not prove anything about the route being segmented or not, nor about the journey having been actually done by any Greek sailor at all in those times.

    4. "But I think that the key issue here is probably that the Iberia-Scandinavia trade route (for which navigation was necessarily the easiest and fastest route) was already established by the early Chalcolithic"

      Yes if the Atlantic/Western Med network was already there stretching as far into the Med as say Sardinia or Malta then the path of least resistance would have been to just connect to it.

      If the network faded after the late bronze age collapse then amber from the sea route moght all fit within a certain time frame?

    5. The second millennium BCE, probably not in full. There was already some trade between Iberia and the Eastern Med in the Chalcolithic, it seems: the occasional glass bead, presumably Cretan or Egyptian, ivory from Asian elephants... but that was before the Mycenaean period.

      El Argar, which seems to have been the main anchor of Mycenaeans in Iberia, collapsed c. 1300 BCE: the apparent state became many city-states (post-Argaric culture) and the military march of "las Motillas" (La Mancha) collapsed entirely. About that time also Indoeuropeans of Urnfield culture reach Catalonia and soon later the Zambujal-VNSP civilization also collapsed, more or less at the same time that Mycenaean Greece did (beginning of the Dark Ages). They would be soon (how soon exactly?) replaced by Tartessos in Iberia and the Phoenicians as colonial power but that leaves again Greece out of the picture.

      In any case the amber necklace seems to belong to a very specific period of Mycenean history: the Helladic I (1550-1500 BCE), so...


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