Ancient Mediterranean Economy: An Early “Global” Market

Ancient Mediterranean Economy: An Early “Global” Market

Eric Welch, Department of History, Penn State

Developed for World Culture: Grades 8-12

Eric Welch is a doctoral candidate in History and Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies at Penn State. His research focuses on the economic and agricultural history of the ancient Near East. In addition to his work as a historian, Eric is an active field archaeologist. He works on the senior staff at Tell es-Safi, one of the largest excavations in Israel, where he directs the excavation of an area that was dedicated to ancient olive oil production.

Overview: This lesson introduces students to the geography of the eastern Mediterranean while exploring one of the earliest international economies. Key concepts include the import and export of goods, international connections, and the use of archaeology for understanding ancient connections.


  • Review eastern Mediterranean geography, including ancient and modern territories
  • Understand the diversity and extent of ancient trade (ancient trade doesn’t mean primitive trade).
  • Understand how archaeology informs our understanding of ancient society and economy

Introductory Questions

  • When we talk about a “network” what are we talking about?
    • Are there different types of networks?
    • What would you consider to be a global or international network?
  • How do we identify networks?
  • What about economic networks? How would we identify and economic network?

Much of what we’ve discussed already is focused on modern times. We’re talking about being connected with the economy, information, technology, travel. But these aren’t just modern concepts. Let’s look at an early case when the world was experience one of its first international economies.


In 1982 a diver discovered a shipwreck off the coast of Turkey. The ship was about 40 meters under the water and was wrecked on a steep slope. This ship is known as the Uluburun Shipwreck.

What’s remarkable about the Uluburun is that it was a trade ship that was in the middle of transporting its cargo when it wrecked. The shipwreck has produced over 18,000 artifacts! Today we’re going to explore this shipwreck to learn about trade during the Late Bronze Age.

Instructions: You have a map of the Mediterranean in front of you. Let’s review the different regions. [Instructor: review the different regions, Aegean Sea, Mediterranean Sea, Greece, Cyprus, Turkey (Anatolia), Mesopotamia, Canaan (Israel), Egypt. Modern countries of Lebanon,

Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan.] As we go through the different things found on the ship, mark the resource on your map.


This slideshow contains images of the shipwreck and its finds. There are notes for each slide in the notes pane in PowerPoint to assist you.

Slide 1: Introductory text above.

Slide 2: The Uluburun was wrecked on a steep slope just over 40 meters under the water. It took over 22,400 dives to recover the wreck and a total of 6,613 hours under the water.

Slide 3: As you saw in the first slide and in this one, the ship is relatively simple. It’s about 15 or 16 meters long, with a single sail. The cargo of the ship was down in the belly. Why would you do this? Answer: It’s the smartest use of the space (obvious answer), but it also places the load under the water line and gives the boat stability. This is important since ships sometimes encountered rough seas. Unfortunately, that didn’t matter for the Uluburun, who wrecked anyway.

Slide 4: The ship contained 10 tons of raw copper, (354 ingots), 1 ton of tin, which is enough to make 11 tons of bronze. You make bronze by mixing these two metals. Instructor: Explain the term ingot. An ingot is a block of raw material before it has been worked. Having metal in an ingot makes it easier to transport. Technically, bars of gold are considered ingots.

Slide 5: This particular shape of ingot is called an “oxhide” ingot. Why? Because the shape looks the stretched hide of an ox. Why form an ingot this way? Why not just rectangles or blocks? Answer: This shape comes with built in “handles.” Two guys can grab the corners or one guy can put it on his should like we see in this tomb painting from Egypt.

Art: Wall painting with Syrian carrying copper oxhide ingot. Thebes, Tomb of Rekhmire (TT 100). Dynasty 18, reigns of Thutmose III- Amenhotep II.

Slide 6: At this point, remind the students to be labeling their maps. What do the students notice about this pottery? Is it for transport or is it table ware? This is very fine pottery (decorated) that is oriented more towards serving rather than transport (although the larger one may be for transport). These vessels are probably for serving and drinking wine.

Slide 7: Similar vessels from Cyprus. The stack of 3 vessels on the right is actually a stack of oil lamps. These would be filled with olive oil and used as a source of light.

Slide 8: The Uluburun contained 19 zoomorphic (animal shaped) weights. The Uluburun weight assemblage is one of the largest and most complete groups of contemporaneous Late Bronze Age weights. Now what were these weights used for? Answer: These are calibrated weights used on a balance scale to measure goods placed on the other side of the scale. We actually find the pans from the scales at excavations in the Eastern Mediterranean. (Instructor: the scale would be a very simple scale like the one typically associated with Justice.)

Slide 9: These are geometric weights. There were 120 of them. The interesting thing about the Uluburun is that the weight sets were in different metric units. Think of this as some being in ounces and some in grams. Why would this be important? Answer: Because as you move between different ports you need to be able to work with the metric system of that “country.”

Slide 10: There were 24 stone anchors found on the ship and the stone matches stone that comes from Turkey (and some from Canaan as well). 8 of the anchors were left down in the cargo hold. Why would you do that? Answer: You need extra anchors because they’re stone and sometimes they break or your rope breaks. But also, the extra weight in the center of the ship’s belly provided ballast and gave the ship stability as it sailed.

Slide 11: Now look at this large pot. Is this one for storage or serving? Clearly, this is for transport. Over 100 amphorae or storage jars like this one used to transport wine and olive oil. Now today when you think of the Mediterranean, you think everyone has wine and olive oil. And today they do. But in the Late Bronze age olive oil was still spreading and some of the best olive oil and wine came from Canaan.

Slide 12: Incense and perfumed oils were a luxury in the ancient world and were frequently traded. Normally incense and perfumes travel in much smaller containers.

Slide 13: The Uluburun contained bronze swords from Greece and Canaan. Instructor review: What is bronze made from again? And where did it come from? Copper (Cyprus) and Tin (Anatolia and Afghanistan).

Slide 14: These swords are different. Notice the rough edges around the handles. These swords haven’t been pounded out by a blacksmith. They’ve actually been molded.

Slide 15: From time to time, archaeologist will be lucky enough to find the stone molds used for making bronze swords. Here you can see how the mold would be filled and then the handles of wood or ivory would be fitted on later.

Slide 16: Uluburun contained 175 Glass ingots, including cobalt blue, turquoise, and lavender colored glass. Instructor: review the term ingot. Also, note how much smaller these are. They’re more like glass “cakes” than real ingots, but this reinforces the idea that an ingot can be any block of raw, unworked good for transport. Again, remember gold bars. They’re not big either!

Slide 17: This is how glass was made in the city of Nuzi, a large Mesopotamian known for glass- working at this time. The brilliant blue glass ingots of the Uluburun would have been perfected suited to this manufacturing process.

Slide 18: It’s not a treasure without gold! Uluburun had amazing gold finds. (Next slide)

Slide 19: The Uluburun had a collection of finished gold and scrap gold. What good is scrap gold? Answer: You can melt it down to make jewelry or use it to pay for goods. The broken scraps were actually weighed out on a scale to make payments as a type of primitive money.

Among the 37 gold pieces are: medallions, pendants, beads, a small ring ingot, and an assortment of fragments. One particularly nice find is this Biconical chalice. It’s the largest gold object from wreck. What does biconical mean? Answer: two cones. Look at this chalice and and see how its shape is basically two gold cones.

Also a few Egyptian objects of gold, electrum, silver, and steatite (soap stone); a Gold scarab inscribed with the name of Nefertiti; and Bronze female figurine (head, neck, hands, and feet covered in sheet gold).

Slide 20: (No notes)

Slide 21: Why would we find fishing gear on a cargo ship? Answer: It seems likely that the sailors ate fish while on the boat to add protein to their diets. You wouldn’t pack the fish up ahead of time if you had a constant supply of fresh fish swimming all around you.

Slide 22: But they did pack food for the journey—some to eat and some for trade. Because the Uluburun was so deep underwater, many of the organic items (foods) were preserved enough to identify. The ship contained: Almonds, Pine nuts, Figs, Olives, Grapes, Safflower, Black cumin, Sumac, Coriander, Whole pomegranates, A few grains of charred wheat and barley.

Slide 23: The Uluburun also had ivory on board. What animal does ivory come from? Most students will get elephant, but Hippo teeth are another source of ivory. The Uluburun had both. Now ask the students, if this ivory is worked or unworked? What other raw materials were found on the ship? Answer: metals, glass, gold scrap.

Slide 24: Ivory was used to make bowls and small containers, but especially common for making decorative parts of furniture, especially inlays. It’s actually very easy to work with so in the ancient Mediterranean we find lots of elaborately carved vessels with many details.

Slide 25: Cosmetic boxes are also common ivory product. This ivory duck box is a nice example of the type of finished ivory goods that were made. So on this ship we have an assortment of both raw and finished goods. Something to think about…

Slide 26: What do you think this is? This is a writing tablet. The insides were smeared with beeswax that could be smoothed over and rewritten on. Almost like an ancient etch-a- sketch. This was probably used for counting the ship’s cargo.

Slide 27: This is a special vessel that comes from Cyprus, but many think that it was linked to ancient drug trade! The jug itself looks like and upside down opium poppy, and some of the vessels that have been sampled have tested positive for opium residue.

Slide 28: At this point, ask about the maps the students have been marking.

  • What trends have they noticed? Which direction was the ship headed? Who owned the ship? Is this a private shipment? A royal shipment? What about the diversity of goods? What do they make of the combination of raw goods and finished goods? What does this tell us about the economy of the Late Bronze Age Mediterranean?

Slide 29: Now use the map to recap the resources and their origins and to look at some of the probable travel routes.

Slide 30: Conclusions:

  • Trade in the Ancient Mediterranean was far from simple.
  • It was a time of great international contact.
  • Almost every region was participating and benefiting from this trade.
  • This is just one example of how a single archaeological site can help us reconstruct the past.


2008 Pulak, Cemal. The Uluburun Shipwreck and Late Bronze Age Trade. In Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade, and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium B.C. J. Aruz, K. Benzel, and J.M. Evans (eds.). The Metropolitan Museum of Art Exhibition Catalog, pp. 288-305, artifact catalog: 306- 310, 313-321, 324-333, 336-342, 345-348, 350-358, 366-378, 382-385. [Background reading for instructor. Select pages included in PDF.]

  • Explore the Uluburun!
    • View official pictures of the shipwreck.
    • Move your scuba diver around the wreck on an interactive map.
    • A good interactive resource.
  • The Institute of Nautical Archaeology, Texas A&M University
    • Reports and photos from the excavators of the shipwreck.
    • Many high quality images to be explored in the photo galleries.
  • Uluburun on Wikipedia
    • A nice summary of background information on the wreck and finds.