Features of Ancient Societies: Trade and Cultural Contact

Features of Ancient Societies: Trade and Cultural Contact

The nature of trade and cultural contact

The Bronze Age, especially the Late Bronze Age (approx. 1500-1200 BC) was an incredible time of cross-cultural interaction in Egypt and the Near East. Israel lies at the geo-political centre of the major powers of this time and so we can trace this contact by examining the written and archaeological remains that relate to the Levant during the Bronze Age. More information on the chronology of the Late Bronze Age can be accessed here.

Three interesting sources that reflect the trade, military and cross-cultural activities during this period include:

Information on each of these sources can be viewed below.

Unit Outline

Here is a suggested Scope and Sequence for studying this unit.


The Amarna Letters

The Amarna Letters are a corpus (group) of clay tablets inscribed with letters written by foreign rulers and sent to the Pharaoh in Egypt. They were sent over a period of about 25 years during Dynasty 18 of the Ancient Egyptian New Kingdom. This is Late Bronze Age period for Ancient Israel and the Near East. The Pharaoh Akhenaten moved the capital of Egypt to a site known today as Tel el-Amarna and this is where the letters were discovered in 1887. The letters were sent to Egypt from rulers in Canaan as well as other parts of the Ancient Near East, including Assyria, Babylon, Hatti (the Hittites) and Mittani. They are written in cuneiform script, not Egyptian hieroglyphs.

A great introduction to the Amarna letters can be found here.

Useful translations of the letters can be found on these sites:

Accessible translations of some of the letters

A more technical translation by the Tel Aviv University 

Overview of all of the letters with links to some translations


Activities

Select around 12 of the letters for the class to study. You may choose to divide the class into small groups and assign each group a 3-4 letters. At the conclusion of the activity each group can present their findings to the class.

1. Read through the letters that you have been assigned.

2. Highlight any names of places and people. Do some quick research to find out where or who they are and add them to your own glossary of People and Places. (The whole class can contribute to this list).

3. Plot any place names on a map of the Ancient Near East. This may be a shared class map.

4. Locate the rulers or cultures mentioned in the letter on your timeline.

5. List the concerns or issues raised by the foreign ruler in your letter.

6. Decide which of the following best describes your letter (you may choose more than one):

  • Complaint
  • Request
  • Report
  • Diplomacy
  • Ultimatum

7. Collate a tally of the above categories for the letters by liaising with other groups in your class.

8. Read through your letters again and answer the following questions:

  • Data mining: 
    • Who/what/where/when is mentioned or described in the letter?
    • Is there any indication of how or why any event described occurred?
  • Interrogate the evidence it provides. For example: 
    • Is it indicative of change and/or continuity
    • Is it indicative of progress and decline?
    • Is it indicative of cause and consequence?
    • Does it revealing of anything previously unknown?
    • Does it help us understand the event(s) from the point of view of those involved?
  • Data analysis:
    • Is it a primary or secondary source?
    • Who created it? When? Where? For whom? For what purpose?
  • Source evaluation:
    • Is the source internally logical?
    • How does it compare to other sources?
    • What might the limitations of the source be?
    • How is the evidence provided by this source useful to an historian investigating the Late Bronze Age in the Levant?

The Uluburun Shipwreck

Uluburun Image

Shipwreck of Uluburun

Photograph by Markus Studer https://www.flickr.com/photos/markusstuder/3071320169/in/photostream/lightbox/

The Uluburan Shipwreck is the ruin of an ancient vessel which was discovered lying 52 meters underwater of the coast of Kas, Turkey. The wreckage was dated to the Bronze Age, between 1330 and 1300 BC. The ship likely left port in Phoenicia/Canaan and it appears it was travelling to the Greek islands as a trading vessel when it sunk. The ship was carrying a full cargo of trade goods from at least 10 different cultures, including Mycenaean, Cypriot, Egyptian, Nubian and Canaanite cultures. For this reason, the shipwreck of Uluburan is a spectacular store of information about trade and cultural interaction between the land of Canaan and the Ancient Bronze Age Mediterranean.

It took 22,413 dives completed over ten years for the Nautical Institute of Archaeology to recover the 17 tons of artifacts remaining upon the ancient vessel. The main artifacts discovered upon the ship include:

  • 10 tons of copper ingots, shaped like an ‘ox-hide’
  • 120 tin ‘ox-hide’ ingots, originally from the mountains of Turkey.
  • 150 Canaanite jars of terebinth resin.
  • Pithoi
  • Egyptian Jewelry
  • Ebony and Ivory from Africa.

The high quality of these products shows that this cargo was to be received by an elite household.

Further information of the shipwreck can be found here.

An informative video can be watched here.

Click here to view a reproduction of the ship.


Activities:

You may choose to divide the class into small groups and assign each group some questions. At the conclusion of the activity each group can present their findings to the class.

  1. Create a list of artifacts found on the shipwreck (this source will help)
  2. Next to the artifacts, write what the objects would have been used for in ancient times.
  3. Why would these items have been traded within the Mediterranean?
  4. What do the artifacts tell us about the cargo’s recipients?
  5. The shipwreck had cargo belonging to Africa, Egypt, Phoenicia, Canaan, Cyprus and Greece and Crete. On this map, draw the possible route of the ship as it traveled. (Map retrieved from Biblical Society Online).
  6. Once completed, compare your route to this map, which is a representation of the most likely travelling route. (Map retrieved from the Journal of Molluscan Studies, Volume 74, Issue 1, February 2008, Pages 79–87)

Observe this letter written between the kings of Egypt and Cyprus at the same time of the shipwreck.

  1. Are there any similarities between this letter and the cargo of the shipwreck?
  2. What does this letter tell us about why the ship may have been sailing?

Further Questions:

Data mining:

  • Who/what/where/when would have been involved in the ship?

Data analysis:

  • Is it a primary or secondary source?

Source evaluation:

  • How does this evidence compare to other sources?
  • In comparison to a text source, what might the limitations of the source be?
  • How is the evidence provided by this source useful to an historian investigating the Late Bronze Age in the Levant?

Interrogate the evidence it provides. For example:

  • Is it revealing of anything previously unknown?
  • Does it help us understand the event(s) from the point of view of those involved?
  • What further insights might we learn from the shipwreck?

The Late Egyptian Story of Wenamun

The Egyptian story of Wenamun is a piece of literature written in the 21st Dynasty of Egypt, at the end of the New Kingdom (corresponds to the Late Bronze Age). The story is a first person fictional account of a protagonists journey from Ancient Egypt into the land of Ancient Israel. He endeavors upon this journey in order to collect the precious wood of Lebanon (likely cedar) to complete a boat which is being crafted for the Egyptian god Amun. The story describes the many difficulties the narrator experiences upon his journey in the foreign land. The text is written in Late Egyptian in Hieratic script.

Although the story is not an historical account, it is still an important source for historians, as it reflects the relationship between the Levant and Egypt in this time including cultural and trade interactions.

Here is a great overview of the historical background of the text, along with a translation.


Activities:

Read the text with your class. You may choose to divide the class into small groups for the activity. At the conclusion of the activity each group can present their answers to the following questions:

  1. Highlight all of the ancient place names which appear in the text.
  2. Plot any place names on a map of the Ancient Near East. This may be a shared class map.
  3. Using the place names mentioned, draw upon your map the route in which the narrator is travelling.
  4. Which city is the narrator heading to?

Read through the story again and answer the following questions:

  1. What type of cargo is the narrator collecting from Phoenicia/Lebanon?
  2. List the cargo mentioned which has been brought from Egypt to Lebanon/Phoenicia.

Data Mining:

  • Why would the Egyptians be trading their cargo for wood from Phoenicia/Lebanon?

Data analysis:

  • Is the text a primary or secondary source?
  • Who created it? When? Where? For whom? For what purpose?

Source evaluation:

  • Is the source internally logical?
  • How does it compare to other sources?
  • What might the limitations of the source be?
  • How is the evidence provided by this source useful to an historian investigating the Late Bronze Age in the Levant?Wenamun

Story of Wenamun Papyrus

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wenamun-papyrus.png


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