Tin from Tarshish

You can’t have your radiometric dating and reject it too

When the news broke of new research that showed a British origin for Late Bronze age tin ingots found off Israel’s Mediterranean coast there was great excitement across our community. It was brought up in lectures, written up in ecclesial newsletters, and splashed all over Christadelphian YouTube.

Here’s just one example of the sort of triumphalist commentary suddenly seen all over the place:

As the voice-over in the video says,

The lab results are in and we now have the confirmation that so many have looked for.

The reason for this level of enthusiasm was that this discovery was seen to finally prove beyond all doubt that the Tarshish of Ezekiel 38 is a reference to modern-day Great Britain.

For the uninitiated, the reasoning goes something like this: Tarshish is mentioned (v. 13) along with Sheba and Dedan as a force opposing Gog and his coalition. This opposing is happening in the context of an Israel regathered on the mountains of Israel (vv. 8 & 11). Since Jews now live in a Jewish homeland in Israel, this predictive prophecy must be talking about the post 1948 era. Earlier in Ezekiel we find that Tarshish traded tin with Tyre (Ezek 27:12) so Tarshish must have been a tin producer. This new research proves beyond all doubt that the origin of the tin found in Israel is Devon/Cornwall, so Great Britain has to be the nation that Tarshish stands for in the passage. [Director’s cut: Great Britain has left the European Union, so now it’s free to oppose Gog (whose coalition includes Gomer, a European nation)]

The association of Britain with Ezekiel’s Tarshish is not a new one in our community. In Elpis Israel we find the following:

It is not exactly known where the western Tarshish was situated. It was a country, however, not a city, whose “merchants” frequented the Tyrian fairs. Addressing Tyre, the prophet says, “Tarshish was thy merchant by reason of the multitude of all kinds of riches; with silver, iron, tin, and lead they traded in thy fairs”. These metals are the products of Britain, celebrated by the Phoenicians as Baratanac, or “the land of tin”, as some construe it. The merchandise of the northern Tarshish, and of the eastern, identifies Britain and India with the two countries of that name; and Sheba and Tarshish in the prophecy of Gogue are manifestly indicative of the Lion-power of the AngloIndian empire.
But, in corroboration of this, I remark further, that the lion power is represented also as a merchant power, in the words, “the Merchants of Tarshish shall say unto Gogue”. Having ascertained the geography of Tarshish, it is easy to answer the question, Who are its merchants? This inquiry will admit of but one answer, namely, the British East India Company, which is both the merchant and the ruler of the elephant-tooth country of the east.1

Putting aside its importance to many Christadelphians, the research really was a big deal in the wider world. It was reported on across the globe including in news outlets such as The TimesCNN, and The Australian. Why? Because it solved the mystery of the ancient Near East’s Late Bronze age source of tin.

The tin ingot find sites

But why such a fuss over tin specifically? Well, quite simply, because the Bronze age would not have happened without it. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, so without tin you’re stuck with copper. As Mazar explains in his textbook:

In [the Middle Bronze] IIA, bronze replaced copper, which had been almost the only metal in use for tools and weapons since the Chalcolithic period. Bronze is an alloy of copper with 5–10 percent tin. It was found to be much stronger than pure copper, and it continued to be the essential metal until the end of the second millennium B.C.E.2

So, tin was critical, and people in the Near East were getting it from somewhere. But until recently scholars could only speculate about its source. Various ideas were floated. Back in 1990 Mazar wrote, “The nearest source of tin was thought to be Afghanistan. This led to the assumption that bronze manufacture was dependent upon a long-distance trading system.3 Elsewhere we read, “It seems that Europe used it before the Near East and indeed the only known sources of tin in the ancient world were in Europe.”4 In another place we read, Donkey caravans brought textiles and tin from Assyria in exchange for gold and silver”.5 So, quite a few different places. That doesn’t narrow it down much though, which is where this new research comes in…

As its abstract explains, what this paper does is go through the evidence that enabled the researchers to “conclude that Cornish tin mines are the most likely suppliers for the 13th–12th centuries tin ingots from Israel.6

A 2019 article in The Christadelphian7 quoted the paper as follows:

Note the ellipsis. It’s possible that the demands of a limited word count meant that the article couldn’t include the full quote. However, since we’re not working under the same restrictions, let’s take a look at what was missed from the quote (underlined):

By using a combined approach of tin and lead isotopes together with trace elements it is possible to narrow down the potential sources of tin for the first time. The strongly radiogenic composition of lead in the tin ingots from Israel allows the calculation of a geological model age of the parental tin ores of 291 ± 17 Ma. This theoretical formation age excludes Anatolian, central Asian and Egyptian tin deposits as tin sources since they formed either much earlier or later. On the other hand, European tin deposits of the Variscan orogeny agree well with this time span so that an origin from European deposits is suggested. With the help of the tin isotope composition and the trace elements of the objects it is further possible to exclude many tin resources from the European continent and, considering the current state of knowledge and the available data, to conclude that Cornish tin mines are the most likely suppliers for the 13th–12th centuries tin ingots from Israel.8

The importance of the underlined section that was not quoted in the Christadelphian article is that it explains at a high level that it is the age of the tin ingots (as determined by their lead isotopes) that gives them a European origin. Specifically, it is because the tin is around 291 million years old that we know it’s not from anywhere but Europe.

When we leave the abstract behind and get into the paper’s details we find this:

By measuring the non-radiogenic 204Pb isotope and the uranogenic isotopes (206Pb, 207Pb) in tin metal, it is in principle possible to calculate the age of the parental cassiterite ores. If significant contributions of anthropogenic lead can be excluded, the lead isotope composition of the tin metal may be used to determine the provenance of the parental ore. Since cassiterite mineralisations throughout Eurasia were formed at different times in the Earth’s history this approach can help to narrow down potential tin ore sources.9

So, we’re talking about radiometric dating. For those whose chemistry lessons are as dim a memory as mine are, here’s a quick refresher on the topic:

To oversimplify, the lower the amount of lead isotopes in the tin, the older it is. And, different samples of tin of the same age will have the same amount of lead isotopes as each other.

Another bit of necessary background for reading this paper: mountain ranges around the world formed at different times. One of the geological processes that creates mountain ranges is known as “orogeny”:

orogeny /ɒˈrɒdʒəni/
noun: Geology – a process in which a section of the earth’s crust is folded and deformed by lateral compression to form a mountain range.10

The paper gives the ages of several orogenies and when they occurred:

  • India: ~700-1500 million years ago (Ma.)
  • Egypt’s Eastern Desert: ~530-650 Ma.
  • European (“Variscan”): ~280-320 Ma.
  • Pamir (Tadzhikistan): ~100 Ma.
  • Hindu Kush (Afghanistan): ~80 Ma.
  • Alpine: ~2-20 Ma.

To identify which orogeny a particular tin ingot came from simply measure its lead isotope content and match it up with the orogeny in the above list whose tin ore has the same amount of lead isotopes.

Here’s where things get interesting.

After measuring the amount of lead isotopes in 27 different tin ingots found in various locations on the coast of various parts of the eastern Mediterranean (mainly shipwrecks), here’s what the researchers found about the tin ingots found off the coast of Israel:

The slope of the Israeli trend line can be used to calculate a geological model age. The lead of all samples that plot along this line–called isochron in geochemistry–was derived from cassiterites that formed at the same time in a specific geological environment from the same reservoir. If only the tin ingots from Hishuley Carmel are used to calculate the slope of the isochron then a value of 0.05220 is obtained. This relates to a geological age of 295 million years (Ma). If the samples of the other Israeli ingots are included (Fig 12A), the slope of the isochron is only slightly changed to 0.05213 ± 0.00038 (2SD) which gives a mean geological age of 291 Ma with a range between 308 and 274 Ma (2SD). This model age indicates that the cassiterite from the parent ore formed during the Variscan orogeny on the European continent. During this epoch the large tin deposits of Cornwall/Devon (295–270 Ma), the Erzgebirge province (320–280 Ma]) and the Iberian peninsula (336–280 Ma) were formed. A similar crystallisation age was reported for the tin mineralisation of the French Massif Central (317–298 Ma) and Brittany (320–315 Ma) as well as for Sardinia (307–289 Ma). Thus, based on the lead isotopic composition, all these deposits could have provided the tin for the Israeli tin ingots analysed. To reinforce this conclusion, two isochrons from tin-related geological formations in the Erzgebirge province and the Logrosan deposit (Spain) are plotted in a diagram together with data of the tin (Fig 12B). They show similar slopes and are very close to the isochron of the tin ingots.
By contrast, central Asian, Indian and north African tin deposits can be excluded due to their much younger formation ages of ~80 Ma (Hindu Kush, Afghanistan) and ~100 Ma (Pamir, Tadzhikistan) or their much older ages between 650 and 530 Ma (eastern Desert, Egypt) and 1500 and 700 Ma (India)). Similarly, the mineralisations of Kestel and Hisarcık are too young as they formed during the Alpine orogeny between 20 and 2 Ma. Finally, the tin occurrences in the Zagros Mountains (Deh Hosein), in the Mourne Mountains and the Slovak Ore Mountains are all excluded as well as they formed 230–180 Ma, 60–50 Ma or 150–120 Ma ago. The lead isotope composition of the Israeli tin ingots thus strongly supports the idea of a tin origin from a European deposit.11

The conclusion that the tin ingots found in Israel came from England is based on radiometric dating. The paper hammers this home in its conclusion:

The lead isotope composition of the tin is the most important fingerprint in this regard. It clearly identifies European deposits as tin sources for the Israeli ingots because the Pb-Pb model age of the tin of about 290 Ma links the Variscan orogenic belt to the parental tin ores used for the production of the tin ingots.12

The Erme Estuary, Cornwall. Tin ingot find site. Credit: Derek Harper

How do we narrow things down from just a European source to an English source? Let’s carry on going through the paper:

In order to discriminate among the European sources that were used for the tin ingots from Israel, the lead isotope data can be considered together with the artefact’s tin isotope composition. From the tin isotope systematics additional information regarding ore charges and metallurgical treatments can be inferred, particularly in combination with the trace elements.13

Having used lead isotopes to narrow the tin’s source down to Europe, we now turn to the ingots’ tin isotopes to work out where in Europe the artefacts came from. The paper continues:

Because of data overlap with the ores and larger variations within the finds, a couple of mines have to be taken into consideration for the Hishuley Carmel and Kfar Samir south ingots. The list of potential suppliers is also long for the two analysed ingots from Haifa. On the basis of our tin isotope data of ores the most probable candidates are the eastern and western parts of the Erzgebirge, cassiterites from the Carnmenellis and St. Austell granites in Cornwall and several regions on the Iberian peninsula.14

So, the tin isotopes narrow things down to Central Europe, England, and Spain. Can we get any more specific? It turns out we can.

Trace elements detected in the Israeli ingots were the final piece of the puzzle:

Yet, by including the trace element patterns of the Mediterranean tin ingots, the potential sources can be confined further. Because the elemental composition is quite similar to those of the Salcombe ingots, and the latter were certainly made from Cornish or Devonian tin ores, a British provenance of the tin from Israel is currently the most reasonable. The comparably high indium concentration in the ingots that is a typical feature of Cornish cassiterites might be the most helpful indication.15

This is all wrapped up in the paper’s conclusion:

The lead isotope composition of the tin is the most important fingerprint in this regard. It clearly identifies European deposits as tin sources for the Israeli ingots because the Pb-Pb model age of the tin of about 290 Ma links the Variscan orogenic belt to the parental tin ores used for the production of the tin ingots. The tin isotope composition helps to further narrow down the tin origin, and in combination with trace elements it points to Cornish tin ores (possibly from Carnmenellis granite area) as the most likely sources.16

So, to summarise the paper:

  1. The Late Bronze age tin ingots found off Israel’s coast can be said to have a European origin because the ore they were mined from contains the same amount of of lead isotopes as the mountain ranges in Europe, making them the same age (~291 million years old).
  2. The ingots’ origin can be narrowed down further to Germany, England, and Spain because the ore they were mined from contains the same amount of tin isotopes as the ore found in those locations.
  3. The ingots’ origin can then be pinpointed to Devon & Cornwall because some of the trace elements found in the ingots match what’s dug out of the ground in those areas of England.

So, why all this detail about isotopes and whatnot? Why are we running a blog post on the isotopes from some random artefacts found in the Mediterranean?

Israel’s northern coast, not far from where the tin ingots were found

It’s about consistency in our community’s approach to scientific evidence. These ingots and the hype around them serve to highlight the inconsistency in our community to scientific evidence; in this case, our approach to radiometric dating.

It comes down to this: If you reject the validity of radiometric dating then you cannot use these tin ingots to prove a connection between Tarshish and Great Britain. Conversely, if you claim that this study proves that these tin ingots have their origin in Cornwall/Devon then you’re also accepting that the earth is not 6,000 years old, but billions of years old.

You can’t have your radiometrically dated tin and reject it too.

Footnotes

  1. Dr. John Thomas, Elpis Israel: An Exposition of the Kingdom of God, electronic ed. (Birmingham, UK: The Christadelphian, 1990), 434–435.
  2. Amihai Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible 10,000-586 B.C.E. (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1990), 184.
  3. Ibid. See also Muhly, J. (1985). Sources of Tin and the Beginnings of Bronze Metallurgy. American Journal of Archaeology, 89(2), 275-291.
  4. Avraham Negev, The Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land (New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1990).
  5. Benjamin J. Noonan, “Trade and Commerce,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
  6. Berger D, Soles JS, Giumlia-Mair AR, et al. Isotope systematics and chemical composition of tin ingots from Mochlos (Crete) and other Late Bronze Age sites in the eastern Mediterranean Sea: An ultimate key to tin provenance? Plos one. 2019; 14(6):e0218326., 1.
  7. Roger Long, “Cornish tin found in Israel,” The Christadelphian (November), no. 1865 (2019): 511.
  8. Berger D, Soles JS, Giumlia-Mair AR, et al. Isotope systematics and chemical composition of tin ingots from Mochlos (Crete) and other Late Bronze Age sites in the eastern Mediterranean Sea: An ultimate key to tin provenance? Plos one. 2019; 14(6):e0218326., 1.
  9. Ibid., 23.
  10. Catherine Soanes and Angus Stevenson, eds., Concise Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
  11. Berger D, Soles JS, Giumlia-Mair AR, et al. Isotope systematics and chemical composition of tin ingots from Mochlos (Crete) and other Late Bronze Age sites in the eastern Mediterranean Sea: An ultimate key to tin provenance? Plos one. 2019; 14(6):e0218326., 26-28.
  12. Ibid., 36.
  13. Ibid., 29.
  14. Ibid., 35.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid., 37.

Author: Nat Ritmeyer

Nat lives in London with his wife and son. His main interests are the Ancient Near Eastern background to the bible, the Iron Age I period, and travelling through the Modern Near East. He is also scared of geese.

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