Stephan Matthiesen

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How important was trade for Troy?

The investigation of antique trade links has become rather fashionable in recent years. However, while archaeological methods can clarify the question which goods were exchanged between which cultures, it is by no means clear whether such an exchange of goods is to be interpreted as evidence for “trade”, nor is it even obvious what exactly we mean by the term “trade” when we use it to describe ancient societies.

This essay is clearly too short to investigate this elaborate question in detail, but I will try to develop an ad-hoc-definition of “trade” sufficient for the purpose of this essay, then discuss the goods exchange in the Eastern Mediterranean in the Bronze Age, and try to estimate how much the city of Troy was involved in and profited from the trade.

“Trade” in archeology: Problems and definition

In some sense, to ask about the importance of trade for Troy seems a trivial question. How else could a city have come to considerable wealth for a millennium (from Troy I to VII), especially when its geographical location allows it to control both land connection between Thrakia and Anatolia and the seaway between the Black Sea and the Aegean? Furthermore, imported goods (discussed in more detail below) are common enough in Troy. The question is not, however, that simple. For an ancient city, there are potentially many different ways of acquiring wealth: The foreign goods may have been booty from piracy or warfare, or they could have been diplomatic gifts brought by a few well equipped missions, or part of a "prestige chain" [Rutter 1997] in which precious objects were continuously handed down from town to town. Perhaps the city was a religious centre that attracted visitors, bringing wealth and foreign goods, or a military centre that lived mainly on tax and tribute payments. These possibilities all involve cultural connections and the transfer of goods, but would hardly be called “trade”.

It is not easy to define what we mean by “trade”. A definition based on modern economic ideas may be too restrictive when dealing with the past, but we also want to avoid including almost every economic activity under the term “trade”, rendering it completely meaningless. A possible definition therefore could be that trade is an economic activity in which goods are transported over a certain distance on a more or less regular basis, that this is done by specialised "merchants" who devote a large part of their time to this activity, and that they receive some sort of payment (money or other goods) of similar value in return for the goods they deliver . However, sensible as this definition may seem, in the absence of written records it is not a trivial task to decide whether these criteria were met in the past. In the next chapter we will discuss to what extent the archaeological evidence can clarify the situation.

The evidence for trade in Troy and the Aegean

Two main types of evidence for a trade system have to be discussed - firstly, the trade goods themselves , and secondly archeological traces for the necessary infrastructure or certain adaptations to a trade economy.

Numerous objects in Troy have come from remote countries. In the Early Bronze Age of Troy II, substantial amounts of gold, silver, lead, copper and bronze have been imported, as have precious stones like nephrite or obsidian. While some of these have probably been brought to Troy as raw materials, other items like marble idols, jewellery and other valuable objects are assumed to have been transported as finished products. Not only valuable objects, but also large numbers of simple pottery seem to have been imported [Blegen 1963, pp. 86-87]. This influx of foreign goods continues until the Late Bronze Age, with ivory, too, becoming fairly common in Troy VI [Blegen 1963, p. 112]. On the other hand, Troy not only imported, but also exported goods. The distinctive Trojan II depas pottery - or imitations of it - have been found in Anatolia, Cilicia, Northern Syria, the Cyclades, the Greek Mainland, Thrace and even Southern Bulgaria [Blegen 1963, p.87]. Later, in Troy VI, the Grey Minyan Ware is distributed widely in the Aegean.

In summary, although there are changes over time, we can safely say that there was a noticeable exchange of goods between Troy and other areas for over a millennium. The situation was similar in other parts of the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean. While the ostrich eggs from Mycaene are unusual examples of very prestigious objects, other items were transported in larger amounts over long distances. Baltic amber e.g. is found throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, with the earliest example coming from Grave Circle B (ca. 1700 BC) and as far south as Egypt (from the 18th dynasty, ca. 1570 BC), although the occurrence in Greece is strikingly restricted to very few place during LHI and LHII [Rutter 1997]. Copper and tin were also transported in raw form as ingots, as we know not only from the shipwrecks in Side/Antalya, Gelidonya and Uluburun/Kas (where the copper has been shown to come from Cyprus), but also from some other finds of single ingots along the Turkish coast, indicating a transport route along the coast [Pulak 1995].

Both raw materials (e.g. metals, ivory, stones, raw glass) and finished products (e.g. pottery, weapons, jewellery) were regularly exchanged [Rutter 1997]. In rare cases, even agricultural products (e.g. olives and the resin of Pistacia atlantica in the Uluburun shipwreck [Pulak 1995]) survive.

Obviously, it is usually not possible to reconstruct the history of particular objects detailed enough to decide how exactly they were acquired. Some objects may have been gifts or booty, however, only objects of high prestige and high value are likely to be used as diplomatic presents, while the bulk of the more ordinary material more likely indicates proper trade relations, especially when one considers the sheer amount that was apparently exchanged over considerable distances.

Besides the trade goods themselves, archeological sources can also lead to information about the trade infrastructure. Most important here is the find of two shipwrecks at Gelidonya [Rutter 1997] and at Uluburun/Kas [Pulak 1995] that inform us about the extent and organisation of the trade in the Late Bronze Age. First of all, it is clear that both ships were specialised in the transport of cargo (and not, e.g. passenger- or warships with some cargo on board). Furthermore, both wrecks carried a large number of weights, suggesting that the captains were not only transporting goods (e.g. as part of a tribute payment), but expected to trade them on the market. However, the merchants were not completely specialised, instead both ships carried a wide range of different goods, ranging from raw materials like copper and tin ingots, ivory, raw glass, amber and fayence beads to finished objects like statuettes and weapons.

The shipwrecks also help to estimate the level of trade. Given that only a minute fraction of all ships are likely to sink, get preserved and are eventually found, the fact alone that two vessels have been found in the very short history of underwater archaeology is evidence for trade on a large scale. Furthermore, another (rather daring) estimate may be possible: Assuming that the resin (ca. 1 tonne) on board the Uluburun ship is the sntr of which 9250 litre annually were recorded in the annals of Thutmosis III [Pulak 1995], we may conclude that at least 10 ships reached Egypt per year. If the cargo of Uluburun was typical, this means an annual transport of 100 tonnes of copper from Cyprus to Egypt. One may well speculate that this is only a low estimate (not every ship had a load of resin). Clearly the Eastern Mediterranean in the Bronze Age showed considerable trade activity.

Ships are not the only infrastructure that evidence trade — a completely different approach looks for industries that are clearly export oriented. In Troy, the enormous number of spindle whorls and loom weighs suggest the production of textiles exceeding local needs. Most likely, textiles were one of the exports of Troy, although no textile material itself has survived to the present.

Conclusion: How important was trade for Troy?

Interesting as they may be, the shipwrecks unfortunately do not directly tell us about the importance of trade for Troy — their cargo had little relation to Troy. However, they show regular trade on a large scale, mainly along the coast. Given the distribution of traded objects from Egypt and Anatolya to Greece and more northerly countries, it is very likely that important trade routes passed Troy, and the trade both of foreign objects and local products contributed to its wealth. It is also noteworthy that the decline and abandonment of Troy after VII (ca. 1050) coincides with the collapse of the Hittite empire in the late 12th century [Neve 1997] and the end of the Mycaenean Age around 1100-1050 [Taylor 1983] - not inconsistent with the idea that its trade declined sharply when its neighbours (and trading partners) went into the “Dark Ages”.

Though trade was clearly an important economical factor for Troy, the archeological record does not tell us in detail how Troy participated in the contemporary trade system of the Aegean: Was it mainly a “service station” where ships on their way along the coast or into the Black Sea bought supplies, was it more a trading post selling local products in exchange for foreign goods, or were the Trojans themselves active merchants, travelling far into foreign lands and bringing back strange and wonderful goods into their home town? Or — most likely — all of these to a varying degree?


Blegen, C.W. (1963):
Troy and the Trojans. Thames and Hudson, London, 1963.
Neve, P. (1997):
Heiligtum und Metropole - Hattuscha, Hauptstadt der Hethiter. Geschichtsmagazin Damals 2/1997, pp. 30-37.
Pulak, C. (1995):
Das Schiffswrack von Uluburun. In: Dt. Ges. z. Förderung d. Unterwasserarchäologie (Ed.): In Poseidons Reich - Archäologie unter Wasser, pp. 43-58. Philipp von Zabern Verlag, Mainz 1995.
Rutter, J.B. (1997):
The Cape Gelidonya Shipwreck. In: The Prehistoric Archaeology of the Aegean. Lecture notes, Dartmouth College, 1997 (now Aspects of Mycenaean Trade).
Taylor, W. (1983):
The Myceneans. Thames and Hudson, London, 1983.

Diesen Essay schrieb ich 1999 im Rahmen eines Open Studies Kurses im Bereich Archäologie an der Universität Edinburgh.

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