Issue E992 of 17 April 1999

The Mycenaean presence in Italy

Ioannis Geogranas
B.A. (Arch.)
M.A. (Arch.)


It is commonly supposed that metals, and especially copper, were one of the most-traded goods in the Bronze Age period. This is largely attributable to the fact that some of the greatest metalworking centers, such as Mycenaean Greece, were not well provided with metal ores, and therefore had to import most of their metals. Some of the most important copper resources were Cyprus, Central Italy and Sardinia. Therefore, the distribution of metal ores in the central Mediterranean is a very significant element in relation with the Aegean presence in the area. The most important mining resources in mainland Italy are concentrated in the central Tyrrhenian region, and in Sardinia, where the main metal-ore deposits are concentrated in the center and south part of the island. As Bietti Sestieri (1988) argues, the systematic exploitation of the copper-ores in Calabria must not began prior to the end of the Italian Late Bronze Age.

This metal-ores distribution pattern can help us to understand the pattern of Aegean presence in Italy.

1) 16th-15th centuries BC (LH I - LH II).

During this period, Aegean material is found in three main areas: Apulia, the Aeolian Islands, and Vivara, in the Bay of Naples. Most of these finds appear to be of Mycenaean origin, although some sherds are clearly of Minoan or Cycladic origin (Cline 1994:78). This first phase of contact corresponds to the emergence of the Mycenaeans as the dominant group in mainland Greece. According to Ridgway (1992:5), the fact that these early Mycenaean foreign relations were primarily with the western Mediterranean probably reflects not only the immediate need for new metal sources but also the Minoan domination over the eastern Mediterranean trade routes.

2) 14th-13th centuries BC (LH IIIA - LH IIIB)

LH IIIA marks the beginning of the period of maximum Mycenaean expansion, and sees extensive developments in existing Mycenaean interests in Apulia, the Aeolian Islands and the Bay of Naples, where Vivara is now joined by the island of Ischia (Ridgway 1992:6). In addition, we have Mycenaean presence in Basilicata and Calabria, where sites like Scoglio del Tonno appear to become especially significant. The most important site, however, is that of Thapsos in southeastern Sicily, indicating the opening-up of a new area of Mycenaean interest. Finally, eastern Mediterranean material start to arrive in Sardinia during this period. In LH IIIB, there are some changes of emphasis: imports to Sicily decrease sharply but at the same time, as Smith (1987:121) points out, Sardinia becomes more important to the Aegeans with the inclusion of various new sites (Antigori, Territorio di Orosei and Tharros). It is very interesting that during this period we have a very strong Cypriot component especially as regards to the bronze industry (Bietti Sestieri 1988). In southern Italy, the main sites reporting LH IIIB pottery are Scoglio del Tonno, Porto Perone and Termitito (Cline 1994:80).

3) 12th-11th centuries BC (LH IIIC)

During this period, Aegean contacts with Sardinia and southern Italy are strengthened at the expense of contacts with Sicily and the smaller Tyrrhenian islands. The main sites of this period are those of Antigori, Domu S' Orku and Tharros on Sardinia, and Luni sul Mignore, Scoglio del Tonno, Termitito and Porto Perone in southern Italy.

At the end of this period, the Po Valley starts to attract the interest of the eastern Mediterraneans, with the sites of Frattesina and Fondo Paviani being the most important ones (Harding 1984:246).

Nuraghe at Barumini

During the Bronze Age, Sardinia seems to have played a very important role due to its geographical position and its considerable metal resources. Sardinia is the most distant of the Mediterranean islands, and with its long stretches of coastline which point towards both the Italian and Iberian peninsulas, represents a sort of natural stepping stone to what was considered the far west in the ancient world (Giardino 1992:304).

The presence of various eastern Mediterranean artefacts on the island indicates the contact of Sardinia with different cultures such as the Minoan, Mycenaean, Cypriot, and so forth. The earliest contacts with the east Mediterranean seem to take place in the middle of the 3rd millennium BC (Giardino 1992:305).

Trade with the eastern Mediterranean during the Late Bronze Age is attested by finds of imported metal tools (most of them of Cypriot origin), oxhide ingots and pottery, both imported and locally copied Aegean and Cypriot (Webster 1996:140-142). Most of these finds mainly come from class II and III settlements. With one exception, these have been minor finds of a few sherds in otherwise wholly Nuragic contexts (Smith 1987).

Nuraghe Antigori

The exception is Nuraghe Antigori, a class III settlement, in the gulf of Cagliari. Here, several hundred sherds (all of them of LH IIIB except one of LH IIIC) were found in rooms A, Q, N and the tower-room C, in direct association with fine, local grey wares. It is quite significant that physical and chemical analyses of the sherds showed that in fact, most of them were local copies of Aegean pottery. The identified imported pottery came from the northeast Peloponnese (16 of the 60 analyzed), western Crete (4/60), central Crete (2/60), and one pithos from southern Cyprus (Webster 1996:140).

Excavations in the class II settlement of Sa Domu 'e S' Orku, revealed the second largest single find of Aegean pottery, 6 sherds. Two of them were identified as Peloponnesian, two as Cretan and two as 'Mycenaean copies'. In addition, the dozen or so analyzed sherds from Orosei in northeast Sardinia, appear to be imports from the northeastern Peloponnese.

As we have already mentioned, contacts with eastern Mediterranean are also attested by finds of imported metal goods such as tools and oxhide ingots. Some of the most spectacular finds are the daggers in the Ottana hoard, showing similarities with Cypriot finds, the metal-worker's tongs of Cypro-Levantine type from Siniscola, and the handle-attachments from Sa Sedda 'e Sos Carros, showing similarities with finds from Enkomi (Harding 1984:252-253). Additionally, square and cylindrical-section hammers and charcoal shovels, which often resemble known Cypriot finds, have been found in various sites such as Serra Orrios, Forraxi Nioi, and Santu Antine (Webster 1996). Bearing in mind the fact that both Cyprus and Sardinia are rich in copper-ore deposits and at the same time we have so many Cypriot (or Cypriot-influenced) metalworking tools found on the island, we can assume that there must have been frequent contact in the field of metallurgy between the two islands. This assumption can be verified by the presence on the island of several (about 50) oxhide ingots, some of them marked with Cypro-Minoan symbols.


If we want to have a better view of the relationships between Sardinia and the eastern Mediterranean, we have first to give some answers to the questions imposed by the presence of the several oxhide ingots on the island.

As we have seen, about 50 oxhide ingots have been found so far on Sardinia. The most familiar are the three whole ingots from Serra Ilixi. These ingots have no archaeological context, but some fragments found in Albucciou are thought to date c. 1200-1100 BC (Stos-Gale and Gale1992: 319).

Many archaeologists such as Pigorini were convinced that the ingots found on Sardinia were imported from the eastern Mediterranean, though modern archaeologists have claimed that the ingots were locally produced (Vagnetti and Lo Schiavo 1989). Giardino (1995) seems to offer a compromise by arguing that probably some of the Sardinian ingots were imported initially, but then the Nuragic production took over.

Gale and Stos-Gale have tried to give an answer to this problem by using lead isotope and trace element analyses. In this way, one can link together oxhide ingots that appear to be made from the same copper source. Moreover, by comparing lead isotope analyses of ingots with those of copper-ore deposits, one may be able to link both oxhide ingots and finished bronze goods to the copper-ore deposits whence their copper came (Stos-Gale and Gale 1992). At this point we must notice that the lead isotope composition of an ore deposit is mainly governed by the geological age of that deposit. Therefore, ore deposits with different geological age are going to have different lead isotope compositions. Gale (1991:217-224) compared the lead isotope compositions of the major Sardinian copper deposits with those of 22 Sardinian oxhide ingots and some Nuragic bronze objects from Santa Maria in Paulis. His analysis showed that all the Sardinian ingots match none of the analyzed copper-ore deposits from Sardinia. In contrast, the Nuragic bronzes seem to be fully consistent with having been made from copper extracted from the Sardinian ore deposit of Sa Duchessa. Gale also pointed out that the ingots from Sardinia were made from copper dating to the Tertiary or Cretaceous periods but their composition do not match those of the analyzed Sardinian Tertiary deposits (Gale and Stos-Gale 1987). Therefore, he compared both the ingots and the Nuragic bronzes with copper ores from Cyprus (dating from the Cretaceous period). Gales showed that multivariate stepwise discriminant function analysis groups the Sardinian ingots firmly in the field of Cypriot copper ores. He backed up his analysis by using trace element analysis (including gold and silver contents) for 17 oxhide ingots. This analysis also showed that the Sardinian ingots group in the field defined by Late Cypriot oxhide ingots and bronzes. Again, the Nuragic bronzes showed no relation with the Cypriot field.

Many scholars such as Muhly (1991) have opposed to the Gales' results, arguing that it is not logical Cypriot copper to be imported into an island like Sardinia, which is rich of copper sources. In response to this, Stos-Gale and Gale (1992:335) argued that 'the copper deposits on Sardinia are really quite meager, and are quite insubstantial in comparison with those in Cyprus or even with those closer to hand in Tuscany'. Another explanation given by Gale (1991:220) is that oxhide ingots were probably seen as a status symbol and therefore desirable just on that account.


Though Mycenaean pottery has been found on over 50 sites in Italy and adjacent areas, the quantity on most of them is very small; in some sites we have only a single sherd. Only five sites (Scoglio del Tonno, Termitito, Lipari, Thapsos and Antigori) have provided quite large quantities of Aegean objects. Additionally, the distribution through time is uneven. Only Vivara, Apulia and the Aeolian Islands indicate early Mycenaean presence. It is mainly during the 14th and 13th centuries that Aegean presence becomes denser, with Sicily becoming the main area of interest in the LH IIIA period. In LH IIIB, Sicily becomes less attractive in contrast to Sardinia.

If we focus on Sardinia, we see that is the south-eastern part of the island where most of the eastern Mediterranean presence takes place. The archaeological evidence from the distribution of Mycenaean imports and local copies, in conjunction with the general Cypriot influence on Sardinian metallurgy, has led many archaeologists to believe that the Gulf of Cagliari in general and the site of Antigori in particular, served as a part of an 'international emporium' or as a 'gateway community' through which trade in metals and ceramics was conducted with eastern Mediterranean (Smith 1987:143). This scenario, according to Webster (1996) could make sense in the larger picture of eastern Mediterranean political economics. Gale and Stos-Gale (1987:162) have pointed out that tin was crucial to bronze production all over the Mediterranean; but it did not occur in the Aegean. Although Sardinia does not have sufficient quantities to have been a regular supplier to the eastern Mediterranean, it could have served as a station on a western tin-route along which Mediterranean merchants travelled to acquire this alloy as far as the Iberian peninsula, Brittany, even Cornwall. Others, such as Knapp (1992), argued that iron was another commodity that Sardinia was able to provide. We must, however, notice that although Sardinia does have some iron-ore deposits, there is no archaeological evidence for native smelting or casting of iron (Webster 1996).

In my opinion, metals was not the main reason behind the Mycenaean presence on the island. We must not forget that Vivara probably played a key role in this field due to its vicinity to the metals-rich Tuscany. I believe that the Mycenaeans were actually looking for mercenaries. If we take into consideration the fact that the Mycenaean presence is more intense during the LH IIIB-C periods (which coincide with the era of the major upheavals in the Mycenaean states) then such an explanation can make sense. At this point, we should point out that it is widely accepted that the Nuragic culture was a warlike society (Trump 1992). This can be confirmed by both the great Nuragic fortresses like Su Nuraxi and Santu Antine, and the several bronze statuettes of armed warriors.

But let us conclude with the nature of the trade and more specifically its intensity. Can we speak of a highly formalized trade network or of a sporadic one? First of all, although imports from the eastern Mediterranean are widespread in Sardinia, the quantities involved are very small and thus may not represent extensive trade. As Gale and Stos-Gale (1987) have pointed out the number of oxhide ingots found on Sardinia is not greater than the cargo of a single ship (like the shipwrecks of Kas and Cape Gelidonya). This, according to Webster (1996:142), 'makes it entirely possible that the body of evidence for a LBA commercial trade industry could have been part of one or a few cargoes'. Thus, he concludes, that it is more reasonable to view the LBA trade less in terms of a formalized system but more in terms of sporadic contacts with coastal landing-points (such as Antigori) from which eastern Mediterranean goods traveled inland via a network among the elite residents of the class II and III settlements.

Bieti Sestieri, A.M. (1988), The "Mycenaean Connection" and its impact on the central Mediterranean societies. Dialoghi Di Archeologia. Edizioni Quasar.

Cline, E.H. (1994), Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: International trade and the LBA Aegean. BAR International Series 591. Oxford.

Gale, N.H. (1991), "Copper Oxhide Ingots: Their origin and their place in the Bronze Age metals trade in the Mediterranean", in [ed.] N.H. Gale Bronze Age Trade in the Mediterranean, SIMA, Vol. 90, Goteborg.

Gale, N.H. and Z.A. Stos-Gale (1987), "Oxhide ingots from Sardinia, Crete and Cyprus: New Scientific Evidence", in [ed.] M. Balmuth Studies in Sardinian Archaeology III, BAR International Series 387, Oxford.

Giardino, C. (1992), "Nuragic Sardinia and the Mediterranean: Metallurgy and Maritime Traffic", in [ed.] R. Tykot and T. Andews Sardinia in the Mediterranean: a footprint in the sea, Sheffield Academic Press.

Giardino, C. (1995), The West Mediterranean between the 11th and 8th centuries BC, BAR International Series 612, Oxford.

Harding, A.F. (1984), The Mycenaeans and Europe, Academic Press.

Knapp, B. (1992), "Bronze Age Mediterranean island cultures and the ancient Near East", Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 55.

Muhly, J.D. (1991), "The development of copper metallurgy in Late Bronze Age Cyprus", in [ed.] N.H. Gale Bronze Age Trade in the Mediterranean, SIMA, Vol. 90, Goteburg.

Ridgway, D. (1992), The first Western Greeks, Cambridge University Press.

Smith, T. (1987), Mycenaean trade and interaction in the West Central Mediterranean, BAR International Series 371, Oxford.

Stos-Gale Z.A. and N.H. Gale (1992), "The Provenience of Sardinian Copper Oxhide Ingots", in [ed.] R. Tykot and T. Andrews Sardinia in the Mediterranean: a footprint in the sea, Sheffield Academic Press.

Trump, D. (1992), "Militarism in Nuragic Sardinia", in [ed.] R. Tykoy and T. Andrews Sardinia in the Mediterranean: a footprint in the sea, Sheffield Academic Press.

Vagnetti, L. and F. Lo Schiavo (1989), "Late Bronze Age long distance trade in the Mediterranean: The role of the Cypriots", in [ed.] E. Peltenburg Early Society in Cyprus, Edinburgh University Press.

Webster, G. (1996), A Prehistory of Sardinia 2300-500 BC, Sheffield University Press.
Tower at Nuoro

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