The Bronze Age World System

During the Early Bronze Age (3300-2100 BCE) the cities of Sumer became connected with the Mediterranean Sea  and Egypt and a world trade system came into effect that lasted over 1000 years, linking East Asia to the Aegean and beyond. It is even possible that this trade network carried the Egyptian Blue Lotus all the way to Thailand, presumably as a pharmaceutical. The evidence of this vast trade network is extensive yet it is only given a cursory glance in most history books.

Trade network 001

Map of the Bronze Age Trade Network.

From the time of the Akkadian Empire, around 2300 BCE, the objective of Mesopotamian rulers was to control the trade routes that linked Anatolia, Central Asia and the Mediterranean Sea with the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys. These trade routes brought into the cities of Sumer not only tin and copper, the components of bronze, but also luxury goods such as lapis lazuli, silver and obsidian. In exchange for these resources out from Mesopotamia as trade goods went manufactured items, wool and bitumen. Much of this network had been active since Neolithic times when the obsidian trade began and the Bronze Age trade simply built upon the earlier tradition, linking disparate networks into a nearly worldwide system of commerce

Ancient overland trade ventures would require many months of slow travel often with heavily laden donkeys. The extent of such journeys made necessary the establishment of trading colonies which helped spread Sumerian culture to all the surrounding lands. The best example of this are the Assyrian colonies established in Anatolia during the Middle Bronze Age (2100-1550 BCE). This practice of long term trading expeditions led to the spread of the cuneiform script of the Sumerians being adopted by many of the surrounding cultures. By the Late Bronze Age (1550-1200 BCE) the Semitic Akkadian language written in cuneiform was being used across the Near East as the language of commerce and diplomacy.

Together with this overland trade network were the sea routes of the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea. By way of the Gulf merchants during the Early Bronze Age had access to the Harappan people of the Indus Valley where they traded for cotton linens, golden ornamental items and jewelry. Some trade goods from Mesopotamia, such as the lotus, would make their way to East Asia as well. It is also known that merchants from Sumer traded with the peoples of the Arabic coast and islands such as Dilmun seeking spices and incense. This trade may even have reached the Horn of Africa where many exotic items, such as ostrich feathers, leopard skins and ivory, were to be had. Control over these Gulf trade routes led to the fabulous wealth of such cities as Ur.

Once the trade routes reached the Mediterranean many of the goods were put on to ships at Ugarit on the Lebanese coast which grew into a fantastic trading emporium. Beyond Ugarit to the west the seaborne trade routes came to be dominated by Egypt. Total control over all of this trade, both land and sea, and the wealth it generated is what motivated the men we see as early empire builders, such as Sargon the Great and his predecessor Lugalzagesi, creating a history of conquest that is still unfolding to this day.

The Water of Egypt

During the Early Bronze Age the Egyptians would slowly come to control the Eastern Mediterranean and centuries later, during the height of the New Kingdom Empire, (1550-1100 BCE) the Sea would be known as the Water of Egypt. Although Egypt was the dominant political power on the waves for at least one thousand years it shared the waterborne trade routes with merchants from across the Bronze Age world. Much more is known about the Mediterranean trade routes than the sea routes to Asia.

Traveling north, along the Palestinian coast, Egyptian ships made an average sped of 55km per day. The Ships would bring gold, amethyst, jasper and turquoise to trade for timber and luxury goods like the prized lapis lazuli from distant Afghanistan. As southern Palestine had few ports most Egyptian ships traveled north to Byblos to conduct their business, usually trading for timber, especially the highly prized Lebanese cedar.

A Cypriot carrying an oxhide ingot.

A Cypriot carrying an oxhide ingot.

From Byblos ships could travel on to Ugarit and southern Anatolia or they could sail west to Cyprus which was known for its oxhide  ingots of copper ore (so named due their shape) and olive oil. Such journeys would take as little as two weeks when sailing out of the Eastern Nile Delta region. Travel south again from Cyprus was much quicker in the right season where southerly winds could push the ships southward at speeds of hundreds of Kilometers per day. This southerly journey from Cyprus could be treacherous as it relied on travel across open water which made the ships susceptible to storms.

During the New Kingdom Egyptian shipping was based out of Perunefer (meaning Good Departure/BonVoyage), the port of the capital city of Memphis. It was here that much of the timber from the Syrian coast was brought for shipbuilding. Ships masts were brought in ranging from 6-17 meters in length. The ships themselves were up to 5.5 meters wide and 30 meters long. Although Egypt built many vessels for trade it is possible that some of the longer range vessels were actually built in foreign lands.

Egyptian accounts tell of long range trade vessels known as Byblos ships and Keftiu ships. Keftiu was the ancient Egyptian name for Crete. Some theories suggest that theses ships were so named because of their destinations but depictions of these vessels indicate they often had crews of non-Egyptians and therefore may have actually originated in Byblos or Keftiu and were merely sanctioned by Egypt to trade in its territory.


An ancient Egyptian ship based on tomb drawings. Designed by Dr. Sotus and built by M.I. Krupnik.

The Egyptian Trade Network

With Egypt as its linchpin a trade network grew to encompass all of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea as well. While some ships made the journey from Egypt between the Syrian and Palestinian coasts and Cyprus, primarily bringing timber to Egypt, other ships made a much longer journey that circumnavigated the Eastern Mediterranean. These long distance traders would begin their journeys in a trading Emporium like Ugarit on the Syrian coast. In cities such as Ugarit merchants had warehouses full of raw materials and agricultural goods. Agents from the Great Kings (Egyptian, Hittite, Mitanni, Babylonian and occasionally others) would place their orders to be sent to their kingdoms. Other items were loaded onto merchant vessels to be taken and traded for other goods not readily available at the port of origin.

A merchant in Ugarit would have a wide variety of trade goods available to them. From Egypt, Gold and precious stones from the Eastern Deserts as well as dyed woolen textiles and fine linen garments. From Hatti (the Kingdom of the Hittites), Gold and Silver. From Canaan grain and wine. From Central Asia carnelian and lapis-lazuli as well as tin and other metals in the form of oxhide ingots. Other goods, such as slaves, horses, ivory, incense and perfumes were also in abundance.

From Ugarit most traders would then go west to Cyprus to trade some of their goods for olive oil or copper. The merchants would then sail north to Ura along the south eastern Anatolian coast which was the main port of entry for goods making their way into the Hittite heartland to the north. Here, during the later years of the Hittite Empire (1300-1200 BCE) grain was regularly imported from Egypt and Canaan.

After leaving the port of Ura the journey along the south Anatolian coast was fraught with dangerous seas and the risk of pirates. However, despite the dangers, the profits to be made in the Aegean Sea outweighed the risks. The raw materials available from the east were much prized by the craftsmen of the Aegean islands and Minoan Crete. Merchants would typically trade items like jasper and turquoise for figurines, finger-rings, earrings and bracelets made from the same materials.

On the island of Crete merchants would trade for large two handled amphora filled with wine and olive oil and decorated with marine and floral motifs. These containers were not only valued for their contents but they were kept as collectable items for their artistic appeal. From Crete came little ceramic containers of salves and perfumes.

These items would then be loaded on ships that would sail south to the Libyan coast and then eastward along the shoreline until they made their way to the Nile Delta. Once in Egypt they would be restocked with that lands trade goods and once again the ships would sail north finding their way to Ugarit. For over a thousand years this trade network flourished until around 1200 BCE when the violent invasions of the Sea Peoples ended the Bronze Age world system.

The Master Of Animals And Confronted Animals Motifs

To confirm this ancient trade network’s impact on culture the archaeological record from the Bronze Age shows recurring artistic themes to be found in artifacts located as far apart as the Harrapan culture of the Indus Valley and the Mycenaean culture of the Aegean Sea. Notable amongst these themes are the “Master of Animals” and the “Confronted Animals” motifs. The image of a humanoid figure flanked by two animals is typically thought to be representative of a hero such as Gilgamesh, or perhaps a god such as Enki, wrestling with and showing mastery over wild animals. The human/divine figure is also at times anthropomorphized to show an even greater affinity between the worlds of humans and animals. This image is found throughout ancient Mesopotamia, around the Aegean Sea, far to the east on cylinder seals from the Harrapan civilization and on the mysterious Egyptian artifact known as the Knife from Gebel el Arak.


Gebel_el-Arak Knife back

This image on the ivory handle of the Gebel el Arak Knife, which can be dated to around 3000 BCE, is particularly compelling because the human, in this case standing between two lions, is clearly similar to representations found in Mesopotamia during this time. The hat and skirt of the “Master” do not match the other figures on the knife and are not Egyptian in design. This artifact has been used by some to propose that ancient Sumerian colonists or invaders were responsible for the rise of Dynastic Egypt. However, while there is no evidence of such activity the implications of the images on this ancient knife handle are at the very least indicative of a close cultural contact at the dawn of history.

Gebel el-Arak Knife front

Gebel el-Arak Knife front

Some of these images can be understood as portraying actual myths or legends, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, while others are more abstractly symbolic. The symbolism of the Master of Animals is usually understood in the context of a world where people were still competing for resources with animals on a daily basis. In Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus Valley lions, tigers and bears presented very real threats to small populations that were still reliant on hunting and fishing to subsidize their diets.

However, the animals are not always large beasts like lions as “Master of Beasts” from the Minoan civilization reveals. Additionally Late Bronze Age artifacts sometimes show snakes being held instead of animals being grappled and they also often portray a “Mistress of Animals” rather than a “Master.”


Harappan Master of Beasts from the Early Bronze Age


Minoan Master of Beasts above, Harappan Master of Beasts below

Minoan Master of Beasts from the Middle Bronze Age


Mistress of Beasts from Crete from the Late Bronze Age

Mistress of Beasts from Crete from the Late Bronze Age

The motif of “Confronted Animals” is similar to the “Master of Animals” with the absence of the master. Both of these motifs show a balance between the two sides of the image. Sometimes “Master of Animals” motifs are categorized as “Confronted Animals” with the insertion of a humanoid for additional symbolism.

This simpler image of two animals, usually shown as mirror images or facing each other head on, is in fact very widespread in ancient art. Examples of stylized animals, such as the long necked lionesses known as serpopards, can be found on the Narmer Pallete from Egypt and on a cylinder seal from Uruk which both date to around 3000 BCE.

The Narmer Palette from Egypt.

The Narmer Palette from Egypt.



Cylinder seal from Uruk.









Some pairs of animals are shown with the “Tree of Life” or another divine symbol between them. The famous Mycenaean “Lion Gate” shows two lionesses flanking a column which may be an abstract representation of the “Mistress of Beasts.” Etruscan and Roman art continued the use of “Confronted Animals,” as an image designed to provide magical protection, down until at least 300 BCE. The motif never fell totally out of use as these images eventually translated into the current era as part of the decor of European churches and cathedrals as well as becoming a heraldic device.

Mycenaean Lion Gate  from the Late Bronze Age

Mycenaean Lion Gate from the Late Bronze Age



Master of Beasts from the 12th century chapel of Rieux-Minervois in the South of France

The Academic Conflict

It is not necessary to look at these artifacts with a who did what first or who influenced who point of view. This distorts what the artifacts can tell us. This unfortunate inclination towards a biased viewing of ancient artwork is however fostered by the modern educational system and its apprehension towards cross disciplinary studies. To this day the argument over whether Egypt influenced Sumer or vice versa can be a heated debate in some scholarly circles.

Plantagenet Family Arms

Plantagenet Family Arms

This problem is particularly endemic in Ancient Near Eastern History where scholarly disciplines encourage students to focus on one area of study such as Egyptology or Assyriology. While this does allow for a mastery of specific components of the source material it often prevents big picture observations from being made. This happens for two reasons. First, few scholars are expert in enough fields of study to say anything with authority regarding how the different areas of study overlap. Second, few academics see any benefits from research and discoveries that don’t fit into an accepted discipline, especially since there is little funding for in depth research of interdisciplinary studies.

There is however sufficient evidence to strongly suggest a broad based pattern of cultural exchange between Asia, Africa and Europe that dates to before the beginnings of the written record. These cultural similarities can reveal the common challenges faced by early civilization and the symbols they used to convey them. Comprehending this will allow us to further understand the impact of this ancient culture and its symbols on the modern world. Ultimately a full appreciation of the world’s ancient history can only be gained with the realization that the division of that world into scholarly disciplines is a modern device and by no means reflects any real divisions between peoples and cultures as they existed in antiquity.

By the time of the Late Bronze Age and the Egyptian New Kingdom this cosmopolitan world system had been in place for almost 2,000 years. It had lasted for as long as our  modern era and due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control it was poised for collapse.


Barraclough, Geoffrey,  The Times Complete History Of The World, Barnes and Noble, 2004

Bryce,Trevor Life and Society in the Hittite World, Oxford University Press, New York, 2004

Hoffman, Micheal. Egypt Before The Pharaohs, Barnes and Noble, New York, 1979

Roaf, Michael Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia, Andromeda Books, Oxfordshire, 1990

Roux, Georges, Ancient Iraq, Penguin Books, London, 1992

Spalinger, Anthony, War in Ancient Egypt, Blackwell Publishing, Malden, 2007

Some Specialized Ceramic Studies at Harappa

Before Gas there was copper

Blue Lotus (Nymphaea caerulea)