VI: Tin

Where did all the tin come from in the Bronze Age?

VI: Tin
Old tin cans. Photo by Pamela Callaway / Unsplash

Good morning. Today is sextidi, the 26th of Nivôse, Year CCXXXI. We celebrate l'étain, the famously fragile metal you can cut.

Tin is the magic ingredient in most of the metals you've heard of that aren't on the periodic table. You want bronze? Mix a little tin in your copper. Want pewter? Just add a touch of tin to silver. Looking for solder? That's tin and lead. Tin loves bonding with other things, and is extremely soft and flexible in its pure form, so it's an easy metal to get along with. You could say it's the most popular kid in the metal school.

Archaeologists and historians have a tin problem. The Bronze Age needed tin the way our modern age needs oil, and it was a similarly scattered resource located in far-flung regions. Copper abounded, but the tin to mix it with in order to forge the sturdy bronze – the material that made superior weapons and ships and ornaments – was nowhere near the population centers of the Eastern Mediterranean.

So where did all the tin come from?

One big clue is in a 3,500-year-old shipwreck discovered off the coast of Turkiye in CXC (1982). Called the Uluburun, the large ship is the oldest-known vessel carrying raw materials for trade, including ingots of copper and tin. By studying the trace isotopes of lead in each, archaeologists are starting to pinpoint where the metals were mined, and the answer is creating an even bigger tin problem.

We know where it came from. But how the heck did it get there?

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