Merchants in the Late Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean: Tools, texts and trade

William Bradley Hafford, University of Pennsylvania


Ancient economic interactions were much more complex than often assumed. Cross-cultural relations were relatively commonplace and this interaction contributed to a growing, if fluctuating, ‘world economy’. The people who were fundamental in the establishment and continuation of this system were those clever enough to understand and manipulate the differential in value across regions. These people, working especially for or with the support of large institutions (political or religious), gradually became a recognized professional class of merchants. This dissertation examines this development and proposes that merchants, performing varied duties based on their access to capital, existed in the Late Bronze Age as evidenced through ancient textual material. It further proposes that these people can be detected in the archaeological record through the tools used in their everyday conduct of business. Particularly important for mercantile operations were weights, scales and bullion, and these objects are often found together in royal, domestic, religious and burial contexts throughout the Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean and Aegean. Though the finds are largely consistent within each of these major areas, however, broad differences in the type and context of the assemblage is clearly indicated between them, indicating a difference in the operation of trade in the Aegean as opposed to the larger eastern Mediterranean. The noted division begins to break down at the end of the Late Bronze Age, with the Near Eastern merchant assemblage appearing in the Aegean in the Late Minoan III period, but the resulting super-network lasts only a short time before it is disrupted in the following Early Iron Age. The disintegration of large networks at this time may have been facilitated by the clash of individual as opposed to institutional accumulation of wealth. Merchants had the potential to amass personal wealth, thus destabilizing the redistributive governments, which were based on their access to precious materials and prestige objects, and such potential contributed to the general distrust of merchants that is to be seen throughout much of history.

Subject Area

Archaeology|Economic history|Ancient civilizations

Recommended Citation

Hafford, William Bradley, "Merchants in the Late Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean: Tools, texts and trade" (2001). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3015317.