Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Copper and tin ingots

Late Bronze Age, 10th-9th century B.C.

Salcombe shipwreck, 300 yards off the South Devon coast, England, 2009

Top: 10th-9th century B.C. copper "bun" ingot with holes formed by gasses released during cooling. Middle: One of the first copper ingot fragments found, which led to the discovery of the rest of the cargo. Bottom: Tin "bun" ingot unusual for its circular shape—most are oval. (Courtesy Jim Tyson, South West Maritime Archaeological Group)

Once the silt I'd stirred up had cleared and I was able to get a look at the artifact, I immediately recognized it as a Bronze Age ingot. But I had no idea yet that it could change our understanding of trade between the British Isles and Europe in the 10th and 9th centuries B.C. Although I've been diving off the Devon coast for 19 years and helped recover hundreds of artifacts, finding the first complete copper "bun" ingot (so called for its resemblance to a bread bun) ever discovered in a British shipwreck was one of my most memorable experiences. As a founding member of the South West Maritime Archaeological Group, I am one of a dedicated team of 12 avocational divers with a passion for underwater archaeology. We work with marine archaeologist Dave Parham from Bournemouth University and scholars from English Heritage, Oxford University, and the British Museum to recover artifacts and conserve the area's underwater heritage. Now we are focusing on the cargo of a large timber-trading vessel that sank off the south coast of England around 950 B.C.

The ship was carrying hundreds of copper and tin ingots—we have already found 286 of them, including the "bun" ingot—which would have been melted together to make bronze for weaponry, tools, and household items. This is the first Bronze Age ship in the United Kingdom to be found with its cargo still on board. Its especially large load is very exciting because it indicates that Britain's trade links with Europe at the time were extensive and that more metal was coming into the area from abroad than had previously been thought. Another surprise was that the ingots came from a wide variety of locations across Europe, indicating a more sophisticated network of sources than scholars have imagined.

For me, this find was especially meaningful. I am an engineer, and early in my career I worked in casting and machining bronze. I am more impressed by useful metal artifacts than jewelry, which is merely decorative. It was a thrill to touch these 3,000-year-old materials that were so essential to the technological achievements of the Bronze Age.

Jim Tyson, South West Maritime Archaeological Group