Lead isotopes in silver reveal earliest Phoenician quest for metals in the west Mediterranean

Tzilla Eshel*, Yigal Erel, Naama Yahalom-Mack, Ofir Tirosh, Ayelet Gilboa

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

45 Scopus citations


When and why did the Phoenicians initiate long-term connections between the Levant and western Europe? This is one of the most hotly debated questions in ancient Mediterranean history and cultural research. In this study, we use silver to answer this question, presenting the largest dataset of chemical and isotopic analyses of silver items from silver hoards found in Phoenician homeland sites. Intertwining lead isotope analysis of silver items with precise archaeological context and chronology, we provide analytical evidence for the onset of Phoenician westward expansion. We suggest that the quest for silver instigated a long, exploratory phase, first in Anatolia (Asia Minor) and Sardinia, and subsequently in the Iberian Peninsula. This phase preceded the establishment of sustainable, flourishing Phoenician colonies in the West by over a century. In so doing, our results buttress the "precolonization" theory, accord it a firm chronological framework, and demonstrate that the quest for silver (and probably other metals) was an incentive for Phoenician westward expansion. Furthermore, our results show that the Phoenicians introduced innovative silver production methods to historic Europe.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)6007-6012
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number13
StatePublished - 2019

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
University of Granada, for sharing her valuable knowledge of Iberia. We were aided in the laboratory by Adi Ticher and Renana Oz from the Hebrew University. We are indebted to Lisa Perlman for editing the manuscript, and Svetlana Matskevich from the Hebrew University for the graphics. Finally, we thank Mina Evron from the University of Haifa, Joel D. Blum from the University of Michigan, the editor, and two anonymous reviewers for their careful reading of our manuscript and their constructive comments. This research was supported by a grant of the Gerda-Henkel Foundation in Germany (Grant AZ 05/F/16; awarded to A.G. and Y.E.); the Authority of Advanced Studies at the University of Haifa; and a Hebrew University Internal Fund (Grant 0399366; to Y.E.).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 National Academy of Sciences. All Rights Reserved.


  • Iberia
  • Lead isotope analysis
  • Phoenicians
  • Sardinia
  • Silver


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