09 June 2021
A fresh perspective on a clash of ancient empires
Published online 7 May 2019
Evidence of ancient lead–silver mining points to the extraordinary resourcefulness of Carthage during the Punic Wars fought from 264 to 146 BCE.
Researchers exploring traces of Carthaginian civilization from more than 2,500 years ago have uncovered the first evidence of metal ore mining in North Africa. Their findings suggest that the Carthaginians were much more resourceful and adaptable than previously assumed.
In its heyday, Carthage — founded by the Phoenicians in the 9th century BCE in present-day Tunisia — was a powerful empire that extended throughout North Africa and the western Mediterranean. Its strategic position as the dominant port for trade made it a target for repeated attacks by the Romans.
The new evidence sheds fresh light on the story of how Carthage was able to finance its long and costly wars before its ultimate fall to Rome in 146 BCE.
By measuring lead isotope compositions of sediments taken from deep below the Medjerda delta around the city of Utica, to the north of Carthage in Tunisia, the team established a timeline for mining activity related to the minting of Punic coins that were crucial to ancient commerce.
“The earliest mining began, not at the time Utica was founded, but much later during the Greco-Punic Wars (480–307 BCE),” says corresponding author Hugo Delile of the University of Lyon. This rules out the idea that mineral resources were the motivating factor behind the original Phoenician settlement in Utica and Carthage. “It is interesting that this initial phase of mining coincided with the first minting of coins at Carthage,” he says. “From then onwards, the Carthaginian economy became increasingly monetized.”
The team found that the most intense mining phase took place during the Punic Wars. This discovery strengthens the view that the Carthaginians, despite losing access to traditional silver sources in Sardinia, Sicily and southern Spain, were still able to exploit resources closer to home.
“This adaptive strategy is indicative of the Carthaginians’ strong economic resilience, built on a sound knowledge of their mineral resources,” Delile says. “The strategy was fruitful because it allowed them to fight off the Romans for more than a century.”
The increase in coin production during the Punic Wars was driven by a strong military need, as Carthage was under pressure not only to reinforce its armies but also to pay war indemnities to Rome.
It is nevertheless surprising, Delile points out, to see such high levels of mining activity during periods of geopolitical unrest. Generally, the opposite is the case; the Romans are famous for their intense urban activity during periods of prosperity and stability. The Carthaginians appear to be an exception to this classic model.
Sheldon Skaggs, a specialist in geoarchaeology at City University of New York, who was not involved in the study, says the findings add “great support to the idea that silver and lead were mined in North Africa in significant quantities during Punic times.”
“The geologic evidence fills gaps that the historical documents don’t cover,” he says. “This is significant new information, and highlights a useful method for looking at mineral production in other regions along the southern and eastern Mediterranean.”
Delile and the team intend to continue documenting ancient human activities, which are important, he says, for gaining “a long-term reading of the Anthropocene.”
Delile, H. et al. Economic resilience of Carthage during the Punic Wars: Insights from sediments of the Medjerda delta around Utica (Tunisia). PNAS http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1821015116 (2019).