The research programme ComPAS, acronym for “Commercial Patterns Across the Sea: The interdisciplinary study of Maritime Transport Containers from Cyprus and the elucidation of Mediterranean connectivity during the Late Bronze Age-Early Iron Age” is funded by the European Union in the frame of the ERC (European Research Council) Starting Grants (Grant Agreement 947749). This is a five-year project (2021-2026) hosted at the Archaeological Research Unit of the University of Cyprus, with a budget of €1,254,354.

The overall objective of ComPAS is to provide new insights on the interregional commercial strategies and intercultural connectivity that characterised ancient communities of the eastern Mediterranean during the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1650-1100 BC) and Early Iron Age (ca. 1100-750 BC). The means to achieving this task is the comprehensive study of ancient material culture, specifically Maritime Transport Containers. The primary function of Maritime Transport Containers was to ensure the maritime transhipment of commodities to geographically distant destinations. As such, Maritime Transport Containers are appreciated as invaluable contributors to our understanding of the scale and nature of ancient seaborne commerce. The focus of the proposed research is the corpus of Maritime Transport Containers that were imported to Cyprus from the Levant, Egypt and the Aegean during the Late Bronze Age-Early Iron Age, as well as the Cypriot exports to these markets.

ComPAS endorses a holistic approach in the study of Maritime Transport Containers and proposes to examine their: 1) morphology, 2) provenance, 3) contents, 4) chronology, 5) volumetric capacity, 6) functional qualities, 7) marking strategies, and 8) secondary use and deposition. Through the implementation of these specific objectives by means of an array of cutting-edge interdisciplinary methodologies, the proposed research aspires to trace the commercial connections among the Levantine, Egyptian, Aegean and Cypriot regional polities, to identify the agents and mechanisms involved in maritime exchanges of goods, and to provide a better understanding of the character of Late Bronze Age-Early Iron Age Mediterranean connectivity.

Map of the eastern Mediterranean

Maritime Transport Containers

Maritime Transport Containers are specialsed vessels employed in the maritime transshipment of commodities in bulk. These ceramic vessels were circulating not to be consumed per se, but in the name of their commodities. Since the commodities are usually not preserved in the archaeological record, these inorganic ceramic proxies remain the only contributors to our understanding of the scale and nature of this specific type of ancient seaborne trade.

In the temporal and geographical context of the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age eastern Mediterranean, the Maritime Transport Container par excellence is known in modern scholarship as the “Canaanite Jar”, produced in various regions across the Levant. Their morphology is varied, but the shape is typified by a narrow opening, angular shoulders, a characteristically narrow base and, at least, two short handles.

By the inception of the New Kingdom, transport vessels emulating the form of Canaanite Jars began being produced locally in Egypt. The so-called ‘Egyptian Jars’ share several of the features of the Canaanite amphorae, but are distinguished by their characteristic fusiform or squat morphology. They also feature a distinctive, red-coloured fabric (Marl D predominantly).

Within the Late Bronze Age southern Aegean, the preferred shape used in the long-distance transport of commodities was the Transport Stirrup Jar. These vessels are easily distinguished from the more common, finer stirrup jars, in terms of their gritty fabric and much larger size. Transport Stirrup Jars were decorated by linear bands or more rarely by octopus depictions.

Objective 1: Morphological classifications

Considering that a vessel’s form is an intrinsic aspect of its material properties, representing the end-result of a series of specialised gestures and processes, the classification of ceramic artefacts according to morphological types and subtypes is the most efficient starting point in modern approaches that acknowledge the enormous complexity inherent in ancient pottery production. The three distinctive groups of Maritime Transport Containers are easily distinguishable from one another, but a profusion of subcategories can be generated within each class, that may correspond to chronological, regional or other factors. The programme’s primary objective is therefore to provide a thorough and meaningful classification system of the morphology of the Canaanite Jars, Egyptian Jars and Transport Stirrup Jars, based on extensive, hands-on, visual inspections.


Objective 2: Designation of provenance

The project will implement a fully integrated analytical programme to designate the provenance of the distinctive Maritime Transport Container types (and subtypes) identified as imports within the cultural milieu of Late Bronze Age – Early Iron Age Cyprus. ComPAS further aspires to address the operation of a local Cypriot production imitating Canaanite Jars, and specify the location of the putative local workshop(s).

This will be achieved by means of an integrated, analytical scheme based on: 1) the macroscopic visual inspection of different fabrics, to distinguish discrete groups, 2) extensive scanning through a portable XRF, 3) Thin-section ceramic petrography on a representative subset to document compositional variability. And finally 4) the integration of Instrumental Neutron Activation Analysis. In addition, our team will incorporate a geologist, with the aim of exploring possible sources of raw materials in the Levant, Egypt, Crete and Cyprus, and experimenting with fabric recipes. An aspiring objective of the project will be to address and localise the operation of a long-assumed Cypriot production of Canaanite-Jar forms, through comparative studies of local Plain wares.


Objective 3: Content analysis

Maritime Transport Containers were produced and were distributed in the name of the commodities they contained, and so the designation of the contents of Maritime Transport Containers is a pivotal task. This will be addressed by means of Organic Residue Analysis techniques, in collaboration with the Organic Geochemistry Unit of the University of Bristol. Our project will further implement highly novel methodologies, developed in the field of palaeoproteomics, for determining the contents of ceramic vessels, by extracting and analysing protein species.

Elsewhere in the Mediterranean, scientific analyses, textual sources and inscriptions on Egyptian jars and Canaanite Jar dockets from Egypt support the idea that Maritime Transport Containers were employed to tranship an abundance of varied commodities, although Transport Stirrup Jars have been associated with the circulation of olive oil and Egyptian Jars with wine. Considering the lack of readable texts in Late Bronze Age – Early Iron Age Cyprus, the designation of the Maritime Transport Containers’ contents can only be addressed by means of advanced scientific analyses.


Objective 4: Relative and absolute chronology

The project aspires to produce a relative chronological sequence for the three groups of Maritime Transport Containers, on the basis of morphological evolution and contextual analyses, and anchor this sequence to absolute dates, through the implementation of advanced interdisciplinary methods for direct dating. This task will contribute towards the codification of the Late Bronze Age – Early Iron Age dating scheme for Cyprus, where, as a result of the highly regional character of its material culture, it has been exceedingly challenging to liaise chronological phasing on an island-wide basis. In addition, the ascription of absolute dates to key types within the sequence of Canaanite Jars could be projected for the absolute dating of the same types found in the archaeological contexts of the Levant. In this way, our project could contribute to the ongoing discussions on the Levantine chronological scheme, and to the synchronisation of the regional chronological sequences proposed for the geographically distinct political entities of the Late Bronze Age – Early Iron Age Mediterranean.

In addition to the compilation of a typo-chronological sequence of relative chronology, produced by morphological and contextual studies, we aspire to anchor the relative series to absolute dates, through the implementation of advanced methods for direct dating, through compound-specific radiocarbon analyses of organic residues. This is a highly innovative technique, employed for the first time on transport containers.


Objective 5: Volumetric capacity estimations

Volumetric capacity was, in most instances, the only degree of measure employed in the handling of Maritime Transport Containers and their commodities. For instance, capacity estimations for Canaanite Jars from the Uluburun shipwreck suggest groupings in a 1:2:4 ratio, although precise standardisation does not appear to have been so straightforward for other contexts. ComPAS aims to provide estimations of volumetric capacity for the Maritime Transport Containers included in this study and explore the degree of standardisation within the three classes and their subgroups. Within the frame of ComPAS, a research associate will employ manual and digital methodologies, such as photogrammetry and 3D imaging, to provide estimations for the extant vessels’ storage capacity. Ultimately, we aim to assess the level of standardisation, attested within the various classes of Maritime Transport Containers, to illuminate the mechanisms involved in their production and exchange.


Objective 6: Manufacture technology and functional properties

Maritime Transport Containers were specialised ceramic vessels, designed and executed to safely transport bulk commodities from the region of their production to geographically distant destinations via seaborne travel. Their morphological evolution corresponds to regional responses to address specific performance characteristics and physical properties, the end-result being a remarkable feat of craftsmanship. We aim to investigate how craftpeoples’ technological choices impacted on vessel function and performance. Through the integration of macroscopic inspections, and scientific analyses, ComPAS will address the vessels’ functional properties that include: 1) ease of handling (e.g. loading and unloading from ships, accessibility and emptying of contents), 2) ‘stackability’ or the ability to efficiently and stably package numerous vessels into the cargo of a ship, and 3) the ability to withstand mechanical stress imposed by seaborne travel (both from impact and weight loads) without losing structural integrity. Placed in a wider context of production and consumption, this will allow us to discuss if, where, and how these technological choices may have been linked to particular demands placed on these specialised vessels during use-life.

Our team will undertake an integrated study that includes: 1) inspections on the morphology of the vessels’ individual parts, to illuminate their functionality, 2) the investigation of the forming techniques involved, since, at least some of these vessels, seem to have been coil-made and then fashioned on the wheel, and this is something that we will investigate in relation to their mechanical qualities, through X-Ray and CT scans, 3) We will be also assessing the material properties of selected samples, based on the examination of thin sections, through Scanning Electron Microscopy, and mechanical tests, to determine their stress-and-strain profile.


Objective 7: Marks and marking strategies

The emergence of Maritime Transport Containers was not irrelevant to the appearance of urbanised, bureaucratic societies that were making use of writing and employed elaborate systems of weighting and measuring. Marking of Maritime Transport Containers is manifested in a plethora or different forms in the Late Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean, continuing into the Early Iron Age in significantly smaller numbers. An intrinsic practice associated with the circulation of ceramics in the eastern Mediterranean is the marking of singular symbols or, more rarely, of very short inscriptions, comprising of two or more marks. These pot-marks were incised (very rarely painted) on prominent areas of the vessels, as a rule after firing. Some of the pot-marks are simple and generic, e.g. a cross or an X, but others have been identified as exclusive signs (‘complex marks’) of contemporary scripts. The practice of marking pottery vessels was especially common in Cyprus, and detailed studies on these potmarks have concluded that some of the signs belong to the indigenous, yet undeciphered ‘Cypro-Minoan’ script. Regardless of their association with a formal script, marks convey intentionality, and their meaning must be sought in their application patterns and the archaeological contexts in which the marked vessels occur.

Objective 8: Secondary use and depositional practices

The Maritime Transport Containers’ raison d’être was to safely tranship the commodities contained, but it should not be assumed that the vessels had no value after their primary task was achieved. Extensive evidence deriving mostly from later periods suggests that multiple reuse of transport vessels was very common. What happened to the Maritime Transport Containers after their arrival at the Cypriot port-towns and how were they treated following the consumption of the imported goods they contained? It has been suggested that imported transport containers were refilled with new commodities and were redistributed abroad, taking into account the Maritime Transport Containers marked by symbols associated with the Cypriot script found in the Levant and the Aegean. Empty jars could have also taken on a secondary role as storage vessels, or could assume a completely different use. For instance, the rare phenomenon of infant burials on Canaanite Jars from the Cypriot Late Bronze Age-Early Iron Age contexts, comparable to earlier practices observed outside the island, could hold symbolic inferences that are certainly worth exploring.

Infant burial in a Canaanite jar from Kition Bamboula (c) French Mission at Kition

Infant burial from Kition Bamboula (c) French Mission at Kition