Murcia and the Purple People

Phoenicia was an ancient civilisation of independent city states which existed in the eastern Mediterranean region, in an area often called the Levant. The area of Phoenicia incorporated much of what is now Syria, Lebanon and northern Israel and had at its core the extremely powerful city states of Tyre and Sidon.

Phoenician Interpretation Centre, Puerto de Mazarron
Phoenician Interpretation Centre, Puerto de Mazarron

Phoenician civilisation was at its height between roughly 1200 BCE and 332 BCE, when its sailors and merchants founded trading networks and colonies which spread westwards along the Mediterranean to include coastal Turkey, Cyprus, Malta, Rhodes, Sardinia, Sicily, the Balearics, North Africa, Spain and Portugal. The Phoenicians were probably the world’s first masters of deep-sea sailing and in addition to being renowned shipbuilders, they were also legendary glass-makers and producers of dye. Indeed, the special purple dye they produced for Mesopotamian royalty gave the Phoenicians their name (the Ancient Greek word for purple was ‘phoinikes’). Ancient Greeks, such as the writer Herodotus, called this maritime race the ‘purple people’ because the dye they produced stained their skins with an indelible purplish hue. These purple people from the Levant were attracted to the Iberian Peninsula and to Murcia in particular, because of the area’s vast mineral resources. The Phoenicians began to remove marble from various Iberian quarries and they extracted gold, silver and copper from mines which stretched southwards from Murcia to Cadiz.

Phoenician sailors building a bridge, by A C Weatherstone 1888 - 1929
Phoenician sailors building a bridge, by A C Weatherstone 1888 – 1929

British historians and writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries clearly emphasised the importance of Murcia’s vast mineral wealth to the ancient Phoenicians. Some claimed that even before the Phoenicians set sail from Iberia, they would produce ship anchors and chains made from solid silver – much of it extracted from Murcian mines. As long ago as 1896, the Revd. Mason-Inglis wrote about a particular silver mine near Cartagena where Phoenician mine shafts were still visible and indeed still in operation after nearly 3,000 years. This still-functioning silver mine was yielding some £300,000 worth of silver every year, even in 1896.

Terracotta_amphora_with_Phoenician_inscription_6th - 5th Century BC, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Terracotta amphora with Phoenician inscription 6th – 5th Century BC, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Another remarkable Murcian relic of the Phoenician age was discovered in the sea, at Puerto de Mazarrón, during 1988. Roughly 80 metres out into the Mediterranean, just off Playa Isla, divers located the wreckage of a Phoenician trading vessel which had sunk in the 6th or 7th centuries BCE. The shipwreck had been discovered accidently, during the course of excavations being carried out in order to create the new Puerto de Mazarrón marina. Although the ship’s remains were scattered along the seabed, enough evidence survived to show that the vessel had been a light trading ship called a ‘hippos’, which was often used to transport goods out to larger vessels moored in deeper waters. A quantity of amphorae were also found on the seabed, along with ceramics and elephant tusks. All these items are now exhibited at Cartagena’s Municipal Archaeology Museum, along with a reconstructed model of the original ‘hippos’.

Phoenician lead ingots from Municipal Archeaology Museum in Cartagena (c) Nanosanchez
Phoenician lead ingots from Municipal Archeaology Museum in Cartagena (c) Nanosanchez

In 1994, the remains of the ship had to be dubbed ‘Mazarrón 1’ when the completely intact remains of ‘Mazarrón 2’ (another ‘hippos’) were uncovered on the seabed, not far from the original remains of the first vessel. ‘Mazarrón 2’ remains in its watery resting place, encased in a protective steel shell, some 3 metres below the water surface, although its precious cargo was rescued safely and is now exhibited alongside items from ‘Mazarrón 1’, in the Cartagena Municipal Archaeology Museum. ‘Mazarrón 2’ was carrying a weighty cargo of nearly 3,000 kilos of lead ingots, when it met its demise, along with ‘Mazarrón 1’, in a fierce storm, or perhaps as the result of a particularly dense Mediterranean taro sea fog.

‘Mazarrón 2’ is certainly one of the best-preserved ancient ships ever found and has proved to be a font of invaluable information for both marine archaeologists and historians. The story of these two ancient Phoenician ships can be explored in more detail at the small Phoenician Interpretation Centre on Avenida Tierno Galvin in Puerto de Mazarrón and at Cartagena’s Municipal Archaeology Museum. Entry to both museums is free and the information and exhibits provided offer a wonderful glimpse into the ancient connections between Murcia and the purple people of the Levant.

(Adrian and Dawn Leyland Bridge: April 2022)