Friday, October 6, 2023

The Early Iron Age Revival of the State, XXVIII, With Lazy Public Engagement And Some Reference to the Fifties: Tin and the Resource Curse


This was the view east down Copper Street from the slight height of land that marks central downtown Greenwood, BC in 1906. The mountain slopes up to the right, but Copper Street takes a hard left turn just behind the photographer and descends to the terrace above the creek on which the road down to the Kettle River at Midway follows. 

Cross the street and move forward 117 years, and the view changes in two ways:

First, some of the older buildings are gone. Second, Copper Street has turned into Highway 3, because a major interprovincial highway has been run right through the downtown. You would probably see a crosswalk here somewhere if it weren't so easy to jaywalk across the highway. When I made the first of my annual bike trips through Greenwood to Gand Forks in 2017, I watched a family of deer do the same, but the city has picked up a bit in the interim. Oh, yeah, right, "city," because Greenwood's "biggest hockey stick in the world" claim to fame is that it is Canada's smallest city. 

The reason for that is that, unlike most of the instant towns of the first copper boom, before WWI, it had a revival. In 1941, a calculating and humane mayor grabbed the one opportunity that the war had so far presented and offered the town as a resettlement location for the Japanese Canadians then being ethnically cleansed from the Coast, and in 1956 the combination of a local workforce and the postwar revival of the international commodities market proved just barely enough to justify reopening the smelter on nearby Phoenix mountain. The ore at Phoenix is, Wikipedia says, "self-fluxing," meaning that whatever fluxing agent is added to the ore at the Trail Smelter, isn't necessary at Phoenix. (The veins have numerous intrusions of "calc-silicate alteration of limestone;" Maybe that's it?) This tidbit led me to Google around for something a bit more serious about the nature of the ores in "the Greenwood camp," which is apparently the technical term for the 400 square kilometer zone of 25 mines centred about half the way up Highway 3 to Eholt summit. Apparently, way back when the entire region was under volcanic hot springs which have produced an estimated 32 million tons of ore including 38 tonnes of gold, 183 tonnes of (native) silver, 270,000 tonnes of copper, 966 tonnes of lead, and 329 tonnes of zinc. The ores are "copper-gold porphyry," which is great, because it's an excuse to say "porphyry." 

I regret to report no evidence of more exotic metals, your germanium, your tantalum, or, of course, tin. All I can report is that the smelter  closed in 1976, just four years after its last upgrade, relatively painlessly inasmuch as it seems as though most of the workforce took early retirement, being children of the era of the last metal boom, which may or may not be a coincidence, and Greenwood gradually dropped back into its Depression-era sleep. The post-WWII commodities boom was not quite yet obviously dead, and the mills and mines would keep on closing for years yet until British Columbia's former high pressure labour market was decisively over, and my employer could ram through a two-tier contract that basically condemned the next generation to work at near minimum wage for, as it turns out, their entire career. (Unless they took advantage of an escape clause dangled before us in the years around the Olympics. Yay!) 

So. Was the Late Bronze Age Collapse a working out of the resource curse? By the way, can we have a round for Investopedia's formulation

The term resource curse refers to a paradoxical situation in which a country underperforms economically, despite being home to valuable natural resources. A resource curse is generally caused by too much of the country’s capital and labor force concentrated in just a few resource-dependent industries. By failing to make adequate investments in other sectors, countries can become vulnerable to declines in commodity prices, leading to long-run economic underperformance.

Oh, those feckless resource-rich countries, with their "failure" to "make adequate investments in other sectors." The picture, by the way, is from a press release about an event at the Aspers' prize Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg.  I can't even. 

The argument goes like this: Late Bronze Age society used lots of bronze, which is an alloy of copper and up to 12% tin. Tin is quite rare, and must be traded across long distances, and may or may not be the main factor in the "financialisation" of bronze, in which it becomes a store of value. A collapse in the value of bronze then leads to the fall of the Late Bronze Age and as a direct consequence [proof is left as an exercise for the reader] to iron, horse-riding, glass, the increased fashionableness of wool, purple dye, and the Early Iron Age Revival of the State. 

Okay so far: What about the places the tin came from? I ask this because there is yet another fuss about the origins of the Uluburun cargo, the one concrete example we have of Late Bronze Age metal trading. Found in shallow water off a prominence in Rough Cilicia, the associated shipwreck is most recently dated to 1327, and not before the eminence of Nefertiti, since a scarab with her name on it was found in the wreck. Wikipedia leads me to the abstract of a January, 1988 American Journal of Archaeology [92, 1] article by Cemal Puluk.

Excavation of a Late Bronze Age shipwreck, tentatively dated to the 14th century B. C., was continued by the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Ulu Burun near Kaş, Turkey, in 1985. New finds included more copper, tin, and glass ingots; Mycenaean, Cypriot, and Near Eastern pottery; bronze tools, including axes, adzes, chisels, drill bits, and tongs; bronze weapons, including swords, a dirk, a dagger, and arrowheads; balance-pan weights in a variety of materials and shapes; gold and silver jewelry, some as scrap; a scarab, a stone plaque, and a fragmentary gold ring inscribed with Egyptian hieroglyphs; beads of stone, faience, amber, and bone; fragments of faience rhyta; shell rings; and a globed pin of the type usually dated to the end of the Mycenaean period and later. The east-west route of the ship postulated on the basis of 1984 finds seems certain, but the nationality of the ship remains elusive.  

  I find the certainty about the east-west route of the ship interesting in that it is heavily based on the claim that eastern Mediterranean maritime trade proceeded counterclockwise because it included a leg connecting Crete directly with Egypt, and there is no way that people were then sailing from Egypt and Crete. This has always seemed to me to be a way of quarantining the imaginary Aegean world of the "Myceneans" from an "Asiatic" or Egyptian influence that might metastatise into a "Black Athena." So I'd like to see more proof, less assertion here! (Recycled infographic because for some reason I can't embed the "Where's the white women at?" video today --probably not any video, actually.)

The up-to-date aspect of this story is an isotope analysis of the tin in the shipwreck that claims to solve the "'tin mystery as it has been discussed for more than 150 years'." Isotope analysis has not given the results once hoped for, because deposits are not sufficiently distinct. by combining tin isotope balances with that of alloying lead and comparing them to cassiterite crystals from Anatolia and the Pamirs, it is now claimed that up to a third of the Uluburun tin can be sourced to Central Asia, and the residue to Anatolia, presumably to placer-mined alluvial deposits of cassiterite or the  ores that are no longer commercially viable; or the (possible) exhausted Early Bronze Age cassiterite mine at Kestel in the Taurus mountains of southern Turkey. Alternatively, it might have come from a suspected tin province in Sardinia with the right geology that would have been depleted in antiquity. Berger, et al, point out that smelted ores from the Mushiston mine in Uzbekistan contain significantly more iron, copper, and arsenic than the experimentally smelted Uluburun samples, and that leads of similar radiogenic composition are found in Cornwall and Iberia. They also observe similarities to tin ingots found off Israel, and to a variant sample from the Salcombe (Salcombe II) deposit in Cornwall.

So we are back to furthest east versus furthest west with a brief stop in Sardinia, and a world system extending to at least the Tien Shan or southwestern England, or to both. And yet the odd thing here remains that, as rare as tin is, cassiterite deposits are much more widely distributed than this discussion allows. Before lighting out for the territories, it is common to acknowledge antique tin mining provinces in Serbia (at Mount Cer) and Tuscany, the Monte Valerio deposit last worked during WWII,  and certainly exploited in Antiquity. Cassiterite is found widely in Italy, and when I started down this rabbit hole I was pursuing the faience, or tinglazing industry associated above all with Faenza, Italy. It turns out that Bronze Age faience is a glasslike product and not tin glazing at all. There is definitely more tin ore in Italy than is sometimes assumed, but no-one seems to greatly care where the tin ore used in Early Modern Italian faience came from. 

Given the tin mystery of  150 years standing, one might hope for a bit more curiosity about tin deposits known to have been mined at the time at much greater proximity to Uluburun, but, and here we have an interesting loop back to the modern world, we also have the dominant narrative that stresses the rarity of tin. The International Tin in Council was founded in 1931 specifically to control the international tin trade and, among other things:

 "Prevent or alleviate widespread unemployment or under-employment and other serious difficulties which are likely to result from maladjustments between the supply of and the demand for tin."

It did this by buying tin when it fell below the benchmark price and selling it when it rose above the price until its 1985 collapse. By guaranteeing the availability of tin at "reasonable prices" and "providing a framework" to "protect . . . tin deposits from unnecessary waste or premature abandonment," the Council effectively froze the producer constellation of 1931 in place. The Monte Valerio deposit might not have been economical compared with African, Bolivian, and Malayan ores, and was close to exhaustion anyway, but no-one has looked for tin in Italy since at least 1931, and we should bear in mind that placer deposits of cassiterite might have disappeared without a trace in Antiquity. In short, we have a narrative, put in place to protect the industry, in which tin is so scarce that there is no point in looking for it in places other than where it is convenient to find it. Whatever the consequences of that for industry, it is certainly helping to prolong our 150 year mystery! 

There was, of course, no "International Silver Council" to sustain the price of silver, the bullion metal that replaced bronze as Bronze Age turned to Iron, if bronze was financialised in the first place, but that is because silver is mined in the Mountain West, and the leadership of the Republican Party had no intention of abandoning the gold standard, a compromise ensured that the US government would keep on buying silver for coinage and propping up the price of silver, and thus copper from copper-silver deposits like the Anaconda and the Phoenix until the Coinage Act of 1965 abolished the requirement for silver in the coinage. At the time this was an economy measure. The price of silver was higher than the Mint could pay due to industrial and consumer demand.  And when what was formerly up, the mines closed.  Gold and silver no longer subsidised the production of copper, and the Phoenix Smelter closed. 

I've never been a big fan of the idea of Sardinian raiders precipitating the Late Bronze Age collapse, but something seems to have happened with "Nuragic civilisation" (and also the series of Fortune pictures of Nuragic antiquities that I am sure I posted around here at some point), and there are consequences when you recklessly allow an industry to collapse. Or, you know, all industries, because you've decided that the resource curse is something for  other people to deal with, if necessary through "excessive unemployment and social disruption

Or Goddamn well should be consequences.  

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