The Israelites and Ancient Tin Trade From the British Isles

Evidence that the seafaring tribe of Dan made it to southwest England
Some of the studied tin ingots from the sea off the coast of Israel (approx. 1300-1200 BCE).
Ehud Galili

Cornwall, in the southwestern part of the United Kingdom, is well known for its tin mines, many of which go back hundreds, even thousands of years. The mines show the process of tin mining from the 12th century b.c.e. Earlier last year, I had the opportunity to visit some of those mines.

During the 1970s and ’80s, archaeologists found tin ingots all across the Middle East. But only now—with new technology—have they been able to learn exactly where the tin was sourced. There are ancient tin mines all across the region, from Afghanistan to Turkey—besides those further afield, including in Spain and southwest England. But it was generally assumed that the tin found in Iron Age Israel came from more local sources.

Counties of England: Note the mining counties of Cornwall and Devon, furthest southwest.

To the surprise of researchers, that proved not to be the case. A study in the plos One journal, released in 2019, analyzed tin ingots found in a shipwreck off the coast of Israel’s port of Haifa and traced them to their source for the first time.

These ingots and related remains were dated to around 1200 b.c.e. Through isotopic analysis and other analysis of trace elements, the interdisciplinary German, Italian, American and Israeli researchers were able to deduce the tin’s origin. They analyzed 27 blocks of tin from several locations in the Mediterranean and found that those from the area of Haifa were sourced from a different location than the others found around the Mediterranean Basin. This tin was sourced from mines in Cornwall, England!

Who Was Living on the Coast of Israel?

During the Iron Age, the people living along much of the northern coast of the Levant were known as “Phoenicians.” This sea-faring people apparently arrived in the Levant around the same time the Israelites did. The Phoenicans ended up settling different colonies throughout the Mediterranean, spreading out in areas such as Cyprus, Crete, North Africa, Spain and some parts of France. Herodotus, the fifth-century b.c.e. historian, wrote about how the Phoenicians traveled up to the islands in the western part of Europe—the “tin islands,” as he called them. The Phoenicians evidently made it all the way to the British Isles where they traded, perhaps even mined, and brought tin back to the coasts of the Levant.

These Phoenicians are an enigmatic people, known as a “lost civilization.” Their ethnicity is uncertain, and though they are generally assumed to have a significant status throughout the Iron Age (circa 1200–600 b.c.e.), the only real information about them comes from the later centuries of that period. The earliest biblical mention is a link to the patriarch Canaan (his son Zidon, circa 2000 b.c.e.—Genesis 10:15—after whom the famous Phoenician city would be named), but the record during the second millennium b.c.e. is sparse.

Speculative map of Phoenicia and Phoenician trade routes during the middle first millennium B.C.E.

The Israelites Around 1200 b.c.e.

The biblical account is descriptive of the land given to the Israelites, and details whether and when they conquered certain portions of that land. According to biblical chronology, Israel arrived in the Promised Land around 1400 b.c.e., at which time Joshua proceeded to conquer the Canaanite territory (a picture of this tumultuous period can be gained from the 14th-century Amarna Letters, written by Canaanite leaders desperate for military aid against the invading Habiru).

But as the Bible relates, very few of the Canaanite cities were actually destroyed. Land battles were staged, rather than citywide destruction—and the Bible says the Israelites would inhabit the towns, houses and fields the Canaanites had built, continuing to use the same wells and glean the same vineyards (Deuteronomy 6:11—hence why archaeology attests to a continuation of the material culture).

As the Israelites entered the Promised Land, the tribes of Reuben, Gad and half of Manasseh settled in territory east of the Jordan River. The other nine tribes set up on the western side of the Jordan River—all the way to the coast.

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Tribal Inheritance

Judges 1 discusses the land that was left to take over after the initial conquests of Joshua. It was up to the tribal leaders to come together and take their tribal inheritance.

Yet they failed to complete their mission; the tribes didn’t fully conquer the land allotted to them.

Notice the tribe of Asher. Judges 1:31 says, “Asher drove not out the inhabitants of Acco, nor the inhabitants of Zidon, nor of Ahlab, nor of Achzib ….” These Phoenician-associated cities, which were along the coastline from Haifa northward, were intended for the tribal inheritance of Asher. “[B]ut the Asherites dwelt among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land; for they did not drive them out” (verse 32).

The Danites were likewise intended for the coast. However, even they were driven back from this territory (verse 34).

As such, the Danites sought an alternative territory (Judges 18:1). An element of the tribe of Dan went north of Hazor, all the way to the source of the Jordan River. As was characteristic of this tribe, they named territory they came into contact with in honor of their patriarch, Dan. Upon arriving at the northern city of Laish, the tribe of Dan conquered it, settled and named it “Dan” (verses 29-31). Today, the area is known as “Tel Dan.”

Following biblical chronology, this event occurred sometime around the 14th century b.c.e.—still one to two centuries prior to our tin shipwreck.

Clients on Ships

Judges 4 and 5 detail a battle that took place around 1200 b.c.e. between Israel, led by Barak and Deborah, and Jabin, the king of Hazor. It is here that we begin to see a transforming, and more detailed, picture of Israel’s tribes.

Not all of the Israelite tribes fought with Deborah—some were preoccupied with their lives outside of the Israelite confederacy and wouldn’t join the fight against this Canaanite king. Four specific tribes are mentioned as not fighting with Deborah. Reuben was indecisive—the Bible says “there were great searchings of heart”—and they didn’t join (Judges 5:15-16). The tribe of Gad also didn’t join.

Verse 17 says, “Gilead abode beyond Jordan: and why did Dan remain in ships? Asher continued on the sea shore, and abode in his breaches [ports]”(King James Version).

Map of the tribes of Israel. Note the “Phoenician” chief cities of Tyre and Sidon/Zidon within the territory of Asher. Dan’s secondary location was in the north of the territory of Naphtali.
Malus Catulus

Dan and Asher didn’t fight with Deborah, even though their territory was close to the battle in Hazor. The Bible says their business was in the ports and on ships (the word indicating long-distance vessels) right around the time that the tin-bearing vessel was sunk in the Haifa bay.

American archaeologist Lawrence Stager gives more details about the Danites in the north in his report titled “The Song of Deborah. He wrote, “In light of this background, I would translate the verse about Dan in the song of Deborah as follows: ‘And Dan, why did he serve as the client on ships?’ In this translation, yagur has the meaning ‘to serve as a client,’ as a ger, rather than the traditional translation of yagur as ‘abide’ [or ‘remain’]. By ‘client,’ I mean an economic dependent attached to a patron, a kind of economic ward.”

As the Bible describes, these Danites were abiding, dwelling and working on these traveling ships.

Where were they traveling? Well, the ships sunk at Haifa Bay came from Cornwall.

Speaking of the Asherites that dwelt among the Canaanites, Stager continued, “These villages in the hills overlook, and have easy access to the rich maritime Plain of Acco. For their territorial homeland, tribesmen from Asher may have commuted to work as agricultural laborers on the Canaanite estates in the plain or as seamen and dockworkers at the port of Acco. Whatever the case, these new discoveries give vivid meaning to the saying in the Song of Deborah: ‘Asher remained on the seacoast and over its inlets dwelt.’”

He concluded: “The reluctance of Dan and Asher to join the highlanders in this war against the Canaanites seems more understandable in light of their economic dependence on non-Israelite groups in the maritime trade. Like Reuben and Gilead/Gad, Dan and Asher had ties to non-Israelites that proved stronger than those that bound them to their tribal confederation.”

That is why they didn’t fight with Deborah and Barak; they were busy on ships, working the docks, traveling as clients on ships.

A reconstruction of the main altar of the cult center at Tel Dan, where King Jeroboam set up one of two religious centers for the northern kingdom of Israel.
Watch Jerusalem

Similar People

The history of Cornwall and Devon shows that people were traveling to Britain who were very different from those already living in the land. Southern British history depicts a group of people with a similar language to those in Ireland that would set up their own unique religious worship. This was in no way the sanctified Israelite worship of Shiloh and later Jerusalem, but it was very similar to the Israelite worship centered at Tel Dan.

A 16th-century British historian, describing the history of these southern regions, discussed the Dann Moiners that lived there. Moiners means “miners”—thus, “Dan’s Miners.”

Putting together the rich folklore and the historical record with the archaeological discoveries, the tribe of Dan could well have been on the Cornwall coast digging mines, excavating tin, and exporting it back home to the Levant, to the Asherite-worked ports (the tribe of Asher is also linked with metallurgy, e.g. Deuteronomy 33:24-25).

Some of the studied tin ingots from the sea off the coast of Israel (circa 1300–1200 B.C.E.)
Ehud Galili

Where They Are Today

The Bible is a book primarily about Israel. The Jews—the tribe of Judah—continued to keep God’s Sabbath law (His identifying command, Exodus 31), which makes them the Israelites that are easiest to trace throughout history. Follow the Sabbath-keeping and you follow the Jews. But there are more tribes of Israel than just the Jews, or the southern kingdom of Judah (made up primarily of Judah, but also Benjamin and Levi—see 1 Kings 12).

What about the other tribes? What about the “lost 10 tribes,” the northern kingdom of Israel that was conquered and deported by the Assyrians in the eighth century b.c.e.?

Following their deportation, the Israelites migrated elsewhere from captivity. But they were prophesied to be nations and peoples today. Biblical prophecy concerns these Israelites, not only the little nation of Israel (Judah) in the Middle East today, so it is important to know where they are.

Herbert W. Armstrong’s book The United States and Britain in Prophecy explains the modern identity of these “lost” nations of Israel—and their modern connection to a land they anciently mined. If you haven’t already, please request a free copy of this book. It is extremely interesting and poignant for our time right now. If you know the identities of the lost tribes of Israel, then you can know what all the prophecies are about.