From the Lion Gate at Mycenae to Lake Thun – far-flung trade routes emerged during the Bronze Age.
From the Lion Gate at Mycenae to Lake Thun – far-flung trade routes emerged during the Bronze Age. Wikimedia / Andreas Trepte

The King of Thun and his links with Mycenae

In the early Bronze Age, the area around Lake Thun benefited from its position on important trade routes. Members of the wealthy elite had themselves buried along with magnificent grave goods. These objects indicate connections reaching as far afield as Mycenae, Cyprus, Anatolia and the Gaza Strip.

Selina Stokar

Selina Stokar

Selina Stokar is a historian and works in the programme department of the Bernisches Historisches Museum.

A powerful person was laid to rest in Thun-Renzenbühl around 1750 BCE. It would appear to be a man, a petty king of the kind described by Homer – although archaeologists have been known to assign the wrong sex to other unearthed remains. He – assuming that the skeleton is in fact that of a male – was buried along with a number of magnificent items intended to ensure he would lack for nothing in the afterlife. Garment pins, a belt hook and dagger adorned the dead man’s clothing. He was also wearing six torques, a mark of his considerable wealth. A bit like being buried today with three Rolex watches on your wrist. More is more.
The grave inventory from Thun-Renzenbühl.
The grave inventory from Thun-Renzenbühl. © Bernisches Historisches Museum, Bern. Photo: Nadja Frey
But that’s not all: the blade of a representative battle axe, decorated with pin-shaped gold inlays, was also found in the king’s grave when discovered in the 19th century. A beautiful piece of work executed using a complicated technique. One that was invented in the Lake Thun area? No: objects embellished in the same manner have been found primarily in the Aegean and at Mycenae, the city celebrated by Homer as “golden”. So, how did a petty king living in the Bern region almost 4,000 years ago come to be buried with such a high-prestige object made using a technique originating in the Aegean?
Axe blade from Thun-Renzenbühl.
Axe blade from Thun-Renzenbühl. © Bernisches Historisches Museum, Bern. Photo: Nadja Frey
And the ‘King of Thun’ was not the only person in this part of the Bernese Oberland in whose grave fabulous goods with connections to far-off lands were placed. Around the same time, a man in Hilterfingen was sent on his journey into the afterlife with an exotic-looking needle that most closely resembles similar items found in Cyprus, Anatolia and the Gaza Strip. The king’s contemporaries in Spiez were similarly prepared to spend a considerable amount on their burial sites and the possessions placed in them. Although none of the artefacts found in these elite graves indicate links with faraway places, they do hint at the occupant’s wealth. One woman was buried with a giant cloak pin and elaborate headgear, and a 13-year-old boy was interred with axe blade and dagger, just like an adult. In the settlement where Spiez Castle now stands prominently on its hill, the steering wheel of a Ferrari was found – by which I naturally mean its Bronze Age equivalent: a horse bit. Back then, horses were the newest and most prestigious way of getting from one place to another. It was in the Bronze Age that those who could afford to do so began to ride horses, making these noble and expensive beasts a status symbol for the select few.
A sign of wealth: early horse bit from Spiez Castle.
A sign of wealth: early horse bit from Spiez Castle. © Bernisches Historisches Museum, Bern. Photo: Stefan Rebsamen
So: why do particularly wealthy elites, some with connections to distant places, appear to have formed around Lake Thun in the Bronze Age? The reason almost certainly lies in the material whose widespread use from 2200 to 800 BCE would ‒ millennia later ‒ give this historical era its name: bronze. Bronze is an alloy, a blend of copper and tin, whose hardness and suitability for mass-producing objects fundamentally transformed people’s lives. The formula for making it – nine parts copper to one part tin – is thought to have been developed 5,000 years ago in western Asia before subsequently making its way to Europe.
Diffusion of metallurgy in the period from 3800 BCE to the Bronze Age (2200 to 800 BCE).
Diffusion of metallurgy in the period from 3800 BCE to the Bronze Age (2200 to 800 BCE). Wikimedia
However, it is rare for copper and tin to be found together in the same location, meaning they had to be imported over long distances from far-flung parts of the world. The situation was no different in the Ancient Near East, home to the more advanced cultures of the age ‒ the Hittite Empire, Troy, Egypt, Babylon, Crete and Mycenae. Therefore, far-ranging trade networks were required for bronze to be made in these places. Thanks to its deposits of copper and tin, Europe became a supplier of raw materials to the civilizations of the Ancient Near East, and drew closer to its periphery.
This proved beneficial to the elites that had formed along the shores of Lake Thun, whose sphere of influence lay in a strategically favourable location that linked Alpine passes and water transportation routes. It is believed that scores of trade routes, along which copper, tin and other sought after commodities, such as amber from the Baltic, were transported, ran past their centres of power. At that point, copper had the shortest journey of them all, being mined in the Alps, in Austria, Graubünden and Oberhalbstein, and possibly even in the Bernese Oberland, for example in Simmental. In other words, right on the doorstep of the Lake Thun notables. But it goes without saying that not only goods travelled along these trade routes: people, ideas and knowledge did too. For example, knowledge of an inlaying technique from the Aegean, which then helped make the axe blade belonging to the King of Thun. Around 4,000 years ago, the collective hunger for raw materials created economic and cultural links on an unprecedented scale between Europe and Egypt, the Ancient Near East and the Aegean. Thun, Hilterfingen and Spiez came into contact – albeit possibly indirectly – with Babylon, Hattusa, Troy and Mycenae. A globalised Bronze Age world came into being, the largest case of pre-modern interconnectivity not based on military conquest. So, is globalisation really a new phenomenon?
Trailer for the exhibition "And then came bronze!" at the Bernisches Historisches Museum YouTube/ BHM

And then came bronze!

01.02.2024 21.04.2025 / Bernisches Historisches Museum
The “Bronze Hand of Prêles”, found in 2017 in the Bernese Jura, is one of the outstanding testimonies to the Bronze Age in Europe. It is the oldest replica of a human body part in bronze known in Europe, and places the Bernese Seeland on a level with advanced civilizations at that time in Babylon, Crete and Troy. The exhibition is core to the focus topic for the Bernisches Historisches Museum in 2024, “Bronze”. It is accompanied by a rich variety of supporting events and educational offers. For further information on the exhibition click here.

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