"The ancient Sidonians sifted the sand and brought it here manually," she says. "It's bizarre. They went to a lot of trouble to make this layer." Was this a custom brought to Sidon by a wave of invaders? The evidence doesn't say. The bodies initially placed in the layer were those of elite warriors. Their graves were constructed with bricks and adorned with elegantly crafted weapons. Later regular citizens, including children whose bodies were placed in clay pots, were also buried in this layer.
Researchers studying the weapons of the warriors have gleaned important clues from the metal. Analysis of isotopes indicates that the ores used to make the weapons came from mines in modern Turkey, Cyprus, or Syria, evidence that the Sidonians were already engaged in a flourishing metals trade in the eastern Mediterranean by 1950 b.c.
Across the Mediterranean in Spain, the timbers of two seventh-century b.c. Phoenician shipwrecks discovered in the Bay of Mazarrón near Cartagena are providing a different type of information—about how Phoenicians constructed their ships. "For the first time we have the actual ships of the Phoenicians," says Ivan Negueruela of Spain's National Museum for Maritime Archaeology. "Their ships are the key to their colonizing, the way they traveled the Mediterranean. We can't understand them without their ships. Now we can see how they actually cut the wood, how they joined it."
The ships reveal that the Phoenicians used mortise-and-tenon joints, giving their boats more strength than earlier boats, which were basically made of planks sewn together. The team discovered a wooden anchor that had been filled with lead, apparently a novel invention of the Phoenicians. Researchers also found intact Phoenician knots, amphorae the crew used to store trade goods, and mills they used to grind wheat. The hulls of the boats were lined with brush, the Phoenician version of bubble wrap, to keep their cargo of lead ingots from shifting and damaging the hulls. That meant the Mazarrón ships, measuring about 25 feet (7.6-meters) in length, were working boats, rather than the impressive galleys historical sources say the Phoenicians sailed.
The Phoenicians may have used these smaller boats to ferry cargo to galleys waiting offshore. The boats seemed too small to have made the open-sea journeys back to Phoenician home ports. But Phoenician seafaring skills and larger vessels let them travel into the Atlantic and trade along the African coast.
When did they first reach the Atlantic? Scholars debate the possibilities. Classical texts suggest they had established a colony beyond the Strait of Gibraltar at Cadiz by 1100 b.c., but no archaeological remains can be dated earlier than the eighth century b.c. Spanish archaeologist Francisco Giles, a veteran explorer of ancient ruins near the coast of Andalusia, thinks a painting in a rock-shelter in the mountains overlooking the strait may answer the question. The painting, discovered in a remote part of a cork tree forest, stylistically dates to the end of the second millennium b.c. and portrays a sailing ship surrounded by a group of stick figures.
"This represents contact," says Giles. "The local people were painting something they had never seen before."
"The ships were most likely Phoenician, because it was the Phoenicians who settled here," says his collaborator, Clive Finlayson of the Gibraltar Museum.
And settle the Phoenicians did. By the eighth century b.c. they had established communities along the entire southern coast of Spain to reap the harvest of the land and the riches of the Iberian mines.
"They created the concept of colonization," says Giles. "They brought to the Iberians all the products of cultures to the east. In return the Phoenicians got the Iberians' natural resources."
The Phoenicians would have brought something else to Spain—their Y chromosomes. Spencer Wells and Pierre Zalloua want to search for Phoenician markers in living Spaniards. But to help them identify those markers, they are first taking blood samples closer to the Phoenician homeland.
A steep hill known as the Byrsa rises along the Tunisian coast of North Africa, overlooking the residences of modern Carthage, the most affluent suburb of Tunis, the capital. In the distance peninsulas and promontories stretch into the blue sea. On a sunny October morning Wells and Zalloua ascend the Byrsa and peer down on the excavated streets of one of the earliest colonies, and certainly the grandest, established by the Phoenicians.
Founded by the city of Tyre as early as 814 b.c., Carthage emerged as a formidable power itself about 300 years later, after a 13-year siege by the Babylonians depleted Tyre's resources. Eventually Carthage dominated the western Mediterranean and gradually developed its own culture, known as Punic to the Romans. As Rome emerged as a central Mediterranean power in the third century b.c., it clashed with Carthage in a series of confrontations known as the Punic Wars. The famous Carthaginian general Hannibal nearly conquered Rome, but in 202 b.c. he was defeated near Carthage. In 146 b.c. Rome burned and destroyed this last major Phoenician city.