Monday, 26 May 2008

Watchet blue

Wilson Beckles, writing in 1902, pointed out that available tin was not really found in what we now call Cornwall until mid 1750s, so if there was a trade in tin, then the mines would have been in the vast lands that are now submerged. He argued: “Britain became to the Phoenicians what Peru in later years came to be to Spain”.

The parish council’s official guide to the Scilly Isles says boldly: “The isles were found 3,000 years ago by Hamilco, a Carthaginian of the Silures, a Phoeniciean colony in Spain”. If it was that Hamilco, then he is usually thought to have found Britain in 450BC.

The name Silures is probably Roman. Tacitus called them “a naturally fierce people” and speculates: “The dark complexion of the Silures, their usually curly hair, and the fact that Spain is the opposite shore to them, are an evidence that Iberians of a former date crossed over and occupied these parts."

There has been some conjecture on whether modern day Welsh people owe their DNA to this tough tribe (of whom Caractacus was one leader), but so might be said of the early Basques who share the west coast route and have no obvious DNA family either.

Roman writers noted the sophistication of this westerly community.

Diodorus Sicilus reported “the Britons…live in a very hospitable and polite manner”.
He decribed the trade of how the tin was mined, then taken to the islands to be fashioned into ingots and then to Gaul and overland on horse packs to Marseilles in 30 days.

Town names too owe something to the Phonecian alphabet with endings like Pon meaning pennah in Phoencian or a hill; and tre taken from tiara meaning town or castle on a hill.

The Greeks did not arrive until 350 BC, looking for sure for the Phoencian tin treasure trove. They called it Cassiterides deriving from the local dialect as meaning wood-land.

The Phoenicians may well also have tried to keep the location of the tin mines in Cornwall a secret because they were so valuable. They needed the tin and lead to make pans that would not discolour for their famous emblematic purple dyes. Even more emotionally important and quite plausible and another link back to the oyster areas of the west country is that the dye was extracted from crushed shells of the Muricidae, a predatory snail whose poisonous toxins turn purple when exposed to air. It is a voracious predator on other shellfish and so possibly therein was another trade for which the oyster communities would have been a thankful supplier.

The purple dye was so valued in ancient Rome and before then because it required huge numbers of snails – maybe 1200 to dye a single toga. When the snail dies it releases pigmented toxins, so larger molluscs had their shells broken, the veins removed while smaller ones were ground up. In fact some of the snails are edible too, although some people can react badly to the toxins. Equally there were other shells that created the same effects for example Nucella lapillus, the common dog whelk. In 1685 AD William Cole proved the dog whelks he gathered on the shores of Bristol Channel could also be a source of dye and showed how by exposure to sunlight caused the glands to change colour through a spectrum from cloudy white, light green, deep green, sea green, Watchet blue, purplish red and finally a deep purple, emitting a pungent garlic-like odour.

Less wonder then perhaps it was said that a Phoenician captain would have scuppered his ship, rather than reveal the location of the tin mines to an enemy boat following him on the high seas. Or the location of his dyes, which would cost considerably more than gold, in some estimates 15 to 20 times as much.

The Phoencians appear to have settled in Cornwall and inter married. This may have been peaceful or otherwise. Some accounts say that the tin was shipped to France and then taken south to Spain by packhorses, but that does not seem logical. Why risk carrying such a precious cargo on land where it might be hijacked, when transparently they had ships and boats aplenty to take it more safely on the sea?

J.A. Buckley’s 1988 account of The Cornish Mining Industry (Tor Mark Press) has the tin industry stretching from Dartmoor to Land’s End. He writes:

“Historical references... show a well-established and fairly sophisticated tin trade between Cornwall and the Mediterranean by the 4th century BC. There is little evidence that the great events of history - such as the invasion by the Romans and their subsequent withdrawal 400 years later - did any more than temporarily disturb that international trade.”

Pytheas of Massalia (Marseilles) is credited with circumnavigating Britain between 325-250 BC and reported on the importance of west country tin and said the Cornish were “friendly and civilised” which they had learnt from contact with “foreign merchants”.

Even earlier perhaps, possibly 2600BC, there is evidence of mining for copper at Great Orme near Llandudno on the North Wales coast. Bronze is usually a mix of copper and tin, so to have a bronze age it must have come from somewhere. There is more evidence to back this up too – a fragment of a bronze dagger found at Pelynt Cornwall appears to be of Greek design and dates 1200BC