There has been much academic controversy about quite when the peoples of the Levant first became involved in trade in the central and western Mediterranean. It seems clear that the first western Phoenician colonies were established during the late ninth/early eighth centuries BC; however, the evidence for ‘pre-colonial’ mercantile activity is far less certain. Some Near Eastern goods were certainly circulating in the region in the earlier period, but who transported them is unknown.64 It is also clear, however, that the central Mediterranean was no unsophisticated backwater, and that the real success of the first identifiable Phoenicians in the area derived not from the establishment of a completely new set of trading networks, but largely from their insertion into ones that already existed.
The island of Sardinia, in particular, had been the nexus of a vibrant transmarine trading circuit that included central Italy, the Aeolian Islands, to the north of Sicily, the Iberian peninsula, Crete and Cyprus and that had existed since the twelfth century or before.65The Nuragic people who had dominated the island since the early Bronze Age possessed a complex society with a sophisticated material culture of which the most striking features are intricate bronze figurines depicting, among other things, wild animals, warriors and boats. As well as communal tombs, well-sanctuaries and subterranean monumental shrines, Nuragic settlements usually consisted of circular dwellings clustered around very substantial two- or three-storey dry-wall towers (nuraghi), sometimes enclosed within a defensive perimeter (and still familiar landmarks on the island). More elaborate complexes with central towers surrounded by smaller lateral ones are thought to have been the strongholds of petty chiefdoms, and some of them were eventually transformed into religious shrines.66 As well as having mastered advanced agricultural techniques such as viticulture, the Nuragic inhabitants of Sardinia also transported goods, including fine pottery, overseas on their own sailing vessels.
The first Phoenician immigrants appear to have arrived on the island in the late ninth or early eighth century BC. Like Cyprus, Sardinia would have been of interest to Phoenician merchants for its substantial inland deposits of copper, lead, iron and silver, which were already being mined by indigenous communities.67 However, despite the fact that there were also fertile coastal plains suitable for agriculture, it appears that the first Levantine presence on Sardinia was very different from the colonial ventures that were taking place at roughly the same time in Cyprus.
At the metalworking centre of Sant’ Imbenia, now modern Alghero, in the north-west of the island, the population was a mixed Nuragic and Phoenician one. Sant’ Imbenia was heavily involved in trading with the Etruscan kingdoms of central Italy, across the Tyrrhenian Sea, and it appears likely that its Nuragic and Phoenician inhabitants were cooperating in commercial ventures.68 Sant’ Imbenia and central Italy would also be the scene of Levantine interactions with other newcomers trying to establish their own commercial and colonial networks. At Pithecusa on the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples, colonists from the Greek island of Euboea had established a settlement which, like Sant’ Imbenia, had a diverse demographic that included indigenous people and a sizeable number of persons of Levantine origin. Archaeologists calculate that the latter may have made up as much as 20 per cent of the settlement’s population.69 It is thought that Euboeans were resident at Sant’ Imbenia too. It has also been suggested recently that the city of Olbia on the north-east coast of Sardinia may have been a Greek or mixed settlement from the second half of the eighth century.70 Certainly there was considerable trade, and possibly other interactions, between the two settlements.71
The chief object of establishing Pithecusa, like Sant’ Imbenia, was to acquire raw materials–particularly iron, which was exchanged with mainland neighbours such as the Etruscans and Campanians for luxury goods from the Near East and the Aegean.72 The presence of ironsmelting workshops shows that the ore was probably processed on the island. Much of the Phoenician consolidation in the West has been viewed as an emphatic response to aggressive Greek colonization in the region; however, there is in fact good evidence for Phoenician–Greek cooperation in some of these early colonies.73 Although new dating evidence seems to show that the Phoenicians were trading in central Italy slightly before the Greeks, there is little evidence for tension between the two during this period.74 At Pithecusa, the Euboeans and the Phoenicians appear to have cooperated with one another because their commercial objectives were complementary rather than competitive. The Phoenicians were interested in acquiring the abundant silver in northern Etruria, a raw material in which the Greeks, despite growing wealth, showed little interest at this time.75 One can assume that the operations in Sardinia were equally complementary. Indeed, one might argue that it is in these first colonial ventures in the central Mediterranean that one witnesses the growth of the ‘Middle Ground’ on which Phoenician, Greek and indigenous populations interacted and cooperated.76