Tin Islands”, from Greek κασσίτερος,
kassíteros “tin”), are an ancient geographical name of islands
that were regarded as situated somewhere near the west coasts of
1 Ancient geography
2 Modern attempts at identification
3 See also
4.1 Primary sources
4.2 Secondary sources
Herodotus (430 BC) had only vaguely heard of the Cassiterides, "from
which we are said to have our tin," but did not discount the islands
as legendary. Later writers — Posidonius, Diodorus Siculus,
Strabo and others – call them smallish islands off ("some way
Strabo says) the northwest coast of the Iberian Peninsula, which
contained tin mines or, according to Strabo, tin and lead mines. A
passage in Diodorus derives the name rather from their nearness to the
tin districts of Northwest Iberia.
Ptolemy and Dionysios Periegetes
mentioned them – the former as ten small islands in Northwest Iberia
far off the coast and arranged symbolically as a ring, and the latter
in connection with the mythical Hesperides. The islands are described
by Pomponius Mela as rich in lead; they are mentioned last in the
same paragraph he wrote about
Cadiz and the islands of Lusitania, and
placed in Celtici. Following paragraphs describe the
Île de Sein
Île de Sein and
Probably written in the first century BC, the verse Circumnavigation
of the World, whose anonymous author is called the "Pseudo-Scymnus,"
places two tin islands in the upper part of the
Adriatic Sea and
mentioned the marketplace Osor on the island of Cres, where
extraordinarily high quality tin could be bought. Pliny the
Elder, on the other hand, represents the
Cassiterides as fronting
At a time when geographical knowledge of the West was still scanty,
and when the secrets of the tin trade were still successfully guarded
by the seamen of Gades (modern Cadiz) and others who dealt in the
metal, the Greeks knew only that tin came to them by sea from the far
West, and the idea of tin-producing islands easily arose. Later, when
the West was better explored, it was found that tin actually came from
two regions: Galicia, in the Northwest of the Iberia, Devon and
Cornwall. Diodorus reports: "For there are many mines of tin in the
Lusitania and on the islets which lie off Iberia out in
the ocean and are called because of that fact the Cassiterides."
According to Diodorus tin also came from Britannia to Gaul and thence
was brought overland to Massilia and Narbo. Neither of these could
be called small islands or accurately described as off the northwest
coast of Iberia, and so the Greek and Roman geographers did not
identify either as the Cassiterides. Instead, they became a third,
ill-understood source of tin, conceived of as distinct from Iberia or
Strabo says that a Publius Crassus was the first Roman to visit the
Tin Islands and write a first-hand report. This Crassus is thought to
be either the Publius Licinius Crassus Dives who was a governor in
Hispania in the 90s, or his grandson by the same name, who in
57–56 BC commanded Julius Caesar's forces in Armorica
(Brittany), which places him near the mouth of the Loire.
Modern attempts at identification
Modern writers have made many attempts to identify them. Small
islands off the northwest coast of the Iberian Peninsula, the
headlands of that same coast, the Isles of Scilly, Cornwall, and the
British Isles as a whole, have all in turn been suggested, but none
suits the conditions. Neither the Iberian islands nor the Isles of
Scilly contain tin, at least in significant quantities. It seems most
probable, therefore, that the name
Cassiterides represents the first
vague knowledge of the Greeks that tin was found overseas, somewhere
in, off, or near Western Europe.
Gavin de Beer
Gavin de Beer has suggested that Roger Dion had solved the
puzzle by bringing to bear a chance remark in Avienus' late poem
Ora maritima, which is based on early sources: the tin isles were in
an arm of the sea within sight of wide plains and rich mines of tin
and lead, and opposite two islands — a further one, Hibernia, and a
nearer one, Britannia. "Before the estuary of the Loire became silted
up in late Roman times, the
Bay of Biscay
Bay of Biscay led into a wide gulf, now
represented by the lower reaches of the river Brivet and the
marshes of the Brière, between
Paimboeuf and St. Nazaire, in which
were a number of islands. The islands and shores of this gulf, now
joined together by silt, are crowded with Bronze Age foundries that
worked tin and lead; Pénestin and the tin headland are just north
of them; and there can be no doubt that the famous tin islands were
there." De Beer confirms the location from Strabo: the Cassiterides
are ten islands in the sea, north of the land of the
Artabrians in the
northwest corner of Hispania.
E. Thomas from the French BRGM showed in a 2004 report that tin mines
were probably operated by the Romans at La Hye, near Ploërmel.
This tin might have transited down the
Oust river and the Vilaine
river to the sea, where it could be transferred on seagoing ships,
possibly at Pénestin, giving some support to de Beer's suggestion
Tin mining in Britain
Tin sources and trade in ancient times
Herodotus, Histories 3.115
Diodorus Siculus, Historical Library V. 21, 22, 38
Strabo, Geography 2.5.15, 3.2.9, 3.5.11
Pliny the Elder, Natural History iv. 119, Vii. 197, xxxiv. 156–158
T. Rice Holmes, Ancient Britain (1907), appendix, identifies the
Cassiterides with the British Isles.
Louis Chauris, Les anciennes extractions d'étain à Piriac et à
Pénestin. Leur place dans l'histoire des exploitations de
Cassitérite en Bretagne. , Bulletin de l'Association bretonne, 131e
congrès : Le Croisic - Guérande - La Baule, tome 113, 2004,
page 380. 
E. Thomas et al., Carte Géologique de la France - Ploërmel, BRGM,
2004, see p 88-90 
John Taylor, Albion: the earliest history" (Dublin, 2016)
^ George Smith, The Cassiterides: An Inquiry Into the Commercial
Operations of the Phoenicians in Western Europe, 1860, a response to
W. D. Cooley's published scepticism about the cherished opinion of the
Cornwall as source of Phoenician tin, was reprinted in 2008.
^ Herodotus, iv.
^ Diodorus, v.38.4, places the
Cassiterides off the northern coast of
^ Strabo, III.5.11, calls them "islands in the sea" "opposite"
Hispania to the north and twice goes out of his way to enumerate them
separately from Britain (II.5.30; III.5.11).
^ De Chorographia, III.39
^ CHURCH AND STATE REVIEW, edited by the VENERABLE ARCHDEACON DENISON,
Volume III., page 36, published at the Office, No. 13, Burleigh
Street, Strand, W.C., London 1863.
^ Jadranski Zbornik, svezak 8, str. 356, Povijesno društvo Istre,
Povijesno društvo Rijeke, Povijesno društvo Hrvatske, Izdavačko
poduzeće "Otokar Keršovani", 1973.
^ Diodorus, v.38.4: "And tin is brought in large quantities also from
the island of Britain to the opposite Gaul,55 where it is taken by
merchants on horses through the interior of Celtica both to the
Massalians and to the city of Narbo, as it is called." '
^ Christopher Hawkes, "Britain and Julius Caesar,” Proceedings of
the British Academy 63 (1977) 124–192; also J.S. Richardson,
Hispaniae: Spain and the Development of Roman Imperialism, 218–82 BC
(Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 159 online. T. Corey Brennan,
in The Praetorship in the Roman Republic (Oxford University Press,
2000), vol. 2, p. 501 online, believes the expedition to the
Cassiterides was "a purely scientific trip."
^ Theodor Mommsen, History of Rome (1894), vol. 4, p. 63 = Römische
Geschichte (1889), vol. 3, p. 269; T. Rice Holmes, "The Cassiterides,
Ictis, and the British Trade in Tin," in Ancient Britain and the
Julius Caesar (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907) pp.
483–498, on authorship pp. 494–497 online; see also article on
Publius Licinius Crassus (son of triumvir), section on authorship.
^ R. Dion, "Le problème des Cassiterides," Latomus 11 (1952) pp
^ Gavin de Beer, "Iktin", The Geographical Journal 126.2 (June
1960:160–167), p. 166.
^ Dion, "Le problème des Cassitérides," Latomus 11 (1952:306-14)
^ Brivet: Le Brivet est une rivière de Loire-Atlantique, dernier
affluent de la Loire, traversant les Marais de Grande Brière.
^ "The village of Penestin on the headland south of the estuary of the
Brittany means the tin cape". (de Beers 1960:162).
^ E. Thomas et al., Carte Géologique de la France - Ploërmel, BRGM,
2004, see p 88-90
This article incorporates text from a publication now in
the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Cassiterides".
Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University