Over 100 pieces of cloths dating to the 10th century BCE in Israel have been discovered at the Timna copper mines, deep in the desert. The textile pieces, most made of wool but some of linen, shed the first light on fashion in the days of King David's kingdom. They were of an unexpectedly high quality, equivalent in their weaving to fabrics made a thousand years later by the Romans, said the surprised archaeologists.

"Most of the fragments were tiny, some only 5 by 5 centimeters, but some were big," Erez Ben Yosef, head of the Tel Aviv University team that made the discovery, told Haaretz.

"Timna is a unique site, practically unmatched in Israel or anywhere else in the Levant," Ben Yosef says. "The extreme aridity at Timna preserves organic remains that couldn't have been preserved anywhere else, not at Megiddo or Lachish or Hatzor, and not even anywhere else in the Arava Valley."

Edomites at work

According to the bible, the copper mines at Timna were operated by Edomites, who had become subjected to Jerusalem after King David's conquests. The archaeologists surmise that soldiers were sent by Jerusalem to supervise the mining operations, protect the site and collect tax from the Edomites.

Therefore, the textiles found at Timna are believed to have belonged to the Edomite workers, not to Israelites per se, but they're the closest example we have for fashion in the days of David and Solomon.

"We do not claim these are clothing of the Kingdom of Israel, but do assume the society in the 10th century BCE Arava wove cloth and dressed similarly to the manner in Jerusalem," says Ben-Yosef. "If the biblical description is right and the area had been subject to Jerusalem, the textiles themselves could have come from there. They are the only textiles discovered from that era in the whole of the southern Levant. We have never found textile samples in Jerusalem, nor are we likely to."

The Timna textiles found were of three types: most was made of sheep's wool, and some was made of goat hair, and fine linen. The goat hair textile was left undyed, while the sheep's wool textiles were characterized by delicate striping. This is the earliest-known example of vegetable-based dye usage in Israel, adds the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Goats and sheep were not local, nor was the linen, says Ben-Yosef: the raw materials for the textiles, or as said the textiles themselves, had to have come from far away.

The same applies to other organic materials found in the context of the so-called King Solomon's mines at Timna – the area being dry as a bone, and about as hospitable as one, practically everything had to be imported. Such as the fish they ate, as we know from bones.

Aside from the textiles, the Tel Aviv researchers also found fabrics they believe served as saddles (used to ride donkeys) as well as cloth sacks, tents and ropes. "We also found the donkeys' stable," Ben Yosef adds.

The archaeologists assume the textiles are remains of clothing and whatnot used by the copper-workers themselves. The latest thinking about the Timna's Edomite metal-workers is that they were not lowly slaves beaten to and from their fiery menial jobs. They were a highly respected elite doing skilled work.

Smelting copper 3,000 years ago required a great deal of knowhow; worship is also believed to have been involved in the process of turning stone into metal, Ben Yosef points out. "We found simply woven, elaborately decorated fabrics worn by the upper echelon of their stratified society," he said. The masters managing the copper furnaces were apparently garbed in luxury-grade fabrics.

Why would the ancients have gone to such trouble to import foods, textiles and just about everything else to the heart of the desert, just to mine copper? "The possession of copper was a source of great power, much as oil is today," Ben-Yosef says. "If a person had the exceptional knowledge to ‘create copper,’ he was considered well-versed in an extremely sophisticated technology. He would have been considered magical or supernatural, and his social status would have reflected this."

The archaeologists also recently discovered thousands of seeds of the Biblical “Seven Species” at the site — the two grains and five fruits considered unique products of the Land of Israel. Some of the seeds were subjected to radiocarbon dating, providing robust confirmation for the age of the site: some 3,000 years old.