For centuries the desert mines at Timna, in modern-day southern Israel, provided great riches in the form of copper that was sold across the Mediterranean world.
But just around 3,000 years ago, in the early ninth century B.C.E., this mega mining operation in the arid Arava Valley suddenly shut down, resuming extraction on a much smaller scale only in Roman times.
Archaeologists investigating the ancient site now have a new theory about why this happened. Rather than the copper ore becoming tapped out, it appears that the miners overexploited the already sparse desert vegetation for fuel, to the point that the extraction of the mineral became unprofitable.
The environmental damage was such that the ecosystem around Timna never completely recovered. Some species of plants that once abounded there are still absent three millennia later, the researchers say in a paper published in Nature Scientific Reports.
Nicknamed “King Solomon’s mines” by its early 20th century explorers, the site at Timna has a very long history, most of which (or all of which, depending on who you ask), had nothing to do with the fabled biblical monarch. People have been mining for copper there, appropriately, since the Copper Age, more than 6,000 years ago. But production only truly scaled up in the Late Bronze Age, in the 13th century B.C.E., under the auspices of the Egyptians, who then controlled Timna and most of the Levant.
When the Egyptians withdrew from the region a century later, following a Mediterranean-wide crisis known as the Bronze Age Collapse, the mines were left in the hands of local nomadic tribes, who continued to exploit them with great success. As the Iron Age dawned, they continued to export copper to distant lands including Egypt and Greece, and in turn acquired precious textiles and rare food delicacies unheard of in this remote desert area, archaeological findings at Timna have shown.
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Who exactly were these elusive miners, and who ruled them has been the subject of much research and discussion. All we can say for certain is that the peak of industrial production at Timna was reached during the Early Iron Age, from the 11th to the ninth century B.C.E., a time that roughly coincides with the supposed existence of the United Monarchy of David and Solomon over the biblical Israelites. Timna has recently become a flashpoint in the debate over the historicity of this biblical kingdom.
While the new study only touches upon the issue very peripherally, it does focus on this period when the mines were at their zenith and David and Solomon supposedly ruled in Jerusalem, 300 kilometers to the north.
By analyzing the thick layers of charcoal left during these centuries of intense copper smelting in the furnaces of Timna, a team of archaeologists from Tel Aviv University was able to determine the mix of plants used to power the extraction of metal from ore.
Even when burnt to a crisp, microscopic analysis can distinguish between the anatomical structures of different species found in charcoals, as well as which parts of a plant were used, says Dr. Dafna Langgut, who heads the Laboratory of Archaeobotany and Ancient Environments, which performed the study.
Not surprisingly, it turns out the miners sourced their fuel locally, says Mark Cavanagh, a doctoral student at Tel Aviv who conducted the microscopic analysis of more than 1,200 charcoal samples from two ancient smelting camps at Timna.
While the climate at Timna and the surrounding Arava Valley was as hyper-arid as it is today, life finds a way, and there are many plant species that have adapted to survive in this environment, he notes.
Around 45 percent of the charcoal examined derived from white broom, a desert shrub, and some 28 percent from acacia trees, also a mainstay of the local landscape, Cavanagh and colleagues report. Other less represented species included the sumac bush and the toothbrush tree.
The major use of broom and acacia makes sense not only because they could be easily found nearby but also because their higher burning temperature makes them ideal for use in metallurgy, Cavanagh says. Ancient people were well aware of the different calorific properties of plants, and the hot burning qualities of white broom are even alluded to in the Bible:
“What will He do to you, and what will be added to you, O deceitful tongue? Sharp arrows will come from the warrior, with burning coals of the broom tree!” (Psalm 120:3-4)
The problem is that the quantities of wood required to fuel the smelting furnaces of Timna must have been enormous. Based on the copious amounts of slag, the waste product of the smelting process, found at Timna, it is estimated that during the Iron Age the mining operation there used some 30,000 tons of wood. And that figure doesn’t take into account the fuel that workers would have needed for cooking, warmth and shelter. This was simply unsustainable for the sparsely forested desert ecosystem.
“These are very hardy plants, which can survive the extreme temperatures, the salt in the sediment and the droughts,” Cavanagh says. “But once you add the human element into this equation and you have people industrially removing the vegetation for smelting fuel, cooking, building tents and feeding animals, you are upsetting a system that is already fragile, especially when you cut down a significant plant like acacia, on which lots of other plants and animals rely for survival.”
Compounding the problem, the researchers found that much of the white broom charcoal came from the root of this brush, suggesting that the miners often uprooted entire plants, instead of just pruning them, which of course means that much of the vegetation never grew back.
The overexploitation may explain why some of the species used in the furnaces, especially white broom, sumac and toothbrush are still today rare or completely absent in the area around Timna, even though they can be found elsewhere in the surrounding Negev Desert, the researchers posit.
The consequences of the unsustainable harvesting are clearly visible in the charcoal record. Towards the end of the 10th century B.C.E., the miners started using other, less efficient, desert bushes for fuel, as well as wood from species, such as terebinth and junipers, that are not native to the area and would have had to be brought in from afar, Cavanagh and colleagues report.
But importing to this remote area the large quantities of wood required to fuel the furnaces would have been extremely costly, says Prof. Erez Ben-Yosef, the Tel Aviv University archaeologist who leads excavations at Timna. On top of that, there was increased competition from Cyprus, a once major producer of copper that had been temporarily sidelined by the upheavals of the Bronze Age Collapse but was now once again flooding the international market with cheap metal.
“All of this meant that production at Timna just didn’t make sense any more from an economical point of view, and we think this is why the mines closed,” Ben-Yosef tells Haaretz.
“The overexploitation of fuel sources caused an environmental catastrophe whose effects on the landscape are visible until today, which is a lesson from the past we should learn when it comes to our own unsustainable use of natural resources,” he adds.
The consequences of the overuse of resources at Timna “is a fascinating example of human interference with the natural,” echoes Langgut.
The copper must flow
Questions remain over who was responsible for this environmental mismanagement and, who, more broadly, controlled the Timna mines in the Early Iron Age.
Based on years of research, Ben-Yosef believes that Timna and other copper mining sites in the Arava Valley, were controlled by a loose but well-organized kingdom that he identifies with the biblical Edomites. This polity is thought to have been largely nomadic, which is why it left behind traces of its massive mining operations but little or nothing in terms of towns and cities.
So far, so good. But Ben-Yosef has recently caused a stir in archaeological circles by postulating that we cannot rule out the possibility that the biblical realm of David and Solomon did in fact exist and was also mainly populated by nomads, which is why researchers have failed to identify any major finds connected to it.
This theory, largely rejected by fellow archaeologists, leaves open the possibility that the Bible was also truthful in claiming (2 Samuel 8:14) that David and Solomon subjugated the Edomites, meaning that the mines at Timna would have ultimately been under the control of the Israelite monarchs.
The latest research on the fuel sources used at Timna doesn’t contribute much to his theory, Ben-Yosef notes, although he adds that the overexploitation of local resources does hint at some form of outside control over the mines.
“An industry that works unsustainably is typical of someone external that subjugates the locals and forces them to work at a high rhythm,” he speculates. “So it does suggest that maybe there was a foreign entity that ruled over this area.”
His colleagues in the study are much more cautious. While identifying the locals as the biblical Edomites makes sense, the evidence from Timna doesn’t tell us anything about the historicity of David and Solomon’s kingdom and who was responsible for the overexploitation of resources at the mines, Cavanagh says.
What we do know is that – based on the findings of food remains, textiles and other organic materials that did not originate there – the miners at Timna were trading briskly with people farther up north, he adds.
“Timna was part of a broader trade network, and there were clearly people outside who wanted production to continue,” Cavanagh notes. “Whether these included David and Solomon we don’t know, but someone wanted more copper to flow, until it was ultimately unsustainable.”