Ancient Edomite Metalworkers Were Elites, Not Slaves

New findings in 'Solomon's copper mines' reveals uber-sophisticated smelters who ate choice imported meats, fruits and grains, say Tel Aviv University archaeologists.

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The so-called Timna copper smelting site of "Slaves Hill," which apparently was anything but.Credit: Erez Ben-Yosef

New findings in ancient copper mines that lore associates with King Solomon indicate that metalworkers weren't despised slaves, as had been assumed mainly based on the extreme desert conditions. Judging by their diet of imported gourmet foods, the smelters of 3,000 years ago were highly esteemed members of the community with sophisticated skills, say Tel Aviv University archaeologists.

The desert mining site in Timna Valley, deep in the Arava Valley, has been known for more than 80 years. In 1934, the American archaeologist Nelson Glueck dubbed it "Slaves' Hill," because it seemed to bear all the marks of an Iron Age slave camp, complete with sandy, arid conditions, fiery furnaces, and a massive stone barrier that seemed designed to prevent escape.

That entire interpretation was bunkum, postulate archaeologists excavating the hilltop site. Their conclusions are based on the luxurious diets of the smelters, remains of which were perfectly preserved by the horrible desert conditions.

Dr. Erez Ben-Yosef and Dr. Lidar Sapir-Hen, of TAU's Department of Archaeology and Near Eastern Cultures, analyzed the remnants of food from 3,000 years ago. Their conclusions, published in the journal Antiquity, indicates that the laborers operating the furnaces were in fact skilled craftsmen – quasi-magicians – who were held in the highest esteem.

"What we found represents a general trend or reality related to metal workers in antiquity," said Dr. Ben-Yosef. "They had a very unique role in society, and we can demonstrate this by looking at Timna."

Importing fish from the sea

The people operating the Timna mine were belonged to the nomadic or semi-nomadic tribes of Edom. Whether the site was controlled by the kingdoms of David and Solomon in Jerusalem, or Egypt (as has been assumed until this study), remains unknown.

The arid desert conditions resulted in excellent preservation of organic materials usually destroyed by the march of time: bones, seeds, fruits, and even fabric dating back to the 10th century B.C.E. The archaeologists found minuscule animal and fish bones, evidence of a rich and diverse diet.

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The Tel Aviv University team excavating the Timna site. Credit: Erez Ben-Yosef
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The remains of animal bones, attesting to the rich diet of the Iron Age smelters, which by extrapolation attested to their lofty status.Credit: Erez Ben-Yosef
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The entrance gate to 'Slaves Hill': The vast wall turns out not to have incarcerated slaves, but to protect the smelters.Credit: Erez Ben-Yosef

"The fish weren't from the nearby Red Sea but from the Mediterranean," says Ben-Yosef, which could support the claim that the site was controlled by Jerusalem, not Egypt. Seeds were also of fruit that couldn't have grown there, including grapes and pomegranates, as well as wheat and barley – they all had to be imported, he says.

The archaeologists could tell who got the best pickings, the choicest cuts of meats, by the proximity of waste piles to the smelts and other points of occupation. "Clearly, the people working in the kilns got the best food," he says. "Others, for instance stone breakers and coal carriers, ate less well."

Only one of all the piles of bones had remains of the despised swine. That pile could have been associated with Egyptians working at the site, says Ben-Yosef: the Edomites shunned pork. The only temple found at the site is an Egyptian one, though there are also numerous small stone altars.

As for slaves, there probably were some – employed in mining the copper ore, which was filthy, hard work. We know that in Roman times, a thousand years later, prisoners and criminals were sent to the mines, including specifically in the Arava, Ben-Yosef says. "We didn't find the camps of the miners themselves," he says. "They were elsewhere, some kilometers from our smelting site."

Magically turning stone into metal weapons

Ben-Yosef finds it a no-brainer that people with the know-how to smelt and work copper would have been held in high esteem, because, he says, "Like oil today, copper was a source of great power." The orange metal was soft but was used in making tools and weapons, making it an enormously valuable resource in the Mideast ancient societies. And the smelters were top-notch in the advanced techniques required to turn stone into usable copper.

At that smelting site, aside from evidence of luxurious gastronomic habits, the archaeologists found evidence of sophisticated smelting processes.

Smelting – turning stone into metal – is a clever process, say the scientists. The smelter had to build a furnace out of clay in precise dimensions, provide the right amount of oxygen and charcoal, maintain heat at 1,200 degrees Celsius, connect bellows, blow the right amount of air, and add an exact mixture of minerals. All told, the smelter had to manage some 30-40 variables in order to produce the coveted copper ingots, they explain.

"We found everything," attests Ben-Yosef: "We found the remains of the kilns and the slag, we found crucibles, and everything involving metallurgical working." The smelters would work at night so they could see the color of the flames, which attested to the temperature, he adds.

To the uninitiated, smelting must have looked like magic, the archaeologists postulate. Given that one can't know what people were thinking exactly 3,000 years ago, barring written evidence, one possibility is to extrapolate from contemporary primitive societies. Today, none of them smelt copper but some do smelt iron and the status of the ironworkers is very high. Ben-Yosef draws a comparison to the admiration of "alchemy" in the Middle Ages.

It bears saying that copper technology, of some sort, went back at least four thousand years earlier, if not more: archaeologists recently discovered a 7,000-year old copper awl in Beit She'an. That is the oldest-known worked copper item found in the Mideast, though it was actually made (going by its molecular composition) in the Caucasian mountains; also, a copper pendant dating to 8,700 B.C.E. was found in northern Iraq.

The remains of the wall found at the Timna site, once considered a barrier used to contain slave laborers, apparently played a different role as well. Once thought to keep the slaves inside, now they think it was used to keep thieves out – to protect the sophisticated technology and the copper product.

The research on the ancient societies of Timna continues as part of the Central Timna Valley Project of Tel Aviv University.