Archaeologists digging at the ancient copper mines in Timna, a valley in Israel’s southern desert, were surprised to discover the 3,200-year-old remains of an Egyptian woman, where no women had been thought to have tread.
The woman was in the early stages of pregnancy when she died. She was buried near an ancient Egyptian temple in the heart of what archaeologists once nicknamed "King Solomon’s Mines" because they believed that the site was controlled by the biblical king, an idea that remains hotly contested.
“It is very rare to find human remains in Timna, and it is the first time we find a woman,” says archaeologist Erez Ben Yosef, who leads the Tel Aviv University team that has been excavating the site since 2012.
The last time human remains were uncovered at the mines was in 1964. The reason such a find is so rare has much to do with the hellish climate of the area, and the way various ancient peoples exploited Timna’s copper mines over a period of 500 years, from the late 14th century B.C.E. to the early 9th century B.C.E.
“There are no water sources in Timna and it is very inhospitable, so no one ever settled there permanently,” Ben-Yosef says. “Home was close to water sources, and people only came for brief expeditions during the winter to mine copper.”
That may be why most of the tombs in Timna are usually found empty: for once the ancient graves were probably not extensively looted, they were simply cleaned out. “Our hypothesis is that people would be buried there temporarily and their bones would be taken back home by a later expedition,” Ben-Yosef told Haaretz after presenting the find during a conference at the university on Thursday. “There aren’t that many tombs because only important people were buried: if some poor slave died they probably just threw the body down a shaft in the mines and that was that.”
So, this particular woman must have been someone of importance. But who was she, and when did she live?
The hazards of Hathor
The skeleton emerged this winter during the last day of the digging season, but was left in situ. The team returned to the site over the summer to extract the bones with the help of physical anthropologists Israel Hershkovitz and Hila May from the Tel Aviv University Faculty of Medicine.
Only the lower part of the skeleton, including the fetus, was recovered, says May, while the upper body was lost, probably because the tomb was looted in antiquity.
The woman must have been in her twenties, the anthropologist estimates, but the millennia that have passed and the missing bones make it hard to determine a cause of death, which may or may not have been connected to the pregnancy.
The dry desert climate also drained the bones of any collagen, a protein whose presence is necessary for radiocarbon dating, May told Haaretz. Luckily, in sifting through the sands in which the woman was buried, archeologists found a vital clue: two tiny, exquisitely-crafted glass beads.
These beads are not only known to be of Egyptian origin: they also link the woman to the nearby temple of the Egyptian goddess Hathor, where very similar beads were previously found, Ben-Yosef says.
The temple, located just 200 meters from the tomb, was used to worship Hathor from the 13th to the 12th century B.C.E., when Timna was under Egyptian control.
Those beads linking the body and the temple could indicate that she was an Egyptian woman who had travelled there to be a cultic singer or musician for the goddess Hathor, suggests Deborah Sweeney, an Egyptologist at Tel Aviv University.
Hathor was the goddess of love, fertility, music, and of natural resources outside of Egypt: she acted as the protector of miners, which explains her importance to the operations at Timna.
Remains of musical instruments as well as a depiction of a woman playing a sistrum (a metal rattle) have been found in the shrine there – and names of women are also mentioned in inscriptions in the temple of Hathor in Serabit el-Khadem, an ancient Egyptian turquoise mine in the Sinai desert.
Yet the find now is the first indication that women were actually present in mining expeditions: It was generally assumed they would send offerings while staying at home, Sweeney notes.
“Many Egyptian deities had sort of a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality. They could be very kind at one moment and then suddenly change and be very aggressive. This was particularly true of Hathor. You had to be careful with that one,” she says.
So, in the eyes of the ancient Egyptians, the presence of female musicians at Timna singing the praises of Hathor would have maximized the chances of appeasing the deity, ensuring the safety of the miners and the success of the complex process of extracting and smelting copper.
“Unfortunately, she must have died there for some reason and was buried close to the temple, so that Hathor would protect her,” Sweeney says. “It's actually quite sad. She was probably quite adventurous to go so far away from home, which was rare for women in Egypt – but she never came back.”
Did Edomite women join too?
Why were her bones not returned home like most other remains in Timna? We can only speculate that she may have died in one of the last mining expeditions before Egypt lost control of the area during the Late Bronze Age Collapse, a period of upheaval that saw most of the great empires of the era destroyed or diminished, Ben-Yosef says.
In any case, female participation may have occurred also after the Egyptian period, when the mines were controlled by nomadic tribes in the Early Iron Age.
After its discovery in the 1930s, Timna was initially linked to the biblical kingdom of Solomon, in the 10th century B.C.E. Then digs conducted in the 1960s uncovered the temple of Hathor and other indications that the site was an Egyptian operation dating back to the Late Bronze Age, centuries before the putative days of David and Solomon.
How the chariot wheel turns: now again, Tel Aviv University’s project in recent years has uncovered solid evidence that, notwithstanding the earlier Egyptian presence, the peak of activity at the mines and in the largest smelting operation, the so-called Slaves’ Hill, did in fact occur during the 10th century, in the age of David and Solomon. But Ben-Yosef and his team found no direct links to that ancient biblical kingdom, whose historicity is still hotly debated. They believe the mines were run by Edomite tribes, which controlled vast territories in the Negev as well as what is today southern Jordan.
The discovery of the female skeleton does not change the chronology of the site, but introduces women into its history, says Ben-Yosef.
“We have to think about it not only in connection to the Egyptians, but also in post-Egyptian terms,” he says. “Did entire families move to the areas of copper production, or just men, or just men with some women?”
The Tel Aviv team will be back in the field in January, searching for more bones of ancient miners and fresh answers to the mysteries of Timna.