Israeli Archaeologists Figure Out Where Ancient Egypt Got Its Metal After Civilization Collapsed

Analysis of 3,000-year-old statuettes from pharaonic burials suggests disruption of international trade following the Bronze Age Collapse was not as catastrophic as we thought

Ariel David
Ariel David
Timna, the area of the ancient copper mines Credit: Erez Ben Yosef / Naama
Ariel David
Ariel David

An analysis of bronze statuettes dating to a period of division and instability in ancient Egypt shows that during this time, the pharaohs were still importing massive amounts of copper from the southern deserts of today’s Israel and Jordan.

The research sheds some light on a less-explored period in Egypt’s and the Mediterranean’s history, which followed the collapse of major civilizations at the end of the Bronze Age, some 3,200 years ago. It highlights how even in this supposed ‘dark age’ international trade links were not entirely cut, and in fact helped fuel artistic and cultural changes in Egypt, the researchers say.

The study, published this week in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, focused on four funerary artifacts dated to around 1010 B.C.E. and unearthed at Tanis, a city in the Nile Delta that served as the pharaoh’s capital in those troubled times. The statuettes are part of the collection of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and were analyzed by the museum’s conservators with the help of researchers from Tel Aviv University and Israel’s Geological Survey.

The bronze artifacts are ushabtis, stylized mummified figurines that were commonly placed in ancient Egyptian tombs. They were meant to function as servants for the deceased in the afterlife, explains Shirly Ben-Dor Evian, curator of Egyptian archaeology at the Israel Museum. Because they were inscribed with the name of their master or mistress, we know exactly whom the figurines were dedicated to, which allows the archaeologists to date them with some precision.

One ushabti carried the name of the pharaoh Psusennes I; a second belonged to his wife Mutnodjmet and two more to one of the king’s generals, whose name, Wendjebaendjedet, just rolls off the tongue.

After the collapse

If you’ve never heard of these Egyptian leaders, it may not just be because of their tongue-twisting names. Although he reigned for a long time, from around 1056 to 1010 B.C.E., Psusennes belonged to a fairly obscure dynasty, the 21st, which ruled over an Egypt that was only a shadow of its former self.

Ushabti of Wendjebaendjedet, general of Psusennes ICredit: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, by Elie Posner

Until the mid-12th century B.C.E., the pharaohs had presided over a powerful empire that stretched from Sudan to Syria, and included the land of Canaan. This was the era of the famed pharaohs of the New Kingdom: Thutmose III, Tutankhamun, Ramses the Great and others. It was also a time when Egypt and the rest of the Mediterranean were part of a vast network of international trade, which possibly stretched as far as East Asia, in what some researchers have called an early example of globalization from the Bronze Age.

But this world was brought to a crashing end by a crisis, possibly triggered by climate change, that caused famine, war and instability throughout the Mediterranean. The Hittite empire in Anatolia and the Mycenean civilization in Greece disappeared. Egypt endured but retreated from its empire in the Levant, leaving a void that would be filled by new nations familiar to any reader of the Bible: Judah, Israel, Edom, the Philistine cities and more.

Meanwhile, the Nile Valley itself became divided, as the High Priest of Amun ruled over Upper Egypt from Thebes, leaving the pharaohs in control only of Tanis and the rest of Lower Egypt. And so we come to the story of Psusennes and his afterlife servants.

“His reign was part of the so-called Third Intermediate Period, which implies that this was a time of decline,” Ben-Dor Evian says. “But while Egypt was no longer an empire, it appears that it was still just as grand as in any other era of Egyptian history.”

The researchers drilled tiny holes into the ushabtis to analyze the lead isotopes found in the figurines, which are mainly made of copper. Copper deposits contain natural trace amounts of lead, and the varying mix of isotopes of this element can tell researchers where the metal came from, explains Prof. Erez Ben-Yosef, an archaeologist from Tel Aviv University and an expert on ancient metallurgy.

Archaeologists excavating at the copper mines of Timna in the Aravah ValleyCredit: Ariel David

The lead isotopes for all four figurines were compatible with ancient copper mining sites in the Arava Valley, which runs along the modern southern border of Israel and Jordan.

Two major mining operations in this region have been known and investigated by archaeologists for decades: one in Jordan’s Wadi Feynan, and a second at Timna, in the southern tip of Israel.

Who’s in charge here?

These copper production sites have yielded major finds, such as rare textiles and remains of succulent foods that were fed to the local craftsmen, suggesting that this was a sophisticated operation set up by a fairly advanced state entity.

But who exactly controlled the mines in the 11th-10th centuries B.C.E. remains a matter of much debate. If we trust the Bible, this was the time of King David and Solomon, who supposedly ruled over most of the Levant, including its southern desert – which is why the site at Timna was also once nicknamed King Solomon’s Mines. However, archaeology has provided little or no evidence as to the existence and extent of the fabled united Israelite kingdom of David and Solomon.

Some researchers, like Ben-Yosef (who has dug at Timna) believe the copper industry of the Arava is the most tangible legacy of a nomadic kingdom that can be identified with the biblical Edomites.

Credit: Erez Ben-Yosef / TV Project
Ushabti of Psusennes ICredit: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, by Elie Posner

Other scholars, like Tel Aviv University’s Prof. Israel Finkelstein, have challenged this interpretation, noting that the archaeological and historical evidence suggests the Edomite kingdom only arose at the end of the ninth century B.C.E., by which time the copper mines of the Arava were no longer in use.

Cornering the Egyptian market

In any case, there is general agreement that in the time of Psusennes – and his putative biblical contemporary, King David – the Egyptians did not control the copper mines of the Arava. This means that the metal for the figurines from Tanis had to be procured through trading routes that ran over hundreds of kilometers of desert wasteland.

“After believing that Egypt is isolated and sinking into its own world, we now understand there was an international exchange network and that Egypt was part of it,” Ben-Dor Evian notes. “We like to think of this ‘dark age’ as the opposite of the late Bronze Age, with its high degree of interconnectivity, but now we see that there still was interconnectivity, just on a different scale.”

On one hand, it is not entirely surprising that Egypt would import its copper from Timna or Feynan, as the metal from these mines has previously turned up as far as Greece, Ben-Yosef notes.

In fact, he adds that the Bible may have preserved a historical memory of the links between Edom and Egypt during this period in a story of an Edomite prince who escapes David’s conquest of his country by finding refuge with the pharaoh. (1 Kings 11:14-22)

Timna may have been worked by the EdomitesCredit: Naama Sukenik

On the other hand, it is unusual that all the four ushabtis that were tested could be traced exclusively to the Arava region. Egyptian metal artifacts, both from earlier and later periods, usually contain copper from a mix of sources in addition to the Arava – including Cyprus, and Anatolia – Ben-Dor Evian says.

This is also how the archaeologists figured out that the metal from the Tanis figurines was not recycled.

If Psusennes’ craftsmen had just melted down a bunch of objects from the golden age of Ramses then the researchers would have gotten a jumble of indications from their analysis. The unequivocal signal from the tests not only shows that the metal was freshly mined in the Arava but also suggests that this region was the sole provider of copper for Egypt in the 11th-10th centuries B.C.E., Ben-Dor Evian concludes.

Can I get 10 percent off?

Ironically, just as copper became more difficult to come by in this somewhat dark age, Egypt saw a flowering of metal art, Ben-Yosef notes. This means indicates that the pharaohs may have grown ever more hungry for Arava copper.

Just over half a century after the death of Psusennes, a new king, Sheshonq I, succeeded in reuniting the Nile Valley.

Sheshonq, who appears in the Bible under the name Shishak, wanted to make Egypt great again, so he promptly invaded Canaan around 950 B.C.E. According to his triumphal inscription on a temple in Karnak, many of the sites the pharaoh raided on this campaign were in Israel’s southern desert – the heartland of the copper producing nomads (whoever they were).

Archaeologists have suspected for a while that one of the main goals of Sheshonq’s raid was to secure a steady supply of copper. In fact, after the campaign, there appears to be a flourishing of settlements in the area, as well as an increase in the output from the Arava mines, possibly as the result of new technologies introduced by the Egyptians.

“Now we know that by Sheshonq’s time Egypt was already receiving copper from the Arava, so why did he need to go there?” Ben-Dor Evian asks. “Maybe he wanted a bigger piece of the pie, maybe he wanted a monopoly, or to have greater control on the copper trade.”

Or, maybe, he just wanted a discount.

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