This report was sent to the AIAS by Erez Ben-Yosef
The Timna Valley in southern Israel is one of the best-preserved ancient copper ore districts in the world. More than six millennia of copper mining and smelting are represented in the archaeology of the valley, which fortuitously was only little damaged by modern exploitation. Located deep within the southern Levantine deserts and far from any permanent water sources, the region presented serious challenges to the societies interested in exploiting its rich copper ore in all periods.
Notwithstanding these challenges, the valley witnessed several periods of substantial copper production, the most intense of which occurred in the early Iron Age (ca. 1200 – 900 BCE). The archaeological remains from this period have been the focus of the ongoing Central Timna Valley (CTV) Project of Tel Aviv University, which explores the technological and social aspects of the industry by excavations, surveys, and the application of advanced analytic and micro-archaeological methods. The latter include the integration of several dating techniques (radiocarbon, archaeomagnetism and luminescence), aimed at establishing a robust, high-resolution timeframe for the industrial remains; in turn, this chronological skeleton enables a detailed diachronic study of technological developments and social processes, including the formation of the Edomite Kingdom mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, Egyptian and Assyrian sources. This kingdom, centered around the lucrative copper mines of the region, was able to flourish after the major geopolitical powers of the Ancient Near East collapsed at the end of the Late Bronze Age.
The project’s excavations uncovered a wide array of materials, from production waste (slag, tuyeres and furnace fragments) to pottery and ground stones, including a unique collection of textiles and other rarely preserved organic remains. The latter have helped to better understand the life of the Iron Age metalworkers by illuminating aspects that are usually inaccessible in common archaeological research, such as clothing and the maintenance of draft animals.
Various analytic studies have been used to extract further insights on the industry and the society behind it, including archaeobotanical and archaeozoological investigations, pollen analysis, chemical and mineralogical studies of slag and other smelting waste, petrographic studies of pottery, and more. One of the most intriguing observations so far indicates close connections between the copper mines and the Mediterranean region, raising once again the question of “King Solomon’s Mines,” and the possibility that the Timna copper was the source of wealth of Jerusalem in the 10th century BCE.