ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 138

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6,000-year-old artifact from Negev may be world’s oldest smelted lead object

Late Chalcolithic spindle whorl is made of metal mined in southern Turkey, but was found in cave near Beersheba — showing the existence of ancient trade routes

Ilan Ben Zion is an AFP reporter and a former news editor at The Times of Israel.

Archaeologists discover the first lead object used in the Middle East in a cave south of Beersheba. (Boaz Langford and Micka Ullman)
Archaeologists discover the first lead object used in the Middle East in a cave south of Beersheba. (Boaz Langford and Micka Ullman)

Deep in a cavern in southern Israel’s Negev Desert, archaeologists found what may be the oldest smelted lead object — a 6,000-year-old artifact fashioned from metal mined in modern-day Turkey.

The artifact, found during excavations in the Ashalim Cave in 2012 but only detailed this month, comprises a bulging lead ring fitted around a wooden shaft, and looks like almost like a primitive mace. The rod is 8.8 inches long and carved of tamarisk, a tree common in the Negev. The lead weight is about 1.5 inches across and weighs 5.5 ounces, or a bit less than an iPhone 6. Both the lead bulb and wood show signs of wear.

The authors of a study published this month on PLOS ONE suggest it may have served as a spindle whorl, used for spinning yarn.

Radiocarbon dating of the wooden shaft situated the object in the Late Chalcolithic period, around 4000 BCE, suggesting the find “might be the earliest lead artifact proven so far to have been produced from smelted lead,” the authors of the study wrote.

Archaeologists discover the first lead object used in the Middle East in a cave south of Beersheba. A pocket knife next to the scene provides scale. (Boaz Langford and Micka Ullman)
Archaeologists discover the first lead object used in the Middle East in a cave south of Beersheba. A pocket knife next to the scene provides scale. (Boaz Langford and Micka Ullman)

It dates to around the same period as a hoard of copper objects from Nahal Mishmar, found in the Judean Desert in 1961 and now on display at the Israel Museum.

Lead metallurgy from that far back in antiquity is exceedingly rare, however, the most commonly worked metal being copper — which gave its name to the period. Prior to the Romans, who used lead for everything from plumbing to armaments, the 82nd element is only scarcely found. Lead ores often contain veins of silver, so the malleable metal was usually a byproduct of the extraction process, the authors said.

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The Ashalim Cave, located south of Beersheba, was used during the Late Chalcolithic era for “ritual activities related to the burial of specific individuals,” the scholars wrote. The object was found on the ground in one of the innermost crevices of the cave, beyond a burial chamber. The heavily worn lead object was deposited therein, suggesting it was a valued item, head author Naama Yahalom-Mack of Hebrew University, told Live Science.

The cave, located south of Beersheba, in which archaeologists discovered the first lead object used in the Middle East. (Boaz Langford and Micka Ullman)
The cave, located south of Beersheba, in which archaeologists discovered the first lead object used in the Middle East. (Boaz Langford and Micka Ullman)

They also note that no other lead objects were found in the Levant earlier than the 4th millennium BCE, making the Ashalim Cave artifact the oldest known item crafted from lead in the region.

By studying the concentrations of lead isotopes in a tiny sliver of metal incised from the whorl, archaeologists determined that the lead was likely mined in southern Anatolia. Afterwards, the finished artifact, or the unworked lead, was brought south to the Levant from Anatolia, pointing to the existence of ancient trade routes connecting the two regions.

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