Bible-era nomadic Edomite tribesmen were actually hi-tech copper mavens
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ArchaeologyEgyptians 'gave some tech tips to the Edomites' R&D teams'

Bible-era nomadic Edomite tribesmen were actually hi-tech copper mavens

Advances in copper mining in southern Israel’s Arava Valley in 11th century BCE, after infusion of Egyptian know-how, help explain emergence of Edomite kingdom, study finds

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

  • Excavations of ancient copper mines as part of Tel Aviv University’s Central Timna Valley Project. (E. Ben-Yosef and the Central Timna Valley Project)
    Excavations of ancient copper mines as part of Tel Aviv University’s Central Timna Valley Project. (E. Ben-Yosef and the Central Timna Valley Project)
  • Collecting slag and charcoal samples from 'Slaves’ Hill,' Timna Valley, Israel. The fine layers of technological waste – well-dated by radiocarbon – provide a detailed record of technological change in biblical Edom, according to archaeologist Erez Ben-Yosef. (E. Ben-Yosef and the Central Timna Valley Project)
    Collecting slag and charcoal samples from 'Slaves’ Hill,' Timna Valley, Israel. The fine layers of technological waste – well-dated by radiocarbon – provide a detailed record of technological change in biblical Edom, according to archaeologist Erez Ben-Yosef. (E. Ben-Yosef and the Central Timna Valley Project)
  • Mushroom and a half, result of wind erosion, in Timna Park (CC via Wiki Commons)
    Mushroom and a half, result of wind erosion, in Timna Park (CC via Wiki Commons)
  • The Timna Valley excavations site (Erez Ben-Yosef, Tel Aviv University)
    The Timna Valley excavations site (Erez Ben-Yosef, Tel Aviv University)
  • Copper mines in Timna, 35 km north of Eilat, March 2007 (photo credit: Doron Horowitz/Flash90)
    Copper mines in Timna, 35 km north of Eilat, March 2007 (photo credit: Doron Horowitz/Flash90)

A new international study of copper mining technology in the Arava Valley uproots long-held biases against the Bible’s nomadic Edomites and turns them from simple tribesmen into hi-tech engineers of an 11th century BCE “Copper Valley.”

In the just-published PLOS One article, “Ancient technology and punctuated change: Detecting the emergence of the Edomite Kingdom in the Southern Levant,” a team of scientists headed by Tel Aviv University’s Prof. Erez Ben-Yosef of the Central Timna Valley Project and Prof. Tom Levy of the Edom Lowlands Regional Archaeology Project, illustrates how the far-reaching Edomite mining network experienced a huge technological jump in the late 10th century BCE.

The researchers studied hundreds of pieces of slag, or copper smelting byproducts, from some 500 years’ of activity at ancient copper mines. The samples were mainly taken from southern Israel’s Timna mine complex — potentially the site of the fabled King Solomon’s Mines — and Faynan, north of Timna in Jordan’s Arava Valley.

According to the paper, “Slag was typically deposited in mounds mixed with other metallurgical debris; these constitute a unique, quasi-continuous record of the smelting activities.” The researchers noted that smelting skills and efficiency methods showed a gradual technological development from the 13th to 10th centuries BCE. However, in the late 10th century BCE, suddenly researchers saw “a human agency-triggered punctuated ‘leap’ in technology,” according to the paper.

Prof. Erez Ben-Yosef of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures (courtesy)

This technological leap marks the emergence of biblical Edom and helps solve a tricky verse in Genesis, according to a Tel Aviv University press release. The roots of the Edomite kingdom corresponds to a verse from Genesis 36:31, which describes an early, pre-10th century BCE Edomite kingdom: “…the kings who reigned in Edom before any Israelite king reigned.”

“Using technological evolution as a proxy for social processes, we were able to identify and characterize the emergence of the biblical kingdom of Edom,” said Ben-Yosef. “Our results prove it happened earlier than previously thought and in accordance with the biblical description.”

Edomites are found in many biblical passages and a traditional Jewish reading sees them as “cousins” of the Israelites through their ancestor Esau, the brother of Jacob. The most famous of the ancient Edomite copper mines, Timna, takes its name from Genesis 36 in which the clans of Esau are listed.

Just who kick-started the Edomites’ sudden technological boom back in the 10th century BCE is delineated in the paper: the neighboring Egyptians, who would have relied on the Timna mine as it was their closest source for precious copper.

More than 6 meters of copper production waste were excavated at Khirbat en-Nahas, Jordan. The excavated materials from here and other sites were used to track more than four centuries of technological and social evolution in biblical Edom. (T. Levy)

“We demonstrated a sudden standardization of the slag in the second half of the 10th century BC, from the Faynan sites in Jordan to the Timna sites in Israel, an extensive area of some 2,000 square kilometers, which occurred just as the Egyptians entered the region,” says Ben-Yosef in a press release. “The efficiency of the copper industry in the region was increasing. The Edomites developed precise working protocols that allowed them to produce a very large amount of copper with minimum energy.”

Copper, used to forge tools, decorations and weapons, was an important commodity in the ancient world. Through studying the slag, scientists noted an increased efficiency in the smelting process, which was followed by a noted technological jump.

Why did the Egyptians kick-start an Edomite tech boom?

The Egyptians’ invasion of the Holy Land in the second half of the 10th century BCE is a famous event that is described in the Hebrew Bible, explained Ben-Yosef in conversation with The Times of Israel on Wednesday.

As related in the Book of Kings and Chronicles, the Egyptian pharaoh Shishak sacked Jerusalem and took all the treasure from the Temple “five years after the death of King Solomon,” apparently in response to hostile incidents on Egypt’s eastern border.

Collecting slag and charcoal samples from ‘Slaves’ Hill,’ Timna Valley, Israel. The fine layers of technological waste – well-dated by radiocarbon – provide a detailed record of technological change in biblical Edom, according to archaeologist Erez Ben-Yosef. (E. Ben-Yosef and the Central Timna Valley Project)

“It was very traumatic to Jerusalem,” said Ben-Yosef, who added there is extra-biblical documentation of this invasion — from the Egyptians themselves. Biblical Shishak has been identified as Pharaoh Shoshenq I and the Bubastite Portal relief discovered at Karnak describes this conquest, he said.

“Based on the appearance of names from the Negev region in the description of this event in Egypt (topographical list at the Temple of Amun in Karnak) it has been suggested that one of the destinations of Shoshenq I’s campaign was the Wadi Arabah and its copper industry,” writes the PLOS One article. “This hypothesis was strengthened recently by the accidental discovery of a rare scarab bearing the throne name of Sheshonq I in Faynan.”

Maybe the Egyptians didn’t come to conquer afterall, said Ben-Yosef. A weakened empire by this time, “Egypt didn’t destroy, but it was a catalyst for tech improvement.”

“They were there, not to wreak havoc, but to make sure they get copper. They were relying on imported copper, and these were the closest active mines in this region,” he said.

The Relief of Shoshenq I’s campaign list at the southern exterior walls of the temple of Karnak, north of Luxor, Egypt. (Olaf Tausch, CC-BY, via wikipedia)

One tangible example of the Egyptians’ lingering influence is the new sudden emergence of camels in Israel following the Egyptian invasion in a land where there had only been donkeys for transport. Ben-Yosef called the Egyptian camels the “best trucks to carry stuff in the desert in that day.”

But due to the kingdom’s weakened state, Ben-Yosef hypothesized that Egypt couldn’t or didn’t want to expend manpower on controlling the mining network.

“The Egyptians were making sure not only that they would get the copper via trade contracts, and also make the industry better. As a super regional power, they may have had tech knowledge from other places, and gave some tech tips to the Edomites’ R&D teams,” said Ben-Yosef.

As ‘simple’ as Genghis Khan

The lingering bias of the “simple” tent-dwelling Edomite is a misconception rooted in biblical studies, said Ben-Yosef. However, the stereotype is as ludicrous as calling Genghis Khan, ruler of a vast empire, “just” a nomad, he laughed. The Edomites controlled a network of copper mines, whose copper was exported overseas to Greece, and also likely Damascus (research is ongoing).

Because of a ripple-effect of flux in the power dynamic of the 12th century BCE Levant, the major empires were crumbling and reforming, meaning “local tribes could have accumulated power in a way they couldn’t before.”

Excavating copper production workshop at ‘Slaves’ Hill,’ Timna Valley, Israel. The 10th century BCE site yielded materials that helped reconstruction of 400 years of technological developments in the region. (E. Ben-Yosef and the Central Timna Valley Project)

“Studying the technology itself allowed us to know something about these people,” said Ben-Yosef. “Now we know they had a complex social organization — well-organized and centralized under one leadership. A complex social political system emerged in the region in the 11th century,” he said.

Much like the ancient Israelites, the Edomite people settled and resettled in the Holy Land during various periods of history. Their kingdom was destroyed by the Babylonians around the 6th century BCE. By the Persian era they resettled in the southern hills of Judea. By the Hellenistic period they were called Idumeans by the Greeks following the conquest of Alexander the Great. They eventually assimilated and became Jews.

The current paper is part of a larger study that takes a 360-degree approach to the mines and the people working them. Following in the footsteps of a previous excavator at the site, Prof. Beno Rothenberg, the team takes a targeted approach in its excavation of Timna and makes sure there is a lot left for future, more technologically advanced generations to uncover and decipher.

“We are following in his footsteps and don’t conduct big excavations, rather probes into the slag mounds and do a lot of analysis in the labs,” said Ben-Yosef.

Fragments of dyed woolen textile with red and blue stripes found in Israel’s Timna Valley (Clara Amit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

Other aspects of research have included rare, colorfully dyed textiles, which showed there was an elite class located at the mines. ““We found simply woven, elaborately decorated fabrics worn by the upper echelon of their stratified society. Luxury grade fabric adorned the highly skilled, highly respected craftsmen managing the copper furnaces. They were responsible for smelting the copper, which was a very complicated process,” said Ben-Yosef upon the textiles’ publication in 2016.

“These people were indeed nomadic or semi-nomadic. They didn’t have stone palaces or walled cities, but they do have something that cannot be explained as ‘beduin in the desert.’ They are clearly well-organized and had a great geopolitical impact,” said Ben-Yosef.

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