Oldest metal in Middle East found in Israeli dig

Buried with a woman, copper awl hints at hitherto unknown advancement in Middle East, researchers say

Just 4 centimeters long and 1 millimeter thick at the tip, the awl discovered at Tel Tsaf was set in a wooden handle. (Prof. Yosef Garfinkel)
Just 4 centimeters long and 1 millimeter thick at the tip, the awl discovered at Tel Tsaf was set in a wooden handle. (Prof. Yosef Garfinkel)

Israeli archaeologists have unearthed a 7,000-year-old copper tool, the oldest metal object yet found in the Middle East, according to a recent study.

The discovery of the tiny awl in the ruins of an ancient village near the Jordanian border pushes back by several hundred years the date peoples of the southern Levant are thought to have started using metal.

Buried with a woman and possibly made of Caucasian copper – now a brilliant turquoise color from oxidation – the awl suggests the village was more important and advanced than previously imagined, say the researchers behind the study.

“The appearance of the item in a woman’s grave, which represents one of the most elaborate burials we’ve seen in our region from that era, testifies to both the importance of the awl and the importance of the woman, and it’s possible that we are seeing here the first indications of social hierarchy and complexity,” said Dr. Danny Rosenberg, an archaeologist at the University of Haifa.

Dr. Florian Klimscha of the Eurasia Department of the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin co-led the study, which included archaeologists from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Tel Tsaf was wealthy commercial center in the central Jordan Valley around 5200-4600 BCE., the middle of the Copper Age. The site was discovered in the 1950s, and excavations began two decades later. Forty years of digging have revealed that the village had great wealth and commercial ties stretching across the Mediterranean.

Ruins of the ancient village of Tel Tsaf. (photo credit: Prof. Yosef Garfinkel)
Ruins of the ancient village of Tel Tsaf. (photo credit: Prof. Yosef Garfinkel)

Until now, researchers believed that Tel Tsaf and the region only began to use metals in the second half of the 5th millennium BCE, the middle of the Copper Age. But the awl, a spear-shaped tool, dates back all the way to the late 6th millennium or early 5th millennium BCE. – suggesting technological and social advancement not associated with the Middle East at that time, according to the archaeologists.

Prof. Yosef Garfinkel, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, found the awl in the sealed grave of an approximately 40-year-old woman that was dug inside a grain silo and covered with several large stones. Just 4 centimeters long and 1 millimeter thick at the tip, the awl was set in a wooden handle. Around the woman’s waist was a belt made of 1,668 ostrich-egg shell beads.

The woman’s grave, skeleton, and belt were all previously reported on in academic journals – but not the awl. The awl was apparently buried with the woman as an offering and may have belonged to her, says Rosenberg.

Chemical analysis of the awl by Prof. Sariel Shalev, an archaeologist at the University of Haifa, shows that the copper may have come from the Caucasus, some 1,000 kilometers from Tel Tsaf.

The southern Levant is known to have maintained long-distance commercial times from an even earlier time period. But the metal for the awl was made in a distant location and processed with imported new technology, according to the study. This combination, the archaeologists say, is unique to Tel Tsaf in the region and provides further evidence of the village’s power in the ancient world.

The findings indicate that elaborate metallurgy seen in the southern Levant later in the Copper Age may have been inspired by earlier adopters outside the Middle East, the archaeologists say.

In previous excavations at Tel Tsaf, large mud-brick buildings and silos used to store wheat and barley at an unprecedented scale for the time were found. In the courtyard, roasting ovens were uncovered filled with burnt animal offering, suggesting they were used for large events.

Relics made of obsidian – a volcanic glass from Anatolia or Armenia – shells from the Nile River in Egypt and throughout the Mediterranean Basin, figurines of people and animals, and pottery seen almost nowhere else in the region were also found.

While the researchers are unsure what the awl was used for, its rarity testifies both to the high social status of the woman and the importance of the building she was buried in, says Rosenberg.

“However, in this area far more is unknown than is known, and although the discovery of the awl at Tel Tsaf constitutes evidence of a peak of technological development among the peoples of the region and is a discovery of global importance, there’s a lot of progress still to be made and many parts of the wider picture are still unknown to us,” he said.

More answers, as well as questions, are likely to be provided by a multi-disciplinary team of researchers from around the world that has been working at Tel Tsaf since last year.

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