There are people that believe that the legendary mines of King Solomon were situated amid copper smelting camps found in Israel’s Timna Valley. The barren conditions at Timna have resulted in the amazing preservation of 3,000-year-old organic materials. This has provided Tel Aviv University archaeologists with an exclusive window into the practices and culture of an ancient, but sophisticated society.
Recently, a progressive military fortification, including donkey stables and a well-defined gatehouse complex, was unearthed at Timna. These point to the fact that the community depended significantly on long distance trade and had a highly organized defense system. The fortification dates to the 10th century BCE, at the time when Kings David and Solomon reigned.
One of the leaders of the Timna research, Dr. Erez Ben-Yosef of TAU’s Institute of Archaeology and his excavation team, along with his colleagues Dr. Dafna Langgut and Dr. Lidar Sapir-Hen note that there is no clear description of ‘King Solomon’s mines’ in the Old Testament. There are however a number of references to military conflicts between the Edomites and Israel in the Arava Valley.
According to the Bible, David traveled many miles outside of Jerusalem and participated in military conflict that took place in in the desert, striking down “18,000 Edomites in the Valley of Salt”. Now that evidence of defensive measures, a sophisticated fortification, has been found, the team believes that copper was the reason why David traveled to and waged war in this remote region, hundreds of miles away.
Dr. Ben-Yosef explains that copper was a rare product and very difficult to produce in those days. Likening copper in those days to oil today, he is of the view that it was the most coveted commodity and therefore caused many military conflicts. The discovery of the fortification shows a period of military threats and serious instability in the region at that time.
The two-room fortification, located in one of the largest smelting camps in the Timna Valley, is remarkably intact and featured pens for draught animals and other livestock. Evidence of a complex long-distance trade system was also found. Trade probably included the Mediterranean coastal plain, the northern Edomite plateau and Judea. Based on exact seed, pollen and fauna analyses, the researchers believe the livestock was fed with hay and grape pomace. The high quality sustenance was not available in the area and was probably delivered from the Mediterranean region, hundreds of miles away.
Dr. Ben-Yosef also pointed out that it is probable that the gatehouse fortification was a prominent landmark, and believes it had a symbolic or cultic function in addition to its administrative and defensive roles. The gatehouse was built from durable stone to defend against possible invasions. The team found dung piles and animal bones that were so intact they could accurately analyze the food the animals were fed. The food indicates special treatment and care. This would fit in with the key role of donkeys in copper production and trade, especially in a region that was a logistically a challenge.
In 1934, the site was discovered by the American archaeologist Nelson Glueck, who called the copper smelting site “Slaves’ Hill” as he was of the opinion that it had all the marks of an Iron Age slave camp, including a formidable stone barrier that seemed designed to prevent escape, and fiery furnaces.
Dr. Ben-Yosef and colleagues debunked this theory in 2014. They revealed that the clothing and diets of the smelters, which were perfectly preserved by the desert conditions, indicated a sophisticated, hierarchical society instead. Dr. Ben-Yosef notes that although the historical accuracy of the Old Testament accounts could be debated, they can no longer be contradicted by using archaeology.
The new discoveries are in fact in complete agreement with the description of military conflicts against a centralized and hierarchical society based to the south of the Dead Sea. Dr. Ben-Yosef’s team plan to carry on with the exploration of the ancient societies that worked in these remote copper mines. When 21st century research methods, including ancient residue and DNA analyses, is combined with the unique preservation of organic materials in Timna, it has the potential for more significant discoveries in the future.
The Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports published the results of the study.