The Timna Valley mines in southern Israel, around 19 miles from the Gulf of Aqaba, are known for their copper ore – so much so that the site has been mined since the 5th millennium BC. Now on the controversial side, the Timna Valley mines also possibly allude to a Biblical scope harking back to the times of King Solomon and David (or at least their historical counterparts); since the site was probably under the control of the Edomites, the enemies of the Israelites. And now archaeologists from the Tel Aviv University led by Erez Ben-Yosef, have discovered an elaborate patchwork of defense systems, including a gatehouse, at one of the mining camps in the area – and it dates back to around 10th century BC, the Biblical time-period of King Solomon’s reign.
The excavation was made atop a hill constituting an ancient copper-smelting factory known as Slaves’ Hill, in the Timna Valley. The enclosure has revealed the remnants of what must have been a fully fortified gatehouse with access to donkey stables. In fact, the assessment of this defensive layout alludes to how the Iron Age settlement was strategically protected, thus hinting at its prominence as a hub for long-distance metal trade.
Now while the very name Slaves’ Hill (given in 1930s, by the renowned American biblical archaeologist Nelson Glueck) brings forth imagery of downtrodden men working in sinister conditions inside the mines, recent archaeological evidence has suggested that the laborers at Timna Valley were rather well fed, with hefty diets of meat, pistachios and even fish imported from the Mediterranean. This in turn suggests that these ancient metalworkers actually had high statuses and were valued for their expertise and craft.
Interestingly enough, back in 2014, Ben-Yosef and his team discovered a rather imposing gatehouse along with two rooms, by the main passageway that made its access through the walls of the camp. This structure might have even served as a prominent landmark in the area, with its purpose being related to the movement of people and flow of goods in-and-out of the camp. As for the most recent excavation, the analysis has further revealed another ‘defensive’ gateway which probably functioned as the major access point to the mining camp entrance and the steep passage to the top of the hill.
As for the Edomites, from the historical perspective, they were probably a Semitic people who had already arrived in the southern Levant region by 14th century BC. And almost for the next six-hundred years, they maintained a flourishing semi-nomadic confederacy that often landed them in conflicts with their neighbors. The Bible possibly mentions one of such encounters, where King David’s army defeats the Edomite forces in the ‘Valley of Salt’ (probably the Arabah valley near Dead Sea). And while the historicity of such an episode can be debated, the defense systems found in the Timna Valley mines possibly allude to how the Edomites strove to protect their resources from enemy aggression and raids. As Ben-Yosef said –
Copper was a rare product and very challenging to produce. Because copper — like oil today, perhaps — was the most coveted commodity, it landed at the very heart of military conflicts. The discovery of the fortification indicates a period of serious instability and military threats at that time in the region.
Other than defensive networks, the archaeologists also found residues of dung piles outside the different structures, which suggested their use as fuel for the copper-smelting furnaces. And quite intriguingly, the analysis of the dung revealed how the donkeys, like their human-masters, were fed special diets that went beyond mundane straws to include hay and grape pomace imported from the Mediterranean. Ben-Yosef clarified –
The food suggests special treatment and care, in accordance with the key role of the donkeys in the copper production and in trade in a logistically challenging region.
The study was originally published in the journal Archaeological Science: Reports.