New studies on key Near Eastern copper mines tell different stories about role of ancient Egyptians

View of Timna Site 2, with a smelting workshop in the foreground. Image: CEHAO-UCA

View of Timna Site 2, with a smelting workshop in the foreground. Image: CEHAO-UCA

The barren, desolate Timna Valley in modern southern Israel is one of the areas  where archaeology first exposed the world of ancient mining and metallurgy. Here, archaeological remains dating to the late second millennium BCE were widely regarded as evidence of the copper mining exploitation managed by ancient Egypt, the empire that ruled the Levant at that time. Not only Timna did become a perfect case of a desert peripheral region ruthlessly exploited by an ancient Near Eastern superpower, but it eventually came to be regarded an archetypal Egyptian mining centre supervised by Egyptian stewards and even featuring an Egyptian temple.

Archaeological excavations in Timna in the last decade and studies on its material culture are revealing a more complex picture. Two new key studies, carried out by archaeologists Tali Erickson-Gini and Uzi Avner, present conflicting interpretations on the chronology of Timna and the role of the ancient Egyptians. These studies were revealed in a symposium on archaeology in the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem, in December 2010, and they are now published in the book Unearthing the Wilderness: Studies on the History and Archaeology of the Negev and Edom in the Iron Age, edited by Juan Manuel Tebes. This book intends to become a standard reference for the archaeology of the arid margins of the Levant in the Late Bronze and Iron Ages.

The local nomads: subjects or partners?

Between 1959 and 1990 an interdisciplinary group of archaeologists, historians and archaeometallurgists, led by University College London Prof. Beno Rothenberg, exposed in Timna the remains of copper mines, smelting camps and cultic places dated from the Chalcolithic period on. The period that attracted most attention was the 13th-12th centuries BCE, when according to Rothenberg the New Kingdom Egyptians travelled seasonally to manage the extraction and work of the copper done by the local nomadic tribes.

At first, Rothenberg’s conclusions were highly controversial. Before Rothenberg’s excavations, the Timna mines were considered to be of 10th century BCE date. Nelson Glueck, the doyen of desert archaeology at that time, thought these were “King Solomon’s mines”, interpreting the archaeological evidence under the light of some controversial biblical texts. But in 1969 Rothenberg discovered the remains of a small shrine – which he called “temple” – of the Egyptian goddess Hathor, full of Egyptian objects dating to the 13th-12th centuries BCE. The Solomonic myth was over. Following Rothenberg’s pioneering work, a new paradigm emerged, one in which the New Kingdom Egyptians, and not Solomon’s Israelites, were the true masters of the local copper mines.

The Timna “temple” of Hathor. In the background, the standing stones (masseboth) and basins attributed by Avner to a local shrine. Image: CEHAO-UCA

The Timna “temple” of Hathor. In the background, the standing stones (masseboth) and basins attributed by Avner to a local shrine. Image: CEHAO-UCA

This interpretation is now contested by archaeologist Uzi Avner, from the Dead Sea-‘Arava Science Center and the ‘Arava Institute for Environmental Studies (Israel), who in 1984 conducted a preservation-restoration project in Timna Site 2 and in the shrine of Hathor and presented the results in the article “Egyptian Timna – Reconsidered”. In the shrine of Hathor he did three small probes to check Rothenberg’s stratigraphy. What he discovered, he asserts, contradicts the traditional interpretation of the sanctuary.

The widely published archaeological-historical picture of the ancient copper production was actually incorrect, even misleading”, says confidently Dr. Avner. His own research in the shrine of Hathor led him to suggest a different model of the relationship between the Egyptians, the local tribes, and the Timna environment. “I started with discussing the various publications on the ‘Egyptian Temple’ at Timna”, he asserts, “showing a long list of inner contradictions between different publications (14 altogether), both in data and interpretation. The first conclusion was that the stratigraphy and history of the site, as presented by the excavator, cannot be accepted. Based on my own work in the site, digging three probes and then preservation work, I suggested a different stratigraphy for the site, resulting in a different history and interpretation. I showed that it was actually not an Egyptian temple at all but was originally a local shrine with standing stones, a large altar rock and a drainage channel, a pavement and basins. Later, the Egyptians built a small shrine for the goddess Hathor attached to the local one. It was in use from the time of Ramsses II to Ramsses V [ca. 1280-1150 BCE] with a break of 20 years within this period”.

According to Avner, not only the historical context of the archaeology of Timna was incorrect, but also several of the chronological anchors for dating the site need revision. He argues that the sophisticated, advanced mining shafts related to the Egyptians have never been found in Egypt while thousands of them were recorded in the Timna Valley, Nahal ‘Amram and the Faynan area in southern Jordan. In fact, he indicates that four furnaces excavated at Timna Site 2, identified as Late Kingdom Egyptian, were actually dated by 14C to the 7th and 8th centuries AD, i.e. the Early Islamic period. As the result of these analyses, the role of the Egyptians in the copper industry along the Wadi Arabah is drastically minimized. The technology of both the mining and smelting of copper was not Egyptian but local, the organization of the work was also in the hands of the local desert tribes; and the sanctuary (not a “temple”) was local, with the addition of an Egyptian “chapel”. The goddess Hathor was not the “owner of the house” but only a guest of the local gods, represented by the standing stones (masseboth).

Avner’s research may find support from additional new studies. Excavations led by Tel Aviv University archaeologist Erez Ben-Yosef at Timna, with tens of new 14C dates, would demonstrate the most intensive period of copper mining and production was the 10th century BCE, long after the Egyptians disappeared from the region. “In my own study of the Nahal ‘Amram copper mines”, argues Avner, “not one Late Kingdom Egyptian sign was ever found, and the very same picture was also found at the Faynan copper mines. The unavoidable conclusion is that the large scale copper industry of the Arabah was in the hands of the local desert tribes, the ‘Shasu’. They were the geologists, mining engineers and the physicists with the knowledge of copper smelting and also the organizers of the entire massive work”.

So, what was the role of the Egyptians? For Avner, “they were actually only good consumers who needed large amounts of smelted copper, thereby letting the desert population gain great revenue.” He concludes with irony that “while the entire emphasis was previously on the Egyptians, now the desert people become the hero of the story.”

Now Avner is excavating in a nearby area, the Nahal ‘Amram copper mines. His team has discovered many more mines than those previously known, and has made a detailed mapping of many mines from different periods, conducting small scale excavations that yielded ample new finds and new 14C dates. He is also conducting large numbers of chemical analyses of copper ore and slag in an attempt to reconstruct the ancient technologies of smelting of different periods.

Another view of the Timna shrine of Hathor, this time with the sandstone cliffs at the back. Image: CEHAO-UCA

Another view of the Timna shrine of Hathor, this time with the sandstone cliffs at the back. Image: CEHAO-UCA

Digging ancient smelting workshops

I love conducting archaeological surveys and excavations in the desert”. Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Tali Erickson-Gini certainly likes her job. “Very ancient finds, even from prehistoric eras, are found close to the surface with little vegetation to hide them. This makes it much easier to determine certain characteristics of architecture and flint scatters and other finds over a very wide region in a way that is far more difficult in settled areas with higher rainfall. The summer months can be a bit harsh and at Timna we are fortunate to work every year in December, which is ideal. We have never had any problems with the heat or cold there during that time of year – it is always pleasant. But it is possible to excavate and survey in the summer months as well and at higher elevations there are good breezes from mid-day”.

A few kilometres to the northwest of the shrine of Hathor is located Site 2, a smelting site that Dr. Erickson-Gini is excavating since 2005. In the article “Timna Site 2 Revisited”, she upholds Rothenberg’s main conclusions, seeing Timna as a predominantly Egyptian-run mining enterprise. The main discoveries are the remains of copper smelting activities, such as furnaces, concentrations of slag, charcoal, fragments of tuyeres, mortars and stone hammers. Structures in the site contained ceramic sherds (many of the “Qurayyah” or “Midianite” painted ware type), animal bones, and a variety of shells and bones. The key evidence are the 14C datings taken from the site’s organic remains. These datings, according to Erickson-Gini, attest that the smelting activities took place mostly between the 13th and 11th centuries BCE, with evidences of small smelting going back as early as the 15th century BCE.

For Erickson-Gini, “to date, the renewed excavations in Timna Site 2 have confirmed Rothenberg’s dating of the site in the Late Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age. From the evidence discovered over the years in Timna, it is obvious that the Egyptians exploited the mines in Timna during the New Kingdom period. It is doubtful that we will ever know specifics about the organization of the mining and smelting and which ethnic groups were involved and to what degree. However, continued research will allow us to find a certain direction in an attempt to answer these questions”.

One of the smelting workshops excavated by Rothenberg in Timna Site 2. Image: CEHAO-UCA

One of the smelting workshops excavated by Rothenberg in Timna Site 2. Image: CEHAO-UCA

As for Dr. Ben-Yosef’s own excavations in nearby smelting camps, she asserts that, “as far as I know, Ben-Yosef’s excavations in areas close to Site 2 have revealed a similar picture as opposed to his work in Site 34, a site which is quite different in many respects to Site 2 and clearly of a later date”.

For Erickson-Gini, one of the most exciting questions is the involvement of local people from northern Arabia (Rothenberg’s “Midianites”). She argues that the on-going research in that region has already opened up new windows for understanding the ancient culture of oasis dwellers at sites such as Qurayyah and Tayma and that research will probably culminate in major advances in understanding of their activities at Timna.

More studies

In the same volume, other articles disclose more aspects of the archaeology of Timna. In a very technical paper, scientists Sana Shilstein (Weizmann Institute of Science), Sariel Shalev (University of Haifa) and Yuval Yekutieli (Ben-Gurion University of the Negev) study the technology of the archaeological material and copper metallurgy found at Timna Site 2, such as slag, charcoal, ceramics, sediment and corroded metal through the use of XRF with energy dispersion spectroscopy. The “Qurayyah” or “Midianite” pottery, a characteristic decorated ceramic made in northwestern Arabia and found in great quantities in Timna, is studied by historian Juan Manuel Tebes (Center of Studies of Ancient Near Eastern History, Catholic University of Argentina). Dr. Tebes’ research engages with the painted iconography of these vessels, which he associates with the social and symbolic world where the potters lived and worked.

Volunteers digging in Erickson-Gini’s excavations at Timna Site 2. Image: CEHAO-UCA

Volunteers digging in Erickson-Gini’s excavations at Timna Site 2. Image: CEHAO-UCA

The book Unearthing the Wilderness was published by Peeters (Leuven, 2014). Other articles focus attention on later periods of the archaeology of the Negev and southern Jordan, including studies of John S. Holladay Jr. and Stanley Klassen, Peter G. van der Veen and François Bron, Yifat Thareani, Lily Singer-Avitz, and Liora Freud.

More information:

Ben-Yosef, E., R. Shaar, L. Tauxe, and H. Ron (2012). A New Chronological Framework for Iron Age Copper Production at Timna (Israel). Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 367: 31–71.

Levy, T. E., M. Najjar and E. Ben-Yosef eds. (2014). New Insights into the Iron Age Archaeology of Edom, Southern Jordan: Surveys, Excavations, and Research from the University of California, San Diego & Department of Antiquities of Jordan, Edom Lowlands Regional Archaeology Project (ELRAP). Monumenta Archaeologica 35. Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press.

Rothenberg, B. (1999). Archaeo-Metallurgical Researches in the Southern Arabah 1959–1990. Part 2: Egyptian New Kingdom (Ramesside) to Early Islam. Palestine Exploration Quarterly 131: 149–175.