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Archaeology in Israel: Timna

The Timna Valley is located in the southwestern Arava, some 30 km. north of the Gulf of Eilat. It is a semi-circular, erosional formation of some 70 sq. km., opening in the east towards the Arava; on the north, west and south it is surrounded by cliffs, about 300 m. high. In the lower parts of these cliffs and on the slopes in front of them, copper-rich nodules (up to 55% copper) mainly of malachite and chalcocite, were mined in ancient times. Ever since man discovered, in the 6th millennium BCE, how to turn a `piece of rock' into malleable metal, copper has been mined and smelted in the Timna Valley - even in modern times, by the Israeli Timna Mining Company, which is no longer in production.

Extensive remains of human activity during early periods are still visible in the rugged hills. There is evidence of copper mining in shafts and galleries and copper smelting in furnaces of various types, and there are remains of camps and several cult sites, including an Egyptian mining sanctuary.

The existence of the remains of copper production at Timna was known from surveys conducted at the end of last century, but scientific attention and public interest was aroused when in the 1930s Nelson Glueck attributed the copper mining at Timna to King Solomon (10th century BCE) and named the site "King Solomon's Mines"; this theory has not been verified by subsequent field work.

Surveys and excavations in the Timna Valley were conducted between 1959 and 1990. From the surprising findings it is now possible to reconstruct the long and complex history of copper production there, from the Late Neolithic period to the Middle Ages. Mining activities in the Timna Valley reached a peak during the reign of the Pharaohs of the 14th-12th centuries BCE, when Egyptian mining expeditions, in collaboration with Midianites and local Amalekites, turned the Timna Valley into a large-scale copper industry.

Copper mining

After an initial phase of surface collection of ore nodules in prehistoric times, the early miners followed outcropping ore veins underground. These earliest shafts, hammered into the rock with large and clumsy stone tools, were irregular big holes from which galleries spread in all directions, following the ore.

The Egyptian miners who came later used metal chisels and hoes and excavated very regular, tubular shafts, with footholds in the walls for moving down, and up, the shafts. Some of these shafts penetrated to a depth of 30 m. and more, before reaching the copper-rich sandstone formation. From the shafts, narrow galleries followed the ore occurrence, widening into underground cavities where large bodies of ore nodules had to be mined out. As the complex network of galleries grew, heavy loads of ore had to be dragged along the narrow galleries, to be hauled to the surface. These sophisticated multi-leveled shaft-and-gallery mines, with proper underground ventilation, are the earliest systematic mines of this kind discovered to date.

Mining was abandoned when the concentration of ore nodules declined. The abandoned shafts and galleries were either intentionally filled with mining waste, or gradually filled up with wind- and water-carried sand. Evidence of their existence is visible today in saucer-like “plates” — thousands of them — on the slopes below the Timna Cliffs.

Copper production

The earliest, well-preserved copper smelting furnace dates from the 5th millennium BCE. It consisted of a small pit dug in the ground, with a low substructure of field stones, and was ventilated by goatskin bellows. Smelting in these pits was primitive and inefficient.

During the following three millennia, copper was produced with steadily improving furnaces and control of the metallurgical processes. Already in the Chalcolithic period (4th millennium BCE), iron ore (available in Timna) was added as flux to the smelting charge of copper ore and charcoal, which greatly improved the smelting. Another big step forward, in the early third millennium BCE, was "tapping" the fluid slag out of the hot furnace, which made continuous smelting possible and saved precious fuel. The metallic copper produced by this process remained at the bottom of the furnace as an irregular ingot — probably the earliest copper ingot in history.

There is no evidence of mining or smelting in Timna from the middle of the 3rd millennium BCE until the late 2nd millennium BCE, when Egyptian mining expeditions arrived. There are the ruins of numerous work camps, mainly workshops for copper smelting. One of the larger (400 sq.m.) camps was excavated; in its central courtyard, a stone-lined storage pit contained copper ore nodules to be crushed on a nearby stone platform. A variety of grinding tools, such as granite hammers, mortars and pestles, anvils and "saddle-backed" sandstone querns were found on this platform. Near the smelting furnaces, at a distance from the workshops, slag heaps, charcoal pits, tuyères, stone tools and potsherds were found.

In the 14th century BCE, during the Egyptian-Midianite copper production at Timna, a very advanced smelting furnace, consisting of a bowl-shaped smelting hearth dug into the ground and lined with clay mortar, was in use. It was about 40 cm. in diameter and up to 50 cm. high. Some of the furnaces had a dome-shaped top. In front of the smelting hearth was a shallow pit, flanked by two large stones, which served as the slag tapping pit. A clay tube penetrated the furnace wall opposite the tapping hole and served as a tuyère through which air was blown by pot-bellows. For each furnace three bellows were needed and the smelting area was littered with hundreds of tuyère fragments.

The Hathor Temple

At the foot of the huge sandstone formation in the center of the Timna Valley known as "King Solomon's Pillars," a small Egyptian temple was excavated. Dedicated to Hathor, Egyptian goddess of mining, it was founded during the reign of Pharaoh Seti I (1318-1304 BCE) and served the members of the Egyptian mining expeditions and also their local co-workers. The sanctuary consisted of an open courtyard measuring 9 x 6 m., with a naos (cult chamber), where a niche had been cut into the rock, apparently to house a statue of Hathor. The temple was badly damaged by earthquake and rebuilt during the reign of Pharaoh Ramses II (1304-1237 BCE), with an enlarged courtyard (10 x 9 m.) and a new, solid white floor. The walls were made of local sandstone and granite but the facade was of white sandstone from the mining area. The temple, with its two square columns bearing Hathor heads, must have been an exciting sight in the light of the rising sun. In the temple courtyard there was a workshop for casting copper figurines as votive offerings. Among the finds in this temple were hieroglyphic inscriptions including cartouches (seals) of most of the pharaohs who reigned in the 14th-12th centuries BCE. There were also numerous other Egyptian-made votive offerings, including many copper objects, alabaster vessels, cat and leopard figurines of faience, seals, beads and scarabs as well as Hathor sculptures, figurines and plaques. Altogether several thousand artifacts were uncovered in the Egyptian temple.

With the decline of Egyptian control of the region in the middle of the 12th century BCE, the mines at Timna and the Hathor temple were abandoned. However, cultic activities in the temple were restored by the Midianites, who remained in Timna for a short period after the Egyptians left. They cleared most traces of the Egyptian cult and effaced the images of Hathor and the Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions on the stelae. Other changes were made: a row of mazeboth (stelae), was erected and a 'bench of offerings' was built on both sides of the entrance. Remains of woolen cloth found along the courtyard walls provide evidence that the Midianites turned the Egyptian temple into a tented desert shrine. Among the finds in this Midianite shrine was a large number of votive gifts brought especially from Midian, including beautifully decorated Midianite pottery and metal jewelry. Of particular significance is the find of a copper snake with gilded head. It is reminiscent of the copper serpent described in Numbers 21:6-9.

The evidence of a sophisticated Midianite culture, as found in Timna, is of extraordinary importance in the light of the Biblical narrative of the meeting of Moses and Jethro, high priest of Midian, and the latter's participation in the organization and cult of the Children of Israel in the desert. (Exodus 18)

Sources: Israel Antiquities Authority