Photo Credit: Anat Rasiuk, Israel Antiquities Authority.
The works at the excavation site in Be'er Sheva.

A new study by Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority discovered one of the oldest copper production workshops in the world – in the Neve Noy neighborhood of Be’er Sheva.

The study has lasted several years, starting with the exposure of the workshop, in 2017, as part of archeological rescue excavations conducted by the IAA.

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The new study also reveals that the site may have been the first of its kind in the world, using a sophisticated and revolutionary technology: the kiln.

The excavation area in Neve Noy in Be’er Sheva. / Talia Abolfia, Israel Antiquities Authority

The study was conducted by Dana Ackerfeld, Omri Yagel, and Prof. Erez Ben Yosef from the Yaakov M. Alkov Department of Archeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures at Tel Aviv University, in collaboration with Dr. Yael Abadi-Reiss, Talia Abulfiya, and Dimitri Yagorov of the IAA and Dr. Yehudit Haralvan of the Israel Geological Institute.

The results of the groundbreaking study are published Sunday in the prestigious Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports (Firing up the furnace: New insights on metallurgical practices in the Chalcolithic Southern Levant from a recently discovered copper-smelting workshop at Horvat Beter).

Talia Abolfia, director of the excavation on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority. / Emil Aljem, Israel Antiquities Authority

According to the IAA director of the excavation, Talia Abulfiya, “the excavation revealed evidence of domestic industry from the Chalcolithic age – about 6,500 years ago. The surprising findings included, among other things, a small copper smelting workshop with fragments of crucibles – small bowls made of clay in which the copper was distilled, as well as many copper slag.”

The Chalcolithic, or Copper age is an archaeological period which researchers usually regard as part of the broader Neolithic, originally defined it as a transition time between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age.

In the Chalcolithic period, copper predominated in metalworking technology, before it was discovered that by adding tin to copper one could create bronze, a metal alloy harder and stronger than either component. The Chalcolithic period is also described as the age of copper and stone because metal smelting technology had already appeared, but the work was performed with stone tools.

Isotopic analysis of the remains of the ore in the kiln fragments in the Neve Noy dig shows that the raw material for the metal production there came from the Wadi Finan area in present-day Jordan – a distance of more than 60 miles from Be’er Sheva.

During the Chalcolithic period, when copper was first produced, the metal was processed away from the mines, in contrast to the later prevailing method where, for practical and economic reasons, the kilns were built adjacent to the mines.

The researchers believe that the reason for this was the need to keep the technology a secret.

Prof. Erez Ben Yosef of Tel Aviv University. / Tel Aviv University

“It should be understood that copper production was the high-tech of that period, and there was no more sophisticated technology than that in the ancient world,” emphasized Prof. Erez Ben-Yosef. “If we just throw lumps of ore into the fire – nothing will happen. Some knowledge is needed for the production of special kilns which can reach high temperatures and at the same time maintain the low presence of oxygen.”

Prof. Ben-Yosef pointed out that the archeology of the Land of Israel has evidence of a culture known as the Ghassulian culture – dating to the Middle and Late Chalcolithic Period – which was located in the eastern Jordan Valley near the northern edge of the Dead Sea, in modern Jordan. This culture, which stretched from the Be’er Sheva Valley to southern Lebanon, was exceptional in its achievements in the field of art and worship – as can be seen in the marvelous copper objects that were found in the Nahal Mishmar cache and are on display today at the Israel Museum.

According to Ben-Yosef, the people who lived in the Arava desert traded with members of the Ghassulian culture from Be’er Sheva and sold them the ore, but they themselves did not know how to recreate the “magic.”

Inside the Ghassulian settlement along the Be’er Sheva River, the copper was produced in special workshops by experts, with the chemical analysis of the remains showing that each workshop kept its specific recipe and did not share it with the others. The charming, shiny metal was preserved for the elite.

“The Be’er Sheva spring was probably a flowing stream at the time, so the environment was comfortable for copper workshops, whose kilns and other installations were made of clay,” according to Prof. Ben-Yosef.

Copper slag exposed in the excavation in Neve Noy. / Anat Rasiuk, Israel Antiquities Authority

“In the beginning of the metallurgical revolution, the metal revolution, the secret of the metal was kept among guilds of experts. All over the world, we find residential quarters for metal producers within the Chalcolithic localities – like the quarter we found in Be’er Sheva,” he said.

The study included a lively discussion on the question of how hierarchical was this society with its social stratification, considering it was not yet an urban, but a rural society.

The researchers believe that the findings in Neve Noy reinforce the thesis of social stratification, that it was a complex society with a distinct elite, with specialization and professional secrets, which maintained its power by producing the shiny material – copper.

The copper vessels that were produced were not useful but had a symbolic significance. The copper ax was not used as an ax, it was an artistic and ritual imitation of the stone ax. The metal objects were used in worship, while the use of stone tools continued on a daily basis.

“In the first stage of copper production in the world, we don’t find kilns, we find crucibles,” said Prof. Ben-Yosef. “It’s a small pottery vessel made of clay that looks like a flowerpot, a kind of portable kiln using coal fire. But here, in the Neve Noy copper workshop, we show that the technology was based on real kilns. This is very early evidence for the use of kilns for metallurgy, and it raises the possibility that the kiln was invented in our area.”

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David writes news at JewishPress.com.