Photo Credit: E. Ben-Yosef and the Central Timna Valley Project
Collecting slag and charcoal samples from 'Slaves’ Hill,' Timna Valley, Israel. The fine layers of technological waste – well-dated by radiocarbon – provide a detailed record of technological change in biblical Edom.

An unprecedented archaeological research in terms of its scope, led by Prof. Erez Ben Yosef of the Department of Archaeology and the Ancient East at Tel Aviv University, together with the University of California, San Diego, has revealed the story of the growth of the Biblical kingdom of Edom through careful analysis of the waste left behind by copper industry in the Arava desert.

The study was published in PLOS One on September 18, 2019.


Edom (lit. “red”) was an ancient kingdom in Transjordan, located between Moab and the northeast, with the Arava to the west and the Arabian Desert to the south and east. Most of its former territory is now divided between Israel and Jordan.

The researchers analyzed hundreds of findings from the ancient copper mines in Jordan (Punon, one of the stations of the Exodus mentioned in the Torah) and in Israel (Timna, also mentioned in the Torah and the Hebrew bible), in order to reproduce the development and refinement of the copper manufacturing industry over 500 years, around the beginning of the first millennium BCE (1300 – 800 BCE).

Excavating copper production workshop at ‘Salves’ Hill,’ Timna Valley, Israel. The 10th century BCE site yielded materials that helped reconstructing 400 years of technological developments in the region. / E. Ben-Yosef and the Central Timna Valley Project

Microscopic and chemical tests of copper slags have identified dramatic technological changes at a high temporal resolution (the discrete resolution of a measurement with respect to time).

“Some researchers are trying to minimize [our notions of] the copper production in the Arava area during this period,” explains Prof. Ben Yosef. “They claim these were just a loose collection of tribes that produced copper only in a transient fashion. But our findings contradict this view and are consistent with the biblical story.”

Excavations of ancient copper mines as part of Tel Aviv University’s Central Timna Valley Project. Copper production technologies and the organization of the industry reflect the society responsible for this enterprise. / E. Ben-Yosef and the Central Timna Valley Project

According to Ben Yosef, there existed a kingdom in the area, as the Torah testifies: “Following are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom before any king had reigned over the people of Israel” (Genesis 36:31).

“The evidence we found of there having been a copper industry in the Arava can only be attributed to a centralized and hierarchical kingdom, that is to that ancient biblical Edom,” Ben Yosef Insists.

Copper, used in ancient times to produce tools and weapons, was the most valuable resource in the Ancient Near East. Copper production is a complex process, requiring different stages and levels of expertise: the copper artisan had to construct a clay kiln of very specific proportions, provide this kiln with an accurate amount of oxygen and coal, maintain a temperature of not less than 1,200 degrees celsius (2,192 farenheit), stream in a steady amount of air, and add a complex mixture of minerals to the cauldron.

“This was the high-tech of antiquity, and as it is today, the experts back then were engaged regularly in Research and Development. Technological achievements were kept as professional secrets, and industry management was directly linked to the ruling elite. Accordingly, the way technology was implemented, as well as changes in its effectiveness over time, reflected social processes, and our results reveal for the first time the duration and manner in which a complex society emerged that eventually ruled the entire region,” according to Ben Yosef.

This society was identified as biblical Edom, which according to the Bible was conquered and enslaved by Israel in the days of David.

Analysis of this technology’s development through evolutionary models shows that the most significant change occurred as a result of Egyptian intervention in the region during the days of the Pharaoh Shishaq, the Egyptian pharaoh who sacked Jerusalem in the second half of the 10th century BCE, one or two generations after David’s conquests.

Professor Ben Yosef and his team used chemical and microscopic analysis of copper slag – namely the kiln waste – and managed to show a clear statistical drop in the amount of copper in the slags, suggesting a sharp rise in the efficiency of the production process.

Pharaoh Shishaq / George Rawlinson via Wikimedia

Archaeologists attribute this leap to Pharaoh Shishaq’s military campaign, which happens to be the first event described in the Bible (1 Kings 14) which is also described in other sources – on the walls of the Karnak Temple Complex near Luxor, in Egypt.

“We have shown a sudden standardization of the slags, from Punon in Jordan to the Arava in Israel, an area of ​​about 2,000 sq. kilometers (770 sq. miles), which took place exactly in the time believed to be consistent with the Egyptian intervention in the region, in the second half of the 10th century BCE,” says Prof. Ben Yosef.

(From the article) More than 6 m of copper production waste were excavated at Khirbat en-Nahas, Jordan. The excavated materials from here and other sites were used to track more than four centuries of technological and social evolution in biblical Edom. / T. Levy

“At once, the efficiency of the copper industry in the region is rising, efficiency that indicates working according to precise protocols that have allowed the production of a very large amount of copper with minimum energy,” Ben Yosef points out, and notes: “You have to understand that Egypt during this period was weak, and the Egyptians were not the ones who ran the industry, but they shocked Edom – who may have been still enslaved by Israel at that time – in a manner that caused the technological leap.”

As consumers of imported copper, Egypt had a clear interest in streamlining the Arava industry, and it appears that through their long-term relationships they have served as a catalyst for Edom’s adoption of technological innovations from across the region. For example, the camel first appears in the region immediately after the Shishaq invasion. Likewise in the context of copper production, it was Egyptian intervention which made Edom the greatest copper superpower in the ancient East.

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