Science in Christian Perspective




From: JASA 16 (March 1964): 18-19.

This brief article clarifies the copper mining enterprise of ancient Israel and describes the intriguing plates and enigmatic cisterns at the mining locations.

Wady Timna is the scene of ancient Israel's copper mining (Fig. I). The Bible, legend, and folk tales refer to its mining activities. This "wady" is actually a wide canyon several miles north of the Gulf of Aqabah, which opens on to the "Arabah" (southern end of the Jordan rift) via three creek beds. At the southern end of Wady Timna stands modern Israel's copper mining establishment which produces coppercement for local use and overseas shipment. (Further south in the Wady Arabah is Eilat, Israel's seaport on the Gulf of Aqabah. East of Eilat, in the modern "no-man's land" is Ezion Geber, which as a result of

* Dr. Rainey is an instructor at the American Institute of Holy Land Studies, Jerusalem, Israel.

Dr. Nelson Glueck's studies has been labeled the archaeological remains of King Solomon's smelters. Farther east is the town of Aqabah, Jordan's port on the Gulf of Aqabah.)

An extensive survey was carried out in Wady Timna during the spring of 1959 and detailed results have been published in the Palestine Exploration Quarterly, January-June, 1962. It seems to be well established now that the ancient Solomonic mining operations were not continued there beyond the 10th century B. C. (Other copper mining installations have been found at various locations along the Arabah; doubtless some of them date from the later centuries of Judean history.) Apparently the workers came seasonally, during the cooler winter months and for only a few years in succession, to extract copper from Wady Timna. Perhaps it was a "crash program" to provide copper for Solomon's great palace and temple.

Visitors to the site can see where small nuggets of ore are imbedded in the canyon walls among the roots of petrified trees. The ancient workmen gouged it out, smashed the pieces into smaller chunks to eliminate the petrified wood and sandstone, and carried them to smelting sites near the mouth of the canyon. This ore has been tested and proven to be malachite with a copper content of up to 40 per cent. The modem plant extracts its copper from an ore of only about 1 to 1.5 per cent, a feat far too difficult for ancient methods of smelting. This is what led the explorers to delve farther into the canyon until they found the ancient Israelite mining areas.

Clustered around the mining sites are dozens of circular "Plates" (Fig. 2), areas of a yard or two in diameter from which the rocks have been neatly cleared away and sometimes piled around the circumference to form a protecting wall. The leader of the survey, Benno Rothenberg, a well-known Israeli photographer, believes that the partially cleaned ore was stacked on these "plates" prior to being carried to the smelting sites.

At the smelting centers the ore was crushed and mixed with a finely-ground flux and some charcoal. Small bits of iron ore, dug out with the copper, were also added. The mixture thus prepared was slowly dispersed over open fires that blazed forth from specially made pits. Under the intense heat the iron was able to replace the copper, which was freed from its original state and flowed to the bottom of the cavity to form a flat ingot. Afterwards the copper was removed and other pellets remaining in the slag were knocked out and collected. Pottery fragments found near the smelting camps and among the piles of slag seem to resemble the bottom of a bottle, except that they have holes in the center. They were probably nozzles for bellows used to increase the heat of the fires. The sherds were burnt on the outside, never on the inside. Other structures within the canyon represent living quarters and some defensive towers which apparently guarded a "stockade." Mr. Rothenberg doubts that slaves were kept in this latter enclosure. He suggests that they were places of refuge for the workmen in case of an attack by desert marauders. High up on a rocky outcropping, which served both as a defense post and smelting site, traces of a ritual "high place" are plainly visible. The household pottery from all of these sites has been duly examined by experts who agree that it must be dated to the 10th century B. C., the age of Solomon.

Agreement is not uniform, however, about the purpose of those strange "plates" nor about the numerous "cisterns" (Fig. 3) found near the mining operations. Some of the latter are as much as 17 meters deep. Mr. Rothenberg insists that they were used for water storage. Others suggest that one would not need to dig down 17 meters to store water which drained into them merely from the canyon walls, and then only during the limited rainy season. The sole evidence of previous exploration in these "cisterns?' is-an oral report circulating in modern Eilat that two Israeli bus drivers had climbed to the bottom of one of them **in the ,dark. There are footholds gouged one above the other like an improvised set of steps in most of these socalled wells, so one may descend without much difficulty with the aid of a sturdy rope. The drivers reported finding horizontal tunnels that led away from the bottom of their cistern; however, they did not try to crawl through them and determine their purpose or destination.

8ince the cisterns are cut into shelves of rock around 'which copper ore has been discovered along the exposed sides and close to the valley floor, some have suggested that the wells were dug in order to extract more ore than was available from the creek beds And gullies outside. As yet, no conclusive proof has been obtained to settle the issue.

In. November 1962 the area was explored by students ,of the American Institute of Holy Land Studies (formerly the Israel-American Institute) under supervision of the author, the Institute's instructor in Holy Land geography. The group visited the stockades and camps of Wady Timna and the mining sites near the canyon walls. They came prepared to explore the "cisterns" also. Using a rope of suitable length and strength two cisterns were explored to their bottom by Bruce ,Prapuchettes, George Blankenbaker and Halvor Ronning. While down below each looked carefully for 'connecting tunnels, but none were found. That does not mean, however, that they may not exist in some of the other cisterns nearby.

Although they were unable to solve this enigma, the explorations did add a few items to the sum of knowledge accumulating about the "cisterns" of King Solomon's mines. The explorers will long treasure memories of stark desert landscapes, abandoned encampments of Biblical lore 3000 years old, and the awesome and still present mystery of King Solomon's mines.