martes, 2 de septiembre de 2014

Copper workers were not slaves says new study (Israel)

In 1934, the renowned American archaeologist Nelson Glueck named one of the largest known copper production sites of the Levant “Slaves’ Hill.” This hilltop site, located deep in Israel’s Arava Valley, seemed to bear all the marks of an Iron Age slave camp – burning hot furnaces, harsh desert conditions, and a massive barrier that would prevent escape. Evidence recently uncovered by Tel Aviv University archaeologists has now overturned this entire narrative.

A technological birthplace

Timna Valley is better known as one of the birthplaces of a technological revolution; when people started using metal in daily life. The Egyptians, or Edomites, a semi-nomadic tribe discovered copper ore as early as the 5th millennium BCE and began the world’s first copper production centre. The early miners were shown to have used metal chisels and hoes to mine and create tubular shafts with cut footholds in the walls to move down as far as 30 metres to reach the copper.
Archaeologists knew about the remains of copper production from surveys conducted at the end of the 19th century, but they were not given much attention. However archaeologist Nelson Glueck claimed that King Solomon, who reigned in the 10th century BCE, was responsible for the mines, and Timna Valley became a centre of scientific and religious inquiry, as well as public interest. Glueck named the site “King Solomons Mines,” but the subsequent excavations performed by Professor Beno Rothenberg placed serious doubt on the theory.
The Egyptian control of the mines declined in the 12th century BCE, but the Midianites stayed. The Midianite culture left thousands of ceremonial artefacts and the Temple of Hathor, a treasured relic. Mining then continued by the Israelites and Nabateans through into the Roman period and the first and second centuries CE. The Ummayads from the Arabian Peninsula continued the mining until the copper ore became scarce.

Examining ancient leftovers

During the course of ongoing excavations at Timna Valley, Dr. Erez Ben-Yosef and Dr. Lidar Sapir-Hen of TAU’s Department of Archaeology and Near Eastern Cultures analysed the remains of food eaten by copper smelters 3,000 years ago during the Iron Age exploitation.
The result of this analysis, published in the journal Antiquity, indicates that the labourers operating the furnaces were in fact craftsmen who enjoyed a higher social status than the previous suggestion of slavery had created for them.
“What we found represents a general trend or reality related to metal workers in antiquity,” said Dr. Ben-Yosef. “They had a very unique role in society, and we can demonstrate this by looking at Timna.”
The rare arid conditions of Timna have resulted in unparalleled preservation of organic materials usually destroyed by the march of time: bones, seeds, fruits, and even fabric dating back to the 10th century B.C.E. Using a technique called “wet sieving,” the archaeologists found miniscule animal and fish bones, evidence of a rich and diverse diet.
“The copper smelters were given the better cuts of meat – the meatiest parts of the animals,” said Dr. Sapir-Hen. “Someone took great care to give the people working in the furnaces the best of everything. They also enjoyed fish, which must have been brought from the Mediterranean hundreds of kilometres away. This was not the diet of slaves but of highly-regarded, maybe even worshipped, craftsmen.”
Copper, used at the time to produce tools and weapons was the most valuable resource in ancient societies. According to Dr. Ben-Yosef, the smelters needed to be well-versed in the sophisticated technology required to turn stone into usable copper. This knowledge was so advanced for the time it may have been considered magical or supernatural.
“Like oil today, copper was a source of great power,” said Dr. Ben-Yosef. “If a person had the exceptional knowledge to ‘create copper,’ it is not surprising he would have been treated well. In comparing our findings to current ethnographic accounts from Africa, we see smelters worshipped and even honoured with animal sacrifices.”
Copper production is a complex operation requiring several levels of expertise and perhaps the mine workers at Timna may have indeed been slaves or prisoners, because theirs was a simple task performed under severe conditions. However, the act of smelting, turning stone into metal, required an enormous amount of skill and control. The smelter had to build a furnace from clay to a precise design, then provide the right mix of oxygen and charcoal, maintain a 1,200 degree (Celsius) heat, connect bellows pipes, blow a fixed amount of air, and add an exact mixture of minerals. All told, the smelter had to manage some 30-40 variables in order to produce the coveted copper ingots.

Reconstructing social diversity

According to Dr. Sapir-Hen, an expert on early complex societies, the food remains reflect the social stratification of different labourers at the site. “By studying the remains of domesticated food animals, we reveal differential access to meat that may indicate different levels of specialization among workers at the same site. This allowed us to reconstruct social diversity at the site,” said Dr. Sapir-Hen.
The remains of the wall found at the Timna site, once considered a barrier used to contain slave labourers, apparently played a different role as well. “We now know it was a wall used to defend the sophisticated technology and its most precious product – the ingot, the result of the complex copper smelting process,” said Dr. Ben-Yosef.
The research on the ancient societies of Timna continues as part of the Central Timna Valley Project of Tel Aviv University.

Source: Past Horizons:

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