This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in November 2011. It has been updated.—Ed.
Early Christian persecution often calls to mind the martyrs who were tortured, crucified, burned or even killed by wild animals in the gladiatorial arenas of the Roman Empire. But it sometimes took another form, as explained by archaeologists Thomas Levy and Mohammad Najjar in their article “Condemned to the Mines” in the November/December 2011 issue of BAR. Damnatio ad metalla, or condemnation to the mines, meant that the convicted would be forced to mine copper, often in the copper-rich region of the Faynan, Jordan. With the grueling work that it took to mine copper in the oppressive conditions of the Faynan, the laborers were often worked to death, making this form of early Christian persecution tantamount to a death sentence.
People began to mine copper—or at least collect and work it—by the end of the Neolithic period (7500–5700 B.C.E.), and the process of copper smelting arose around 4500–4000 B.C.E. in the Chalcolithic period. Regions in Israel and south of the Dead Sea, such as the Faynan, are home to some of the world’s earliest copper production sites.
Watch the full-length lecture “Journey to the Copper Age – The Chalcolithic Metallurgical Revolution and Its Effects in Israel and the Neighboring Lands” by Thomas E. Levy online for free.
The Faynan district proved to be a productive region to mine copper, as was done at several points by the local rulers throughout ancient history. The Biblical king Solomon may even have exploited the copper here for the kingdom of Israel and sent laborers to mine copper ore and smelt it for use by metalsmiths and for trade.
It is clear that the Romans also took advantage of these natural resources when they gained control of the Faynan. The region became a destination for forced labor comprised of convicted criminals and slaves.
A few different methods were employed to mine copper during this period, including a shaft-and-gallery technique, as well as a room-and-pillar technique. Both required back-breaking work in almost total darkness around the clock, often with the miners struggling to breathe in the terrible air quality.
The pagan Roman emperors weren’t the only ones to condemn Christians to mine copper in the Faynan, however. Even after the Christians became rulers of the Roman Empire, this form of early Christian persecution continued in use to punish condemned heretics and adherents of rival sects.
Read more about early Christian persecution and the ancient process to mine copper in the Faynan (Jordan) in Thomas Levy and Mohammad Najjar’s “Condemned to the Mines,” Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 2011.
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