Skilled Craftsmen, Not Slaves, Smelted Copper at Timna
3,000-year-old animal bones are key to identification, say scholars
September 18, 2014
Animals bones discovered at copper production sites in the Timna Valley offer researchers clues to the identity of the copper smelters. Photo: Erez Ben-Yosef, courtesy Central Timna Valley Project at Tel Aviv University.
In antiquity, metalworkers labored in the Timna Valley
to exploit some of the richest copper ore deposits in the southern Levant. In 1934, legendary archaeologist Nelson Glueck dubbed one of the Late Bronze–Early Iron Age smelting sites “Slaves’ Hill,” believing, as was commonly assumed, that the workers engaged in copper production were slaves. In a recent study published in the journal Antiquity
, however, Tel Aviv University scholars Lidar Sapir-Hen and Erez Ben-Yosef suggest that the metalworkers in the Timna Valley were not slaves but highly skilled craftsmen.
Analyzing the remains of domesticated animals at copper production sites in the Timna Valley, the scholars observed that the better cuts of meat were given to those who worked in industrial complexes, where the copper ores were smelted.
“Someone took great care to give the people working in the furnaces the best of everything,” said Dr. Sapir-Hen in a Tel Aviv University press release. “They also enjoyed fish, which must have been brought from the Mediterranean hundreds of kilometers away. This was not the diet of slaves but of highly regarded, maybe even worshipped, craftsmen.”
The scholars believe that their conclusions can offer insight into the identity of metalworkers at other sites throughout the region.
Read Lidar Sapir-Hen and Erez Ben-Yosef’s study in Antiquity.
The free eBook Life in the Ancient World guides you through craft centers in ancient Jerusalem, family structure across Israel and articles on ancient practices—from dining to makeup—across the Mediterranean world.
Learn more about ancient copper production in the BAS Library:
Mohammad Najjar and Thomas E. Levy, “Condemned to the Mines,” Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 2011.
Thomas E. Levy and Mohammad Najjar, “Edom & Copper,” Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August 2006.
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