BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Skilled Craftsmen, Not Slaves, Smelted Copper at Timna

3,000-year-old animal bones are key to identification, say scholars

timna-bones

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.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.


Which finds made our top 10 Biblical archaeology discoveries of 2014? Find out >>


This blog post first appeared in Bible History Daily in September, 2014


5 Responses

  1. Dennis says:

    While they may have been skilled craftsmen, that doesn’t rule out them being enslaved. History abounds with records of slaves also being skilled craftsmen; in fact there are records of such earning sufficient money/goods to buy their freedom.

  2. Eric says:

    Paul, Interesting similarity between copper and snake. Copper probably got its name by way of the color of the cobra snake rather than the other way around. Bloom’s thought is interesting but not likely! Thanks!

  3. Paul Ballotta says:

    From the literary perspective of the poet Harold Bloom in “The Book of J,” it was a women who may have been a scribe in the court of King Solomon who wrote the Genesis account of paradise (p.181):
    “The nakedness of the man and woman is their childlike astuteness, even as the slyness of the serpent is its nakedness, its quality of being wholly natural, as much at home in Eden as they are.”
    Bloom goes on to say that the serpent goes about without a sense of shame so that there’s no reason for the woman to be afraid of it and it brings to mind a contemporary example involving a rock musician who in recent years toured “around the earth, roaming about” (Job 1:7). This performer was also invited to give a speech at the U.N. where he positioned himself as a mediator for a terrorist organization. There was a time, though, when I was a fan of his because back in the 1980’s his stage show was like a psychedelic trip and he was open about his sex life which was portrayed in animated depictions of people as dogs which allowed me to psychoanalyse my own lustful animal nature, saving me from a fate of slithering from one sexual encounter to the next. But like the serpent in the epic of Gilgamesh who eats the psychotropic plant and then changes its skin, the hope for this type of therapy is thwarted because it is not politically correct. Due to my own blindness I failed to perceive that the naked woman depicted on this artist’s album cover was a signal that he preferred a woman without celluloid fat.
    “The gnostic movement shared certain affinities with contemporary methods of exploring the self through psychotherapeutic techniques. Both gnosticism and psychotherapy value, above all.knowledge – the self-knowledge which is insight. They agree that, lacking this, a person experiences the sense of being driven by impulses he does not understand” (“The Gnostic Gospels” by Elaine Pagels, p.124).

  4. Paul Ballotta says:

    Well … Poop, besides the word “nahas” meaning both copper and snake, the Greek word “nous” which means “mind’ or “thought” was borrowed by the early Gnostics from philosophical speculation of the origin of all things with “nous” being the first emanation of God. It wouldn’t take a brain surgeon to an Egyptian to figure out that that copper snake in the Jewish Torah was a cobra, a symbol of the scribal god Thoth. Prior to the entry of the serpent in paradise, it says, “the man and his wife were both naked, yet they felt no shame” (Genesis 2:25). I think a good analogy of the serpent is as a scribe who is not careful to edit out graphic sexual content of which there are examples in the Egyptian myth, “The Contendings of Horus and Seth,” which I see in this particular writing as metaphors.

  5. Paul Ballotta says:

    A copper snake was found at Timna, like the one Moses made (Numbers 21:9) with the Hebrew word “nahas” used for both the words copper and snake. This discovery gives validity to the account of the serpent in Genesis 3:1; “And the serpent was cunning above every beast of the field that the Lord God had made.” The serpent could well refer to a coppersmith who was at the top of the food chain.

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5 Responses

  1. Dennis says:

    While they may have been skilled craftsmen, that doesn’t rule out them being enslaved. History abounds with records of slaves also being skilled craftsmen; in fact there are records of such earning sufficient money/goods to buy their freedom.

  2. Eric says:

    Paul, Interesting similarity between copper and snake. Copper probably got its name by way of the color of the cobra snake rather than the other way around. Bloom’s thought is interesting but not likely! Thanks!

  3. Paul Ballotta says:

    From the literary perspective of the poet Harold Bloom in “The Book of J,” it was a women who may have been a scribe in the court of King Solomon who wrote the Genesis account of paradise (p.181):
    “The nakedness of the man and woman is their childlike astuteness, even as the slyness of the serpent is its nakedness, its quality of being wholly natural, as much at home in Eden as they are.”
    Bloom goes on to say that the serpent goes about without a sense of shame so that there’s no reason for the woman to be afraid of it and it brings to mind a contemporary example involving a rock musician who in recent years toured “around the earth, roaming about” (Job 1:7). This performer was also invited to give a speech at the U.N. where he positioned himself as a mediator for a terrorist organization. There was a time, though, when I was a fan of his because back in the 1980’s his stage show was like a psychedelic trip and he was open about his sex life which was portrayed in animated depictions of people as dogs which allowed me to psychoanalyse my own lustful animal nature, saving me from a fate of slithering from one sexual encounter to the next. But like the serpent in the epic of Gilgamesh who eats the psychotropic plant and then changes its skin, the hope for this type of therapy is thwarted because it is not politically correct. Due to my own blindness I failed to perceive that the naked woman depicted on this artist’s album cover was a signal that he preferred a woman without celluloid fat.
    “The gnostic movement shared certain affinities with contemporary methods of exploring the self through psychotherapeutic techniques. Both gnosticism and psychotherapy value, above all.knowledge – the self-knowledge which is insight. They agree that, lacking this, a person experiences the sense of being driven by impulses he does not understand” (“The Gnostic Gospels” by Elaine Pagels, p.124).

  4. Paul Ballotta says:

    Well … Poop, besides the word “nahas” meaning both copper and snake, the Greek word “nous” which means “mind’ or “thought” was borrowed by the early Gnostics from philosophical speculation of the origin of all things with “nous” being the first emanation of God. It wouldn’t take a brain surgeon to an Egyptian to figure out that that copper snake in the Jewish Torah was a cobra, a symbol of the scribal god Thoth. Prior to the entry of the serpent in paradise, it says, “the man and his wife were both naked, yet they felt no shame” (Genesis 2:25). I think a good analogy of the serpent is as a scribe who is not careful to edit out graphic sexual content of which there are examples in the Egyptian myth, “The Contendings of Horus and Seth,” which I see in this particular writing as metaphors.

  5. Paul Ballotta says:

    A copper snake was found at Timna, like the one Moses made (Numbers 21:9) with the Hebrew word “nahas” used for both the words copper and snake. This discovery gives validity to the account of the serpent in Genesis 3:1; “And the serpent was cunning above every beast of the field that the Lord God had made.” The serpent could well refer to a coppersmith who was at the top of the food chain.

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