Discovered, the copper mines of King Solomon

By | October 29, 2008

Did the Bible’s King David and his son Solomon control the copper industry in present-day southern Jordan? Though that remains an open question, the possibility is raised once again by research reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Led by Thomas Levy of UC San Diego and Mohammad Najjar of Jordan’s Friends of Archaeology, an international team of archaeologists has excavated an ancient copper-production center at Khirbat en-Nahas down to virgin soil, through more than 20 feet of industrial smelting debris, or slag. The 2006 dig has brought up new artifacts and with them a new suite of radiocarbon dates placing the bulk of industrial-scale production at Khirbat en-Nahas in the 10th century BCE – in line with biblical narrative on the legendary rule of David and Solomon. The new data pushes back the archaeological chronology some three centuries earlier than the current scholarly consensus.

The research also documents a spike in metallurgic activity at the site during the 9th century BCE, which may also support the history of the Edomites as related by the Bible.

Khirbat en-Nahas, which means “ruins of copper” in Arabic, is in the lowlands of a desolate, arid region south of the Dead Sea in what was once Edom and is today Jordan’s Faynan district. The Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) identifies the area with the Kingdom of Edom, foe of ancient Israel.

For years, scholars have argued whether the Edomites were sufficiently organized by the 10th to 9th centuries BCE to seriously threaten the neighboring Israelites as a true “kingdom.” Between the World Wars, during the “Golden Age” of biblical archaeology, scholars explored, as Levy describes it, with a trowel in one hand and Bible in the other, seeking to fit their Holy Land findings into the sacred story. Based on his 1930s surveys, American archaeologist Nelson Glueck even asserted that he had found King Solomon’s mines in Faynan/Edom. By the 1980s, however, Glueck’s claim had been largely dismissed. A consensus had emerged that the Bible was heavily edited in the 5th century BCE, long after the supposed events, while British excavations of the Edomite highlands in the 1970s-80s suggested the Iron Age had not even come to Edom until the 7th century BCE.

“Now,” said Levy, director of the Levantine Archaeology Lab at UCSD and associate director of the new Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3), “with data from the first large-scale stratified and systematic excavation of a site in the southern Levant to focus specifically on the role of metallurgy in Edom, we have evidence that complex societies were indeed active in 10th and 9th centuries BCE and that brings us back to the debate about the historicity of the Hebrew Bible narratives related to this period.” … – ast

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