One of the world’s oldest workshops for smelting copper – going back some 6,500 years – has been uncovered in Beersheba by archaeologists at Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). The remnants go back to the Chalcolithic period – the word “chalcolithic” is made up of the Greek words for “copper” and “stone” – is so named because although metalworking was already in evidence, the tools used were still made of stone.
An analysis of the isotopes of ore remnants in the furnace shards show that the raw ore was brought to Neveh Noy neighborhood from Wadi Faynan, located in present-day Jordan, a distance of more than 100 kilometers from Beersheba in the Negev desert.
According to Talia Abulafia, who directed the dig on behalf of the IAA, “The excavation revealed evidence for domestic production from the Chalcolithic period, about 6,500 years ago. The surprising finds include a small workshop for smelting copper with shards of a furnace – a small installation made of tin in which copper ore was smelted – as well as a lot of copper slag.” The furnace may have been invented in the land of Israel, before the birth of the Jewish people. The scientists believe the reason for bringing the copper ore from what is now Jordan is that copper-producing technology was a closely guarded secret of ancient inhabitants of Beersheba.
The study, which was conducted over several years, began in 2017 in Beersheba when the workshop was first uncovered during an emergency archeological excavation by the IAA to safeguard threatened antiquities.
The new study also shows that the site may have made the first use in the world of a revolutionary apparatus – the smelting furnace.
In addition to Abulafia, the study was conducted by Prof. Erez Ben-Yosef, Dana Ackerfeld and Omri Yagel of the Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations at Tel Aviv University, in conjunction with Dr. Yael Abadi-Reiss and Dmitry Yegorov of the IAA and Dr. Yehudit Harlavan of the Geological Survey of Israel. The results of the groundbreaking study have just been published in the prestigious Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports under the title “Firing up the furnace: New insights on metallurgical practices in the Chalcolithic Southern Levant.”
During the Chalcolithic period, when copper ore was first refined, the process was made far from the mines, unlike the prevalent historical model in which furnaces were built near the mines for both practical and economic reasons. The scientists suggest that the reason was the preservation of the technological secret.
“It’s important to understand that the refining of copper was the hi-tech of that period. There was no technology more sophisticated than that in the whole of the ancient world,” said Ben-Yosef. “Tossing lumps of ore into a fire will get you nowhere. You need certain knowledge for building special furnaces that can reach very high temperatures while maintaining low levels of oxygen.”
Ben-Yosef noted that the archaeology of the land of Israel shows evidence of the Ghassulian culture, thus named for the archaeological site in Jordan, Tulaylât al-Ghassûl, where the culture was first recognized and spanned the region from the Beersheba Valley to present-day southern Lebanon. It was unusual for its artistic achievements and ritual objects, as evidenced by the amazing copper objects discovered at Nahal Mishmar and now on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
According to Ben-Yosef, the people who lived in the area of the copper mines traded with members of the Ghassulian culture from Beersheba and sold them the ore, but they were themselves incapable of reproducing the magic. Even among the Ghassulian settlements along Wadi Beersheba, copper was refined by experts in special workshops. A chemical analysis of remnants indicates that every workshop had its own special “recipe,” which it did not share with its competitors. It would seem that, in that period, Wadi Beersheba was filled with water year-round, making the location convenient for smelting copper where the furnaces and other apparatus were made of clay.
He added that even within Chalcolithic settlements that used both stone and copper implements, the secret of the gleaming metal was held by the very few members of an elite. “At the beginning of the metallurgical revolution, the secret of metalworking was kept by guilds of experts. All over the world, we see metalworkers’ quarters within Chalcolithic settlements like the neighborhood we found in Beersheba.”
The study discusses the question of the extent to which this society was hierarchical or socially stratified, as it was not yet urbanized. The scientists feel that the findings from Neveh Noy strengthen the hypothesis of social stratification. Society seems to have consisted of a clearly defined elite possessing expertise and professional secrets that preserved its power by being the exclusive source for the shiny copper.
The copper objects were not made to be used for chopping down trees, but rather served some ritual purpose and thus possessed symbolic value. The copper ax, for example, wasn’t used as ax – it was an artistic and/or cultic object modeled along the lines of a stone ax. The copper objects were probably used in rituals while the everyday objects in use continued to be of stone.
The furnace may have been invented in the Land of Israel. “At the first stage of humankind’s copper production, crucibles rather than furnaces were used,” said Ben-Yosef. “This small pottery vessel, which looks like a flowerpot, is made of clay. It was a type of charcoal-based mobile furnace. Here, at the Neveh Noy workshop that the IAI uncovered, we show that the technology was based on real furnaces. This provides very early evidence for the use of furnaces in metallurgy and it raises the possibility that the furnace was invented in this region.”
The archaeologist concluded that “it’s also possible the furnace was invented elsewhere, directly from crucible-based metallurgy, because some scientists view early furnaces as no more than large crucibles buried in the ground. The debate will only be settled by future discoveries, but there is no doubt that ancient Beersheba played an important role in advancing the global metal revolution and that in the fifth millennium BCE, the city was a technological powerhouse for this whole region.