Biblical Edomite Kingdom was ‘Copper Powerhouse,’ Study Reveals

Edom, an ancient kingdom of the southern Levant mentioned in the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) as well as in Assyrian and Egyptian sources, experienced a ‘leap’ in technological advancement in the 10th century BCE, according to new research led by Tel Aviv University scientists.

Main features of the organization of production and detailed chaîne opératoires for the copper industry in Edom during the Late Bronze and early Iron Ages. Image credit: Ben-Yosef et al, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0221967.

Main features of the organization of production and detailed chaîne opératoires for the copper industry in Edom during the Late Bronze and early Iron Ages. Image credit: Ben-Yosef et al, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0221967.

Copper, used in ancient times to produce tools and weapons, was the most valuable resource in the Ancient Near East. Its production is a complex process, requiring different stages and levels of expertise.

To reconstruct the evolution of copper production in Edom in the first millennium BCE (1300-800 BCE), Tel Aviv University’s Professor Erez Ben-Yosef and colleagues analyzed over 150 well-dated samples of copper slag from ancient copper mines of Faynan in Jordan and Timna in Israel.

The researchers identified dramatic changes in the copper slag discovered at the Arava sites.

“Using technological evolution as a proxy for social processes, we were able to identify and characterize the emergence of the Biblical kingdom of Edom,” Professor Ben-Yosef said.

“Our results prove it happened earlier than previously thought and in accordance with the Biblical description.”

The analysis of the samples shows a clear statistical fall in the amount of copper in the slag over time, indicating that production had become expertly streamlined for efficiency.

The scientists attribute this sudden improvement to one of the most famous Egyptian invasions of the Holy Land: the military campaign of Pharaoh Shoshenq I, one of the few Egyptian pharaohs identified by name in the Hebrew Bible (there ‘Shishak’), who sacked Jerusalem in the 10th century BCE.

The findings indicate that Egypt’s intervention in the land of Edom was not accompanied by destruction. Instead, it triggered a technological ‘leap’ that included more efficient copper production and trade.

“We demonstrated a sudden standardization of the slag in the second half of the 10th century BCE, from Faynan to Timna sites, an extensive area of some 2,000 km2, which occurred just as the Egyptians entered the region,” Professor Ben-Yosef said.

“The efficiency of the copper industry in the region was increasing. The Edomites developed precise working protocols that allowed them to produce a very large amount of copper with minimum energy.”

But Egypt at this time was a weak power. While its influence in the region is clear, it probably did not command the copper industry, which remained a local Edomite enterprise.

“As a consumer of imported copper, Egypt had a vested interest in streamlining the industry,” Professor Ben-Yosef said.

“It seems that, through their long-distance ties, they were a catalyst for technological innovations across the region. For example, the camel first appeared in the region immediately after the arrival of Shoshenq I.”

“Our new findings contradict the view of many archaeologists that the Arava was populated by a loose alliance of tribes, and they’re consistent with the Biblical story that there was Edom here.”

“A flourishing copper industry in the Arava can only be attributed to a centralized and hierarchical polity, and this might fit the Biblical description of the Edomite Kingdom.”

The study was published in the journal PLoS ONE.

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E. Ben-Yosef et al. 2019. Ancient technology and punctuated change: Detecting the emergence of the Edomite Kingdom in the Southern Levant. PLoS ONE 14 (9): e0221967; doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0221967

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