Researchers from Tel Aviv University collected samples of charcoal mined in the Timna Valley in Israel’s southern desert region between the 11th and 9th centuries BC. It was used as fuel for metallurgical furnaces and examined it under a microscope. They found that the charcoal fuels used changed over time. The earlier samples contained mainly native gorse and acacia thorn trees, excellent fuels available locally, but the quality of the firewood had deteriorated over time, with later samples consisting of inferior wood fuel and wood imported from afar.
“Our results indicate that the ancient copper industry in Timna was not managed sustainably, with overexploitation of local vegetation eventually leading to the disappearance of both plants and industry. Copper production only resumed in this region about a thousand years later, and the local environment has not fully recovered to this day,” the researchers said.
The study was led by Ph.D. Student Mark Cavanagh, Prof. Erez Ben-Yosef and Dr. Dafna Langgut, director of the Archaeobotany and Ancient Environments Laboratory, all of TAU’s Jacob M. Alkow Department of Archeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures, and Dr. Langgut is also affiliated with the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History. The study was published in Scientific Reports.
Prof. Erez Ben-Yosef, Head of Archaeological Excavations in Timna Valley, says: “Many finds in Timna Valley indicate that for about 250 years, between the 11th and 9th centuries B.C. BC, a huge copper industry flourished. with thousands of mining sites and about 10 processing sites that used furnaces to extract copper from the ore.
“This impressive operation is known to the public as ‘King Solomon’s Mines’ and we now know that copper production here actually peaked around the time of Kings David and Solomon. The Bible never mentions the mines as such, but it tells us that David conquered the area of Timna then known as Edom and established garrisons throughout the land so that the Edomites became his subjects, and that his son Solomon became vast quantities of copper used in the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
“We can only assume that David was interested in this remote desert region for its copper – an important and valuable metal at the time, used, among other things, to make bronze. The copper industry of Timna was run by the local Edomites who specialized in the trade, and Timna copper was exported to distant lands including Egypt, Lebanon and even Greece. However, this study shows that the industry was unsustainable, a fact that might well fit with an occupation by a foreign power, perhaps ruled from Jerusalem.”
The researchers explain that Timna’s copper industry was very advanced for the time and that the metalsmiths who worked the copper were skilled and respected people. The copper was extracted from the ore by smelting it in clay furnaces at a temperature of 1,200 degrees Celsius. The whole process took about eight hours, after which the furnace was smashed and the copper removed from its base. The charcoal required to reach the high temperature was previously produced at special locations by slowly burning trees and bushes felled for this purpose.
Mark Cavanagh says: “The copper industry in Timna was first discovered about 200 years ago, and since then every researcher who has visited the area has asked the same question: What fuel was used to heat the smelting furnaces? Since the vegetation is very sparse in this desert area, where did the firewood come from? To finally solve this mystery, we collected charcoal samples from the smelting sites and examined them in the laboratory.”
The charcoal samples, well preserved thanks to the arid desert climate, were collected from heaps of industrial waste at two major production sites in the Timna Valley and brought to TAU’s archaeobotany laboratory. dr Dafna Langgut says: “In the laboratory we examine plant remains that were discovered during archaeological excavations. In the present study, we examined more than 1,000 charcoal samples under an electron microscope. The anatomical structure of the original wood is preserved in the charcoal and under the microscope the species can be identified. The samples were dated according to the layer of the garbage heap in which they were found and some were also sent out for carbon-14 dating.”
Mark Cavanagh says: “We have seen significant changes in charcoal composition over time. Charcoal from the lowest layer of the hills from the 11th century BC thorns and 40% native gorse, including gorse roots. The “burning coals of the gorse tree” are even mentioned in the Bible as excellent firewood (Psalm 120:4). Some 100 years later , around the middle of the 10th century B.C. We saw a change in the composition of charcoal: industry had begun to use lower quality fuel, such as various desert shrubs and palm trees. In this last phase, other trees were imported from afar, such as juniper from the Edomite Plateau in what is today Jordan, traveling distances of up to 100 km from Timnah, and Terebinth, also transported from tens of kilometers.
The researchers claim that the gradual change in the charcoal’s constituents was due to overexploitation, which has destroyed natural resources – in this case, high-quality firewood, acacia and white gorse. Prof Ben-Yosef says: “Based on the amount of industrial waste found at the processing sites, we can calculate the amount of woody plants needed for copper production, with one of several simultaneously operated sites burning up to 400 acacias and 1,800 annually gorse. As these resources ran out, the industry looked for other solutions, which can be seen from the changing composition of charcoal, which proved cost-effective in the long run, and eventually by the 9th century B.C. Chr. All production facilities closed. The copper industry in the Timna Valley was not renewed until 1,000 years later by the Nabataeans.
dr Langgut concludes: “Our study indicates that humans caused severe environmental damage in the Timna Valley 3,000 years ago, affecting the area to this day. Species in the southern Arava ecosystem had supported many other species, stored water and stabilized the soil. Their disappearance led to a domino effect of environmental damage that damaged the entire area beyond repair. Three thousand years later, the local environment has still not “recovered from the crisis. Some species, like the white gorse, which was once widespread in the Timna Valley, are now very rare, while others have disappeared forever.”
A preserved fortification and donkey stables of King Solomon were discovered during excavations in the Timna Valley of the TAU
Mark Cavanagh et al, Fuel exploitation and environmental degradation in the Iron Age copper industry in the Timna Valley, southern Israel, Scientific Reports (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-022-18940-z
Provided by Tel Aviv University
Citation: 3,000 years ago, humans destroyed vegetation and irreparably damaged the environment of the Timna Valley (2022, September 22), retrieved September 22, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-09-years-human -vegetation-irreparably-timna.html
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