Ancient site yields a copper whopper

Excavations in southern Jordan have uncovered the largest Early Bronze Age metal works in the Middle East. The factory-like operation, which ran from around 4,700 to 4,200 years ago, represented a “quantum leap” in the scale of copper production at a time when ancient cities in the area experienced rapid growth, archaeologist Thomas E. Levy of the University of California, San Diego and his coworkers report in the June Antiquity.

TOOL TIME. Discoveries at a Bronze Age metal factory include a copper axe (above) and a mold for copper pins (below). Levy/UC San Diego

Levy/UC San Diego

The Jordanian site, known as Khirbat Hamra Ifdan, contains areas for an assembly-line production of copper tools and ingots distributed among more than 80 rooms, courtyards, and other spaces. Smelting debris in and around more than a dozen furnaces throughout the site indicates that several hundred tons of copper were produced there, the scientists say. Among the artifacts found at the site are copper axes, chisels, pins, and ingots; clay casting molds for making copper objects; partially processed lumps of ore from which copper was extracted; and crucibles for melting copper-rich ore.

Chemical analyses of the metal found at the site show that workers there followed a complex recipe for refining certain types of ore to produce high-quality copper. According to Levy, this metal’s chemical composition resembles that of copper tools previously found at several smaller Early Bronze Age sites in Israel and supports the theory that copper was traded throughout the ancient Middle East.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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