Return of the kings

Contested evidence from an ancient site may reunite archaeology with Biblical accounts of Kings David and Solomon

New finds among the remnants of a settlement in southern Jordan show that a copper-producing society existed there 3,000 years ago, about 300 years earlier than many archaeologists had assumed, according to an international research team. The site’s revised age raises the controversial possibility that, in line with Old Testament accounts, Israel’s King David and his son Solomon controlled copper production in southern Jordan, says archaeologist and team leader Thomas Levy of the University of California, San Diego.

MINING CONTROVERSY Remains of a structure perch on the edge of a copper slag mound excavated to a depth of more than six meters at Khirbat en-Nahas in southern Jordan. A new study concludes that industrial-scale copper production occurred there 3,000 years ago, suggesting that biblical kings controlled what was once a major settlement. T. Levy

A long-disputed claim that King Solomon’s copper mines were located near the Jordanian site must now be taken seriously, the investigators report in the Oct. 28 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We have conclusively shown that industrial-scale copper production occurred at this site in the 10th and ninth centuries B.C., which resonates with Old Testament descriptions of vibrant, complex societies in the same area at that time,” Levy says.

Since 2002, Levy and his colleagues have excavated an ancient copper-producing site called Khirbat en-Nahas, which means “ruins of copper” in Arabic. The site lies in a lowland, arid region south of the Dead Sea. Biblical writings identify this area as Edom, home to a kingdom that barred Moses during the Exodus and warred with King David.

In 2006, the researchers excavated down to virgin soil, slicing through more than six meters of industrial smelting debris, or slag. A special software program used 20 new radiocarbon dates and other evidence from the excavation to generate a chronology of the site.

“In calling for a new dialogue between scientific dating techniques and historical sources, especially the Bible, these new results support the possibility that Solomon’s mines in the region near the Dead Sea may be dated to the 10th or ninth centuries B.C.,” says archaeologist Eric Meyers of Duke University in Durham, N.C.

Archaeologist Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University disagrees. “I see no connection between Nahas and the biblical material on Solomon,” he says.

Scholars have long argued about whether Edom was organized as a kingdom early enough to have threatened the Israelites. During the 1930s, archaeologist Nelson Glueck surveyed southern Jordan and said that he had discovered King Solomon’s mines in the northern part of biblical Edom. His claim, and the Bible’s assertion that the kingdom of David and Solomon existed 3,000 years ago, came under attack in the 1980s. British excavations of Edom’s highlands in the 1970s and 1980s suggested that Iron Age copper production did not begin there until around 2,700 years ago, fueling skepticism.

Finkelstein and others now hold that much of the Old Testament was passed on orally until put in writing between the eighth and fifth centuries B.C., with earlier events being either invented or distorted for political purposes by the document’s writers.

Since 2001, many researchers have acknowledged that nomadic groups inhabited the Khirbat en-Nahas area and probably made copper around 3,000 years ago, remarks archaeologist Piotr Bienkowski of the University of Manchester, England. “I still see no evidence for settlement or buildings there prior to the very end of the 10th century B.C. or beginning of the ninth century B.C.,” he says.

Both Bienkowski and Finkelstein assert that the site was reused seasonally many times, leaving behind a complex mix of industrial debris and other material that is difficult to separate into distinct layers that form a timeline.

Levy regards Khirbat en-Nahas as a key component of a 3,000-year-old society. Remains of approximately 100 ancient buildings at Khirbat en-Nahas, including a fortress, lie within a large area covered by around 50,000 tons of black slag. Mines and mining trails dot the site. Industrial-scale copper production must have occurred there, Levy argues.

Excavations in 2006 yielded the remains of a four-room structure built on top of more than three meters of copper slag. The team found two ancient Egyptian artifacts in the structure, a scarab and an amulet. Levy says that these finds come from an excavation layer associated with a disruption of copper production near the end of the 10th century B.C. At that time, he notes, Egyptian Pharaoh Sheshonq I conducted a military campaign in the area, perhaps partly to control copper output at Khirbat en-Nahas.

Levy’s team has also dated a small outpost with the remains of a watchtower, located just south of Khirbat en-Nahas, to about 3,000 years ago. The two sites shared similar types of pottery and fabrics at that time, the researchers say.

They are now examining pottery and jewelry at the copper-production site for stylistic signs of interactions with early Hebrew kings.

Until researchers have a chance to examine newly excavated pottery and other finds from Khirbat en-Nahas, “we are still at a stage where the authors are throwing around radiocarbon dates without providing a clear picture of their context and of their associated material,” Bienkowski contends.

An analysis of pottery by Levy’s group is set to appear in the November Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research.

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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