“Slave’s Hill,” in the Timna Valley of southern Israel. Photo by Erez Ben-Yosef and the CTV project, shared on nationalgeographic.com.

Archaeologists in the southernmost stretch of the Wadi Arabah recently uncovered a surprising find — clods of 3,000-year-old donkey dung in an amazing state of preservation. The ancient ordure was found piled against the inside of a fortified wall near the gatehouse of a copper mining camp in the Timna Valley of southern Israel. The desert site, pockmarked with mining pits and piles of slag from the refining process, has been known since at least 1934, when Nelson Glueck identified the sandstone mesa as a mining camp and called it “Slave’s Hill.” Scoops of poop were apparently collected and dried for use as fuel in furnaces that heated the blue copper ore to extract liquid metal from it.

So why should anyone care?

Bible readers might care, because a radiocarbon analysis of the dung (along with other organic materials from the same strata) dated it to the 10th century BCE — an Iron Age site from the time of King Solomon. Archaeologist Erez Ben-Yosef of Tel Aviv University, who began excavating the site in 2013, told National Geographic that scholars had previously thought it was an older, Late Bronze Age site from the 13th and 12th centuries, BCE, probably operated by Egyptians. Glueck had argued more than 80 years ago that several sites along the Wadi Arabah dated from Solomon’s time. Many later scholars laughed at his contention, but recent finds appear to be validating his views.

An analysis of preserved seeds and pollen spores in the desiccated dung tells us more: at least some of the animals’ feed was “donkeyed” in from an area near the Mediterranean Sea some 100 miles to the north. The food consisted of grape pomace (the pulp remaining after grapes are pressed in wine-making) and hay — not ordinary straw — according to Yosef’s scholarly report in the Journal of Archaeological Science (No. 11[February 2017]: 411-426). The site is so desolate that everything (including water) had to be carried in from miles away, but metal was so valuable that it was worth the considerable effort.

What the three-millennia-old manure doesn’t tell us is who drove the donkeys, dug the ore, manned the furnaces, and transported the copper back to whoever was financing the project. Archaeologists now think the most likely candidates are early Edomites — but aren’t ruling out a connection with Solomon, who claimed the area and may have either commissioned the mines or taken tax or tribute from the miners. The camp’s surprising system of fortifications indicates that it was a military target, but whether its guards were working for the Israelites or defending against them is unclear.

Nuggets of copper ore can still be dug from desert deposits in the area: these are from a site in Jordan dug by Thomas Levy. Photo by Kenneth Garrett for National Geographic, shared at national geographic.com.

Biblical accounts of Solomon’s building activities, including the temple in Jerusalem, indicate that he would have required enormous quantities of bronze, which is usually about 88 percent copper and 12 percent tin. David, according to 1 Chr. 22:14, collected huge stockpiles of gold and silver, in addition to “bronze and iron beyond weighing.” Enormous slag piles at sites in the Timna Valley, as well as at Khirbat En-Nahas (further north in the Wadi Arabah, where slag piles were 20 feet deep) testify to the large amounts of copper that were taken from the area. A good portion of it, by hook or by crook, could have ended up embellishing Jerusalem’s architecture or arming Israel’s soldiers.

The donkey’s dung doesn’t tell us all we’d like to know, but provides an intriguing glimpse into the hard lives of ancient miners and international trade.

Who would have thought it?

 

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