In Israel’s Negev Desert, a side road leads to a valley ringed by red, purple and brown cliffs. Now part of Timna National Park, this valley is famous for its jagged landscape carved by wind and water over many millennia. Tourists and geologists alike come here to admire rock formations shaped like giant mushrooms, elegant pillars and delicate arches.
It was mid-morning when I set off on a short hike, and the sun was already blazing hot. From a trailhead near the park’s famous coral-coloured rock formation known as the Arches, I ascended a small hill and within 10 minutes stood atop a plateau. From up here I could see the valley’s rugged terrain, with cliffs above and canyons below.
As amazing as the scenery was, the full story of this place – and the reason why people flocked to this harsh landscape in prehistoric times – can only be experienced by heading underground.
Timna National Park was once one of the centres of metal production in the ancient world; here, thousands of mining shafts and tunnels were painstakingly bored to harvest the copper embedded in the stone.
Specks of green and blue copper ore dotted the gravel-covered trail as I approached the park’s oldest mines, dug as early as 4500BC. Metal handrails help visitors navigate a few metres down a steep slope to enter the mine, a narrow passageway with ceilings so low I had to crawl on my hands and knees to avoid hitting my head. Beams of light shone into the tunnel from openings that have emerged over the years from erosion, exposing the vertical scores on the walls left by the stone tools used to carve the cavity into the Earth.
“[Miners] worked in very harsh conditions in the desert, a place without water and really without anything,” said Dr Erez Ben-Yosef, professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University and director of the Central Timna Valley Project, an interdisciplinary research project about the region’s history of copper production.
This mine, and the others in the area, follow the horizontal turquoise veins of copper that snake through the ground south of the Dead Sea in both Israel and Jordan. Thousands of years ago, miners chiselled out this copper ore, carried it out of the mines, then heated it to extract a shiny metal that was used to make beads, pendants and other decorative items. It was among the earliest examples of people deriving metal from stone, Dr Ben-Yosef said, and thanks to the dry climate, Timna’s are among the world’s best-preserved ancient mines.
“You can see everything. You can touch things left at Timna 3,000 and 4,000 years ago,” he added.
Aside from mines like this, some flint tools and heaps of rock left from the smelting process, these early miners didn’t leave much behind. “We know very little about these first miners,” Dr Ben-Yosef said. “We don’t have names for them. We just know that they were local people working with very simple stone tools.”
The caverns and shafts throughout Timna National Park reveal thousands of years of mining history. Evidence has been found linking these mines to Ancient Egypt’s New Kingdom, which existed from the 16th through the early 11th Centuries BC. Copper from here enriched the series of Ramses pharaohs who used it for everything from weapons to jewellery. However, further evidence shows that mining here reached its peak several hundred years later. High-resolution radiocarbon dating of seeds and other organic matter left in the miners’ work camps indicates the mines were active between the 11th and 9th Centuries BC, lending credence to theories that Timna was the source of copper for the biblical King Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem.
And until recently, experts assumed the gruelling manual labour had been done by slaves. But archaeological findings over the last few years, including high-quality dyed fabrics preserved by the dry climate, indicate that the metalworkers were employed rather than enslaved. Remains of sheep and goat bones as well as date and olive pits also suggest that the workers ate a rich diet of foods not usually found in the desert.
By this time, people had learned how to shape the copper found in Timna’s mines into tools and weapons, and how to mix it with tin to create bronze, a much stronger material. Evidence of this early metalworking is on display in museums around the world. Tel Aviv’s Eretz Israel Museum has the largest collection of artefacts from Timna, including copper chisels used for mining and a bronze serpent found in a local temple.
“When you see the things they made, then you understand why all this work in the mines was worth it,” Dr Ben Yosef said.
The mines can be accessed during the park’s opening hours without a guide or any previous arrangements. While the cavern offered a cool respite from the heat, I was a relieved to reach the end. Climbing the ladder back to the desert’s scorched surface, it felt good to stand up straight again.
I continued on the trail to peer down a nearly 3,000-year-old precipice-like mine shaft, catching a glimpse of the niches scored by miners as they climbed in and out. A little way further along a dry desert streambed, entrances to dozens of mines looked like turquoise-striped pockmarks along the rocky walls. All around me, colourful ridges rose several storeys as if reaching for the fiery desert sun. The landscape was breathtaking, to say the least, but not nearly as fascinating as what some of the world’s earliest miners had left behind.
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