A copper awl discovered during excavations at the Middle Chalcolithic village of Tel Tsaf, southeast of Beit She’an, is the oldest metal object ever found in the Middle East, a study published Thursday concluded.
According to the study, which appeared in the journal PLOS One, the awl dates back to the late 6th millennium, or the early 5th millennium BCE – hundreds of years before it was previously believed that people of the region began using metals.
The finding was published by researchers from the Zinman Institute of Archaeology and the Department of Archaeology at the University of Haifa, in conjunction with researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the German Archaeological Institute of Berlin.
Tel Tsaf, which dates back to 5200-4600 BCE, was once a wealthy commercial center. It was first documented in the 1950s; excavations commenced there during the late 1970s.
In a joint statement, the archeologists involved in the excavation, led by Dr. Danny Rosenberg of the University of Haifa and Dr. Florian Klimscha of the Eurasia Department of the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin, praised the area for its “valuable data.”
“From the earliest digs nearly 40 years ago, this area – the most important archeological site in the region dated to this period – has been supplying researchers with a great deal of valuable data, and continues to do so during this latest research project,” it said.
Rosenberg and Klimscha said the ancient community’s wealth and long-distance commercial ties were sustained by large buildings made of mud-bricks, as well as a large number of silos that stored wheat and barley on an unprecedented scale.
Among the findings there include items made of obsidian (a volcanic glass with origins in Anatolia or Armenia), shells from the Nile River in Egypt and other areas around the Mediterranean, figurines of people and animals, and “pottery unlike that found in almost any other location in the region.”
Still, the scientists said none of the area’s previous findings can compare to the four-centimeter-long and 1- millimeter- thick copper awl found by Prof. Yosef Garfinkel of the Hebrew University.
Garfinkel unearthed the cone-shaped awl in a sealed grave inside a silo containing a woman approximately 40 years old. Around her waist, the archeologist also found a belt made of 1,668 ostrich-egg shell beads.
The grave was covered with several large stones, and according to Rosenberg, its location within a silo testifies to “both the importance of the deceased, and the importance the community ascribed to the facility in which she was buried.”
Although the grave, woman’s skeleton and beaded belt were previously reported in scientific journals, the awl was only reported on recently, after its chemical components were analyzed by Prof. Sariel Shalev of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Haifa.
According to Rosenberg, the awl was buried with the woman, likely as a burial offering, and may have belonged to her.
“This artifact is important because until now, researchers believed that area residents began to use metals only in the Late Chalcolithic period, during the second half of the 5th millennium BCE, so that this finding moves back the appearance of metal in our region by several hundred years,” he said.
“This has significant impact on our understanding of the developing use of complex technologies and the related social contexts.”
Moreover, Rosenberg said the chemical examination of the metal shows it may have come from the Caucasus, some 1,000 kilometers from Tel Tsaf, providing additional evidence of the importance of Tel Tsaf in the ancient world.
Still, Rosenfeld conceded that a great deal remains unknown about the once advanced society.
“In this area far more is unknown than is known, and although the discovery of the awl at Tel Tsaf constitutes evidence of a peak of technological development among the peoples of the region and is a discovery of global importance, there’s a lot of progress still to be made and many parts of the wider picture are still unknown to us,” he said.