Findings at Timna change what we know of biblical history

JPost One-on-One weekly 'Zoomcast': Rossella Tercatin with Tel Aviv University associate professor of archaeology, Prof. Erez Ben Yosef - Episode 7

JPost one-on-one Zoomcast - Episode 7
 Prof. Ben Yosef, weclome, thank you for joining us.
Thank you, Rossella, good to meet you.

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So a few weeks ago, a very exciting paper was published about the discovery of the royal purple at timna. Can you tell us a little more about this discovery?
We have been excavating in Timna Valley for the past eight years. Every year for a few weeks. As you know, Timna is next to the city of Eilat, it's deep in the desert. And it's an ancient copper-mining area. People came to this area to mine copper. And one of the unique things about this area is the preservation of organic materials. So it's one of the only places where we excavate in Israel and we can find organic remains like textiles and leather and ropes and other things like that that you usually don't find in regular excavations. And every year, we've had a little bit of textile fragments coming out of the excavation. 
So we knew that we have this unique collection of textiles and fabrics, and some of them were with a little bit of color. But the big surprise came from the lab. We're working with Dr. Naama Sukenik from the Israel Antiquities Authority, and we take the materials from the excavations and we try to understand what was the color made from, what was the dyeing stuff that they were using to color the fabrics. And one day, like about a year ago or less than a year ago, she called me into the office saying "You know, we found the royal purple here in Timna from a fabric that is dated 3,000 years old." I said "That's impossible, it's too early for that, it's deep in the desert," and you need to understand this color is the most expensive color at the time. It was made out of see snails in a very sophisticated process of manufacturing, so it didn't make sense that it was real purple. But we checked it again and again in the lab, and it is indeed the true purple, which is mentioned in the bible many times. In Hebrew, it's called the Argaman
So it's very interesting evidence in a copper production site which is dated to the period of the kings David and Solomon. So it's all quite very interesting of who were the people in Timna at that time, who was wearing this garment made out of true purple, can we connect it to the stories in the Hebrew Bible, and all of that became certainly interesting. 
And a few weeks ago, the academic publication was in print after a lot of work, and we shared this discovery with the scholarly community and everyone else because it's really interesting to have a real textile a real piece of garment from the biblical time colored with the true purple that is still very clear today.
Wonderful. So, you are currently the director of the excavation project at Timna, you have been excavating at Timna since 2013. For many people, the site is still sort of connected with the idea of King Solomon's mines. But the theory has been kind of disproven, but maybe something is coming back from it.
Yeah, this is the interesting thing. When we got to excavating the valley, it was after there had been some intensive research in the past. In the last century, there was an expedition there headed by Prof. Beno Rothenberg, who did many excavations and had an amazing discovery that everybody knows about, which is a little temple – an Egyptian temple in Timna. When it was excavated in 1969, the evidence there was so strong that Rothenberg assumed all of this big project of mines and smelting sites has to be related to the activities of the Egyptian Empire. We're talking about the New Kingdom of Egypt, when Egypt was very strong. The 13th to the middle of the 12th centuries BCE. So almost 200 years before David and Solomon. David is around 1000 BCE, so it's very easy to remember. We're talking about an earlier period when Egypt was very strong. Egypt controlled the entire area of Canaan, of Israel and the neighboring countries. 
So this discovery in 1969 – although before this discovery, people associated these mines with Solomon and the wealth of Jerusalem and all of that – changed everything. and now, even today, you still see the signs telling the Egyptian story without any connection to the period of the biblical kings of David and Solomon. 
And this was the situation when we started excavations in 2013. One of the things we did was sending materials to be dated precisely with radio-carbon dating. This is the best method we have today, and as I mentioned before we have plenty of organic materials, this is what we are using for radio-carbon dating. And when the results came back from the lab, we were surprised because it was not at all related to the period of the Egyptians and the most intense activity did take place around 1000 BCE. So since this discovery, we do think that there might be connection to Jerusalem at that time period. And copper was a very important resource at that time, that could have been part of the wealth of Jerusalem. But this is a discussion, it's much debated because there are scholars that believe Jerusalem was weak and not powerful at that time period. We think there is a methodological issue here in the way archaeologists find and try to identify a powerful kingdom, and I think our research in Timna helps with this methodological discussion as well.
So these discoveries do change what we knew about Timna, about the chronology of the mines. We now know the most intense activity was not under the Egyptians, but rather later, after they left. Egypt collapsed at the end of the Bronze Age, became weak. It could not afford expeditions to these remote areas. and this is the time when the local tribes of the South, of the deserts of Israel and Jordan, got together and created a tribal nomadic kingdom, which we identify with ancient Edom, the Kingdom of Edom in the Bible, which David conquered and subjected to Jerusalem. So if they were King Solomon's mines, they were not directly operated by the Israelites. They were operated by the local people. And the question is if the description in the Bible of Jerusalem's control is true or not? This is the debate, and this is something very hard to prove or disprove archaeologically. 
We know that in archaeological digs it's very hard to actually find a little label saying "this belonged to King Solomon" or "King David." So we know that as you mentioned, some of your colleagues do not believe at the time of King David and Solomon that there was a powerful kingdom of Israel, and one of the arguments they bring to support their theories is the fact that very meager archaeological remains, at least when it comes to remains of buildings, have been found. The research you're carrying out at Timna might actually bring a counter-argument to their theories.
Right. This is exactly the big insight about the methodological question, which is how do archaeologists construct history from these remains, the very little remains that we have? Archaeology is fragmentary, it's a very tiny fragment of a very big picture, and what we see in Timna is quite amazing because at that period of this Edomite Kingdom with this massive production of copper in Timna and on the Jordanian side in Faynan, we don't have a settled society. We don't have cities, we don't have fortresses, we don't have strong-built palaces. All of the industry, all of that activity, is related to a nomadic kingdom, the nomadic tribes of the Edomite Kingdom. And this was indeed a kingdom, it was a strong and centralized polity. It was not just some tribes wandering around and doing some opportunistic copper production. It was something much more substantial than that. And it's easy to understand because just now we were talking about the history of research, and with the same archaeological evidence everybody agreed up until a few years ago that it should be attributed to empires, the magnificent Egyptian Empire. It was very easy to convince the scholarly community that only an empire can make such an endeavor in the desert, and it was the same for the mines in Jordan that were attributed to the Assyrian Empire.
So now we don't have an empire in the background. We don't have empires that were active in this region at all during the time of David and Solomon. And we do have the local tribes that got together that created something strong while still being nomads. And this is, we think, a game-changer, because when we thought about biblical-era nomads, we always had in mind the modern Bedouins, or simple societies, marginal societies, a land with no law. So the tribes were fighting with each other, and sometimes they could create a coalition but they were usually quite weak. And here we see something completely different, something that is more related to other exceptional cases of nomadic kingdoms like the Nabateans in their early days or even the greatest empire in the history of the Earth which is Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire.
So we need to think about the nomads of the biblical time as an exception to the regular Bedouin perception of nomads. And this might have big implications to the understanding of ancient Israel, because most scholars agree that the ancient Israelites had a tribal-nomadic origin, the 12 tribes of Israel. Though there are many debates and discussions, most scholars agree that the Israelites had a nomadic origin. And the thing is they could have created something substantial, something quite big even before complete sedentarization, even before all the tribes, all the people, all the population settled down and built cities and created stone-built palaces.
So if we understand differently the potential role of nomads, the basic attributes of archaeologists to identify power should also be changed. And if we're looking for walls and big palaces in order to understand the size, the magnitude of the united monarchy of David and Solomon, we don't necessarily have to find these attributes in order to for biblical descriptions to have a real history in them.
This is what I'm saying. I'm not saying we can prove, but I'm saying that archaeology can definitely not disprove the description in the Bible of an influential, big kingdom, strong kingdom centered in Jerusalem. This is part of our insights from studying a nomadic society in the South, and the fact that we know about these nomads and this nomadic kingdom is important and this is important because it's just by chance, because they engaged in copper production, which left thousands of mines and dozens of smelting sites of industrial wastes.
So suddenly, from a society that doesn't usually leave much behind, we see a lot of rich archaeology that tells a very different story than the accepted model of nomads. So if we're expecting to find a very marginal society, that's not what we see. We see nomads that were able to make hundreds of people if not more work together in the mines, producing copper, creating stable trade relations with distanced locations like the argaman or purple-dyed textiles that came all the way from Phoenicia, hundreds of kilometers away. We see the people were elite and wore these garments, the Edomite king, if you want, or something connected to royalty. So we're talking about kings, but we're also talking about nomads. Sometimes people think that there is a contradiction. The minute you find a king, you have to find his stone-built palace. But this is also a modern anachronism, because also today us in the West, we always think about nomads as a cultural transitional state, like the first chance nomads can get into a stone-built house, they will do it, but it's not necessarily so. 
So you've been excavating Timna for several years. Can you share with us some other specific "Eureka!" moments, moments where you found something and all of a sudden, things started to change?
So the first big one was about the dating, the dates which showed the most intense activity happened after the Egyptians left. This is enw. Then we have the textiles, the purple we just mentioned. But we have of course almost every year an interesting discovery that is really "wow!" And one of these moments was three years ago already when we excavated for the first time some tombs, some burials with skeletons in them. So one of the skeletons was an important person that was found with all the garments and everything, very cool discovery in itself. But people didn't live in Timna for a long period of time. There's no water source, so we have to imagine this place as just industrial activity during the winter time. But the surprise came from another skeleton next to this guy, which was a woman. A pregnant woman. And here we excavated with a team from the school of medicine at Tel Aviv University. The first time we saw we had human remains, I called Prof. Israel Hershkovitz and his colleague Dr. Hila May and they came to excavate with us. And we were very lucky to do that because they were able to say this was a woman and pregnant, with a four-month-old fetus.
This was a surprise for many reasons. The main one is that the assumption in research is that expeditions to Timna, it doesn't matter in which period, were always done only by men, that it was too hard for women to go into the desert and participate in this very challenging journey and very arduous work. So the assumption everywhere you read about Egyptian expeditions and others that it was only men. And now we have to rethink even this, which is another conception of us today that we projected onto the past.
In archaeology, because there is so little tangible information, we have to fill in the picture, the gap, so we have a lot of conceptions for instance that it was only men and that nomads which we cannot usually see in archaeology have to be like the Bedouins today. So we fill this gap with a lot of underlying assumptions, and then there are discoveries like that in Timna that makes us rethink these conceptions, and the discovery of a pregnant woman inside Timna valley is one of these moments.
Fascinating. So are you still excavating at Timna? What is happening now? What do you see for the future?
We continue our project at Timna, and we usually only excavate for a few weeks during the winter. It's almost impossible to work during the summer. We just got back from another season. It was very interesting because of the COVID-19 situation. We had to work in small groups and keep all of the regulations, and without volunteers from abroad. Usually we have plenty of student volunteers, scholars and experts that come from all over the world, from the US, from Europe, from Australia. This year we only had a local team of Israelis, and we were trying to do the best we can. Hopefully next year we can go back to excavate in a normal condition and so we'll have all of our friends from everywhere. We accept volunteers; information about this is found on our Facebook page and also about the discoveries from each season. And we're still continuing the explore the question of King Solomon's mines, of this particular period of the 10th century BCE.
But we also go and explore metal production in other periods like the Early Bronze Age, around 2500 BCE, much earlier than the current focus of our project, in order to compare the development in metallurgic technology, in metal production technology through the ages, because Timna is a wonderful place to learn how technological evolution happens, inventions, innovations, because of these thousands of years of copper production in one place. So we are exploring this issue including earlier periods.
Great. Prof. Ben Yosef, thank you so much for being with us today.
Thank you very much, and have a nice week.