Digs may help decide if 'King Solomon's mines' was a misnomer

Data pushes back the chronology some 3 centuries earlier than the current scholarly consensus.

king solomon 88 (photo credit: courtesy)
king solomon 88
(photo credit: courtesy)
A University of California archeologist has found evidence that sheds new light on the venerable question of whether King David and his son King Solomon controlled the copper industry in the Kingdom of Edom, which is present-day southern Jordan. The term "King Solomon's Mines" was made famous by a 19th century novel of the same name - although, until now, no such mines have been proven to exist during the time period mentioned in the Bible. Prof. Thomas Levy of UC San Diego, who reported the findings of an international team of archeologists he headed in an issue of The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (US) late last year, is expected to reveal more on February 18 at a meeting of his university's Social Sciences Supper Club. Working with Mohammad Najjar of Jordan's Friends of Archeology and others, Levy excavated an ancient copper-production center at Khirbat en-Nahas ("ruins of copper" in Arabic) down to virgin soil, through more than six meters of industrial smelting debris (slag). The 2006 dig uncovered new artifacts and with them a new set of radiocarbon dates placing the bulk of industrial-scale production at Khirbat en-Nahas in the 10th century BCE - in line with biblical narrative on the rule of David and Solomon. The new data pushes back the archeological chronology some three centuries earlier than the current scholarly consensus. The research also documents a spike in metallurgic activity at the site during the 9th century BCE, which may also support the history of the Edomites as related by the Bible. Khirbat en-Nahas is in the lowlands of a desolate, arid region south of the Dead Sea in what was once Edom and is today Jordan's Faynan district. The Bible identifies the area with the Kingdom of Edom, a foe of ancient Israel. For decades, scholars have argued over whether the Edomites were sufficiently organized by the 10th to 9th centuries BCE to seriously threaten the neighboring Israelite Kingdom. Between the World Wars, during the "Golden Age" of biblical archeology, scholars explored - as Levy describes it - "with a trowel in one hand and Bible in the other," seeking to fit their Holy Land findings into the biblical story. Based on his 1930s surveys, American archeologist Nelson Glueck even asserted that he had found King Solomon's mines in Faynan/Edom. By the 1980s, however, Glueck's claim had been largely dismissed. Some scholars said that the Bible was "heavily edited" in the 5th century BCE, long after the supposed events, while British excavations of the Edomite highlands in the 1970s/'80s suggested the Iron Age had not even come to Edom until the 7th century BCE. "Now," says Levy, "with data from the first large-scale stratified and systematic excavation of a site in the southern Levant to focus specifically on the role of metallurgy in Edom, we have evidence that complex societies were indeed active in 10th and 9th centuries BCE, and that brings us back to the debate about the historicity of the Hebrew Bible narratives related to this period. Khirbat en-Nahas, comprising some 100 ancient buildings including a fortress, is situated in the midst of a large area covered by black slag that can be viewed clearly on Google Earth's satellite imagery. Mining trails and mines abound. Levy says the mere size is an argument for the ancient existence of industrial-scale production at Khirbat en-Nahas. And the depth of the waste at the site provides what he calls a "measuring stick" to monitor social and technological change during the Iron Age, which spans around 1200 to 500 BCE, a key period in the histories of ancient Israel and Edom. The archeological team, Levy says, used high-precision radiocarbon dating on date seeds, sticks of tamarisk and other woods used for charcoal in smelting to obtain the 10th- and 9th-century BCE dates. Additional evidence comes from ancient Egyptian artifacts found at the site. The artifacts, a scarab and an amulet, were in a layer of the excavation associated with a serious disruption in production at the end of the 10th century BCE - possibly tying Khirbat en-Nahas to the well-documented military campaign of Pharaoh Sheshonq I (known in the Bible as Shishak, 1 Kings 14:25; 2 Chronicles 12:1-12), who sought to crush economic activity in the area after Solomon's death. "We can't believe everything ancient writings tell us," Levy says. "But this research represents a confluence between the archeological and scientific data and the Bible. "Our work also demonstrates methods that are objective and enable researchers to evaluate the data in a dispassionate way. This is especially important for 'historical archeologies' around the world where sacred texts - whether the Mahabharata in India or the Sagas of Iceland - and the archeological record are arenas for fierce ideological and cultural debates." In the future, Levy intends to focus on who actually controlled the copper industry there - David and Solomon or perhaps regional Edomite leaders (who had not been written about in the biblical texts) - and also on the environmental impacts of the ancient smelting. Meanwhile, Levy is working with the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature in Jordan and other organizations to have Khirbat en-Nahas and environs recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to protect it from mining in the future and preserve "its spectacular desert landscape and rare, ancient character."