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Written by Stephen Langfur
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Midianite Tent Shrine
Copper at Timna
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Copper at Timna and the Mushroom Camp

Copper was the first metal human beings ever had. It lent its name to the period when they learned to extract it from ore: the Chalcolithic era, that is, the copper-stone age, which extended from 4000 to 3100 BC. After that people learned to mix copper with tin to get bronze.

At the time when people first extracted metal, farming had been going on already for 4000 years, duriing which the basic tool was the digging stick. It served as spade, hoe and rake.
The introduction of the metal hoe had a major effect. Such a hoe turns up the soil to a much greater depth than the stick does. This was of great importance in societies that did not employ fertilizers and hence quickly depleted the nutrients in the surface soil (Lenski, p. 144). After they had bronze hoes, farmers could remain for a longer time in one place, cultivate wider areas, and get greater yields from each plot. For the first time people produced enough of an economic surplus to sustain the kind of military and political machines required for empire-building. According to anthropologists, digging-stick societies seldom amounted to more than 15,000 people; hoe-wielding societies (the Inca and the Maya, for instance) numbered in the millions. The next step would be the iron plow (ca. 1400 BC), which would help bring about another leap in social development.

timna-rocks-look-like-green.jpgThis whole development started with copper. Timna is full of copper ore, as is biblical Punon (modern Feinan), 90 miles to the north on Jordan's side of the Arava. In many places the ore appears as green patches, sometimes giving the illusion of grass. The copper was originally in the crystalline stone of the area, such as the granite of Mt. Timna: long ago, flowing water separated the copper ore from the rock and deposited it in shallow bays. The main forms are chalcocite and blue-green malachite. Today called Eilat stone, the latter was also a favorite jewelry stone in antiquity.

The average copper content of the ore does not top 3%, but the known reserves amount to 22 million tons, and there have been times when mining was worthwhile. The modern Israelis mined copper here, mainly for copper cement, although the works are no longer in use. 

Evidence of Chalcolithic mining was found about a mile east of Mt. Timna's southern tip. The copper-stone people would have had to attain a heat, in their ovens, of 1200 degrees centigrade (2192 F.). They would have used goatskin bellows to maintain this heat for five to seven hours, until the copper separated out and dropped to the bottom. They probably used acacia wood for fuel, for these trees are plentiful in the wadis: their intricate root systems reach deep into the stream bed, finding water left by flash floods. Acacias burn to a high heat; even today they are the basis of a charcoal industry in Sinai.

timna-shaft.jpgWithin Timna Park we shall visit the Egyptian and Midianite mines, which functioned from the 14th through the 12th centuries BC. To reach them, we drive from Solomon's Pillars a little distance back toward the entrance, finding a road that branches NW. We stay on this, passing the Mushroom camp (to which we shall return). A branch to the right leads to a place of rock drawings made by the Egyptians and Midianites. These include scenes of ibex-hunting, as well as scenes of ox-drawn carts guarded by armed soldiers, probably the Egyptians.

If we left the main road in order to see the drawings, we now return to it and follow it to its end, a parking lot. Here the white sandstone forms natural arches. The fit and adventurous may wish to take the blue-marked trail to the right; it will lead down a series of small dry water chutes and then to a modest canyon. Otherwise we follow it to the left. On the way, we see the opening of a vertical shaft. About a thousand such shafts have been discovered, although most today are filled with sand, giving the effect of round plates. They served for air, as well as entrance and exit.

In the canyon we can see the horizontal shafts in which the miners worked. We can gather in the anteroom of one and hear Job 28:

“Surely there is a mine for silver,
and a place for gold which they refine.
Iron is taken out of the earth,
and copper is smelted out of the ore.
Man sets an end to darkness,
and searches out, to the furthest bound,
the stones of obscurity and of thick darkness.
He breaks open a shaft away from where people live.
They are forgotten by the foot.
They hang far from men, they swing back and forth.
As for the earth, out of it comes bread;
Underneath it is turned up as it were by fire.
Sapphires come from its rocks.
It has dust of gold.
That path no bird of prey knows,
neither has the falcon’s eye seen it.
The proud animals have not trodden it,
nor has the fierce lion passed by there.
He puts forth his hand on the flinty rock,
and he overturns the mountains by the roots.
He cuts out channels among the rocks.
His eye sees every precious thing.
He binds the streams that they don’t trickle.
The thing that is hidden he brings forth to light.

But where shall wisdom be found?
Where is the place of understanding?


Using the marked trail, if we mount the ridge on the NW side of this little canyon, we can get a view of many "plates" that mark the openings of vertical shafts.


We return to the bus and drive back on the road that brought us here. After a mile or so there is a place to pull over on the right. Here we see a piece of sandstone eroded into the shape of a mushroom. Around it are the remains of a large Egyptian-Midianite smelting camp, including the replica of an oven. The original is in the Haaretz Museum (after reaching its page, go to Permanent Exhibitions and choose "5" for the Nechushtan Pavilion).

There is also a contemporary picture of the Egyptian smelting process (enlarge the image on the upper left of this external link), among other crafts, in the tomb of Rechmire, vizier to Pharaoh Thutmosis III. In the upper register, on the left, two workers are gingerly removing a hot copper ingot from the oven. To their right we see an earlier stage of the process: one worker operates the bellows while another pokes into the oven to keep the temperature up. The one on the bellows works with hands and feet: he raises one foot with a rope so that the bellows will fill with air, at the same time stamping on a second bellows so that it will emit its air into the oven - this alternately. In the lower register, the same two scenes are repeated in reverse order. After the copper separated from its ore and dropped to the bottom of the oven, a worker opened a hole in the side of the oven and the slag poured through a channel into a pit.