Hershel Shanks (BAR) / 20 JAN 2015 – Mohammad Najjar and Thomas Levy have been excavating at an ancient copper mining and smelting site in the Faynan district of Jordan for more than 20 years. They describe it as “hell on earth.”a The mines are in the midst of an inhospitable desert, not far from the lowest spot on earth.b The heat can be intolerable, and water is scarce. People have been mining copper here for 12,000 years, and they have been smelting the extracted copper since the Chalcolithic period, 4,500 years ago. In the Biblical period, this area was part of Edom; later it was part of the Nabatean kingdom. For most of this time, Najjar and Levy tell us, “The copper was mined and smelted by slaves and war captives. They were supervised either by soldiers or by contractors to whom the slaves were leased.” In the Roman period, as punishment, criminals and persecuted Christians were in effect sentenced to death by work in the mines—damnatio ad metalla, condemned to the mines, was the punishment.
Often considered Faynan’s twin (although smaller) is the site of Timna in the Negev desert of Israel. In 1934 the area was surveyed by the famous American archaeologist and explorer (and rabbi) Nelson Glueck.c The area was also surveyed by the distinguished Israeli scholar Beno Rothenberg between 1959 and 1961, and a new excavation under the direction of Erez Ben-Yosef of Tel Aviv University is in the field. A recent study of the findings at the site focuses on its faunal remains from about 1000 B.C.E.1
To recover the faunal remains, the scholars dry-sieved the excavated material, and then a portion of the material that passed through the course mesh was wet-sieved in a finer mesh.
In this way, they recovered numerous sheep and goat bones, some with butchery marks. The meat had obviously been prepared for dinner. In the industrial areas of the site, the remains of the more meaty bones and less tender parts of the animals were recovered; in the domestic areas of the site, however, the butchery itself was recovered, thus reflecting a difference in social status.
But this was not all: The better class at this site apparently ate like visitors at a first-class spa! The diet varied. There was fish from the Red Sea (nearly 20 mi away) and catfish from the Mediterranean Sea (125 mi away). The diners then polished it off with grapes and pistachios, also from the Mediterranean area.
All this was found on what is known as “Slaves’ Hill,” in apparent reference to the miners who worked and lived there. But this was clearly not the whole picture. In the words of researchers Lidar Sapir-Hen and Erez Ben-Yosef, “These new observations from Site 34 ‘Slaves’ Hill’ stand in contrast to the common perception that workers in mining areas were a low-class, poorly paid labor force engaged in the arduous work of mining and smelting.”
Lidar Sapir-Hen and Erez Ben-Yosef draw a social distinction between the low-class miners and the higher-class smelters: “The people engaged in smelting were actually highly skilled craftspersons and were treated as such. This fundamental observation stems from the inherent complexity of the technology that demanded and created an idiosyncratic class of workers.”
On first reading, I was skeptical. I thought it best to see what the situation was at Najjar and Levy’s site in the Faynan district of Jordan (more specifically Khirbat en-Nahas, often abbreviated KEN). Tom Levy was kind enough to send me a copy of a not-yet-published study by Adolfo Muniz and himself, titled “Feeding the Iron Age Metalworkers at Khirbat en-Nahas.”2 Somewhat to my surprise, this study tended to confirm the results at Israelite Timna!
Here, too, the researchers found that what they call “the ruling elite” lived differently than the miners.
Focusing mainly on the tenth and ninth centuries B.C.E., the researchers at KEN found that, although most of the bones were of sheep and goats, there were also cattle bones. That many of the bones were of animals less than a year old suggests that the “ruling elite”—then as now—liked their meat tender.
Gazelle bones indicated that some hunting went on in the environs. More surprising were fish bones from the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, including Nile perch and parrotfish—and also some shellfish!
Clearly, our researchers conclude, the smelters lived better than the miners.
As my mother used to say, “’Twas ever thus.”