A land whose stones are iron and out
of whose hills you can dig copper
The Timna Valley is located in the southwestern Arava, some 30 km. north of the Gulf of Eilat. It is a semi-circular, erosional formation of some 70 sq. km., opening in the east towards the Arava; on the north, west and south it is surrounded by cliffs, about 300 m. high. In the lower parts of these cliffs and on the slopes in front of them, copper-rich nodules (up to 55% copper) mainly of malachite and chalcocite, were mined in ancient times. Ever since man discovered, in the 6th millennium BCE, how to turn a piece of rock into malleable metal, copper has been mined and smelted in the Timna Valley even in modern times, by the Israeli Timna Mining Company, which is no longer in production.
Extensive remains of human activity during early periods are still visible in the rugged hills. There is evidence of copper mining in shafts and galleries and copper smelting in furnaces of various types, and there are remains of camps and several cult sites, including an Egyptian mining sanctuary.
The existence of the remains of copper production at Timna was known from surveys conducted at the end of last century, but scientific attention and public interest was aroused when in the 1930s Nelson Glueck attributed the copper mining at Timna to King Solomon (10th century BCE) and named the site "King Solomons Mines"; this theory has not been verified by subsequent field work.
Surveys and excavations in the Timna Valley were conducted between 1959 and 1990. From the surprising findings it is now possible to reconstruct the long and complex history of copper production there, from the Late Neolithic period to the Middle Ages. Mining activities in the Timna Valley reached a peak during the reign of the Pharaohs of the 14th12th centuries BCE, when Egyptian mining expeditions, in collaboration with Midianites and local Amalekites, turned the Timna Valley into a large-scale copper industry.
After an initial phase of surface collection of ore nodules in prehistoric times, the early miners followed outcropping ore veins underground. These earliest shafts, hammered into the rock with large and clumsy stone tools, were irregular big holes from which galleries spread in all directions, following the ore.
The Egyptian miners who came later used metal chisels and hoes and excavated very regular, tubular shafts, with footholds in the walls for moving down, and up, the shafts. Some of these shafts penetrated to a depth of 30 m. and more, before reaching the copper-rich sandstone formation. From the shafts, narrow galleries followed the ore occurrence, widening into underground cavities where large bodies of ore nodules had to be mined out. As the complex network of galleries grew, heavy loads of ore had to be dragged along the narrow galleries, to be hauled to the surface. These sophisticated multi-leveled shaft-and-gallery mines, with proper underground ventilation, are the earliest systematic mines of this kind discovered to date.
Mining was abandoned when the concentration of ore nodules declined. The abandoned shafts and galleries were either intentionally filled with mining waste, or gradually filled up with wind- and water-carried sand. Evidence of their existence is visible today in saucer-like "plates" thousands of them on the slopes below the Timna Cliffs.
The earliest, well-preserved copper smelting furnace dates from the 5th millennium BCE. It consisted of a small pit dug in the ground, with a low substructure of field stones, and was ventilated by goatskin bellows. Smelting in these pits was primitive and inefficient.
During the following three millennia, copper was produced with steadily improving furnaces and control of the metallurgical processes. Already in the Chalcolithic period (4th millennium BCE), iron ore (available in Timna) was added as flux to the smelting charge of copper ore and charcoal, which greatly improved the smelting. Another big step forward, in the early third millennium BCE, was "tapping" the fluid slag out of the hot furnace, which made continuous smelting possible and saved precious fuel. The metallic copper produced by this process remained at the bottom of the furnace as an irregular ingot probably the earliest copper ingot in history.
There is no evidence of mining or smelting in Timna from the middle of the 3rd millennium BCE until the late 2nd millennium BCE, when Egyptian mining expeditions arrived. There are the ruins of numerous work camps, mainly workshops for copper smelting. One of the larger ( 400 sq.m.) camps was excavated; in its central courtyard, a stone-lined storage pit contained copper ore nodules to be crushed on a nearby stone platform. A variety of grinding tools, such as granite hammers, mortars and pestles, anvils and "saddle-backed" sandstone querns were found on this platform. Near the smelting furnaces, at a distance from the workshops, slag heaps, charcoal pits, tuyères, stone tools and potsherds were found.
In the 14th century BCE, during the Egyptian-Midianite copper production at Timna, a very advanced smelting furnace, consisting of a bowl-shaped smelting hearth dug into the ground and lined with clay mortar, was in use. It was about 40 cm. in diameter and up to 50 cm. high. Some of the furnaces had a dome-shaped top. In front of the smelting hearth was a shallow pit, flanked by two large stones, which served as the slag tapping pit. A clay tube penetrated the furnace wall opposite the tapping hole and served as a tuyère through which air was blown by pot-bellows. For each furnace three bellows were needed and the smelting area was littered with hundreds of tuyère fragments.