History Stories

Archaeologists in the Timna Valley of Israel began excavating the site of the mining camp, perched atop a sandstone mesa dubbed Slaves’ Hill, in 2013. Last year, the team led by Erez Ben-Yosef of the University of Tel Aviv was digging up the remains of several walled structures, including a fortified gate, when they discovered what looked like animal dung. It appeared to be of relatively recent origin, and Ben-Yosef and his colleagues assumed nomads must have camped at the site decades earlier, along with their goats.

They were in for a shock, however, when the highly precise radiocarbon dating results came back from the lab. The manure they found actually dated to the 10th century B.C., and came from donkeys and other livestock. The region’s arid climate had preserved the animals’ droppings—including seeds and pollen that allowed scientists to identify their last meal—over some 3,000 years.

The discovery has transformed the way archaeologists view the Slaves’ Hill site. The mesa is located in an area dotted with copper mines and smelting camps, where ancient people heated the ore and transformed it into metal.

“Until we started the project in 2013, this was considered to be a late Bronze Age site related to the New Kingdom of Egypt in the 13th and early 12th centuries B.C.,” Ben-Yosef told National Geographic. But the radiocarbon dating of the manure, textiles and other materials found at the site suggested the camp’s heyday was actually later, during the era of the famous Israelite kings David and Solomon.

Little about King Solomon is known for certain, and some scholars have even expressed doubt that he existed at all. According to the biblical books of Kings I and Chronicles II, the son of King David and Bathsheba succeeded his father as king of Israel around 970 B.C. He was famous for his great wisdom, his numerous wives (he was said to have some 700 of them, and more than 300 mistresses) and his tremendous wealth.

A painting depicting the visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon.

A painting depicting the visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon. (Credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

During the 40 years of his reign, Solomon launched an ambitious building campaign, including a temple in Jerusalem filled with gold and bronze objects. Constructing and outfitting such a temple would have required large amounts of metal from an industrial-sized mining operation, somewhere in the Middle East. But the scriptures don’t divulge the location of such an operation.

Back in the 1930s, the archaeologist Nelson Glueck claimed to have found the long-lost mines of Solomon during his explorations of the Arabah, the copper-rich region south of the Dead Sea basin that forms part of the Israel-Jordan border today. But later archaeologists took issue with Glueck’s findings, arguing that David and Solomon were small-scale chieftains, rather than the powerhouses the Bible makes them out to be, and wouldn’t have been capable of commanding such a massive mining operation and long-distance transportation of resources. Such critics also questioned the chronology given in the Bible, which placed the two kings’ reigns in the 10th century B.C.

More recent discoveries, however, have lent support to the biblical version of events, and restored some of Glueck’s reputation in scholarly circles. Thomas Levy, professor of archaeology at the University of California, San Diego, began excavations at Khirbat en-Nahas in southern Jordan, which Glueck had claimed was an ancient center of copper production, in 1997. To reach virgin soil, his team had to dig through 20 meters of copper slag waste, suggesting the site had been used for large-scale metal production–just as Glueck had argued.

The discovery of the ancient manure in the Timna Valley also helps vindicate Glueck, who discovered and named the Slaves’ Hill site in 1934. So far, archaeologists have found more than 1,000 tons of smelting debris at the site, suggesting production on an industrial scale. This mining operation has not explicitly been linked to King Solomon—at least not yet. But the archaeologists’ findings, which they published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, do suggest the site was home to a complex society.

The most likely suspects? Israel’s sworn enemies, the Edomites. According to the Bible, King David marched his armies into the desert to fight (and defeat) the Edomites. Though skeptics have long questioned the veracity of this account, the fortified walls that Ben-Yosef’s team found around the smelting camp at Slaves’ Hill indicate the site was likely of some military importance, and may have been a target of such an attack. With a military victory, King David might have exacted a tribute from the Edomites, which might have continued during the reign of his son. As Ben-Yosef notes, “There’s a serious possibility that Jerusalem got its wealth from taxing these mining operations.”

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