The biblical Solomon, a king of Israel and son of King David, was renowned for his fabled wisdom, power and his personal fortune, often described as one of the largest in the ancient world. But while Solomon’s famed wealth is a story as old as the ages, the popular fascination with locating a portion of this fantastic fortune is a far more recent affair. The idea of mines full of riches was first introduced in the late 19th century by author H. Rider Haggard in his blockbuster adventure novel, King Solomon’s Mines, whose publication coincided with a boom in archeological discoveries of ancient sites in the Middle East and Africa.
Half a century later, American rabbi and archaeologist Nelson Glueck made headlines of his own when he announced that he had located Solomon’s mines in the Great Rift Valley near the modern-day boundary of Israel and Jordan. These mines, however, weren’t filled with gold–they were extensive copper-smelting plants that Glueck maintained were the true source of Solomon’s wealth. Unable to connect archaeological evidence to biblical accounts, however, modern historians soon began to doubt Glueck’s connection of Solomon to the region’s copper production.
For the past few decades, conventional wisdom has held that the ancient Egyptians built most of the mines in the region during the 13th century B.C.—a theory supported by the discovery of an Egyptian temple at the complex in 1969. In 2008, however, researchers located a mining site in neighboring Jordan (known as Khirbat en-Nahas) that archaeological evidence suggested became operational 300 years later that previously assumed, during the 10th century B.C. The following year, another excavation identified a site in Israel’s Timna Valley, dubbed Site 30, which was home to a copper-smelting camp also believed to have been built in same time period as the Jordanian mine— likely too late for an Egyptian settlement but squarely within the biblical timeframe for Solomon’s famed mines.
Earlier this year, Dr. Erez Ben-Yousef, an archaeologist from Tel Aviv University who had helped discover Site 30 while a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, led a new dig in a previously unexamined section of the site known as Slaves’ Hill. As with elsewhere at the Timna Valley site, Ben-Yousef’s team uncovered archaeological evidence of dozens of the furnaces used to smelt copper as well as layers of copper slag, a by-product of the smelting process. The team also found a trove of personal items, including clothing, ceramics, fabrics and tools, and the remnants of a variety of food items, indicating a highly developed, long-term settlement at the site. Nearly a dozen artifacts from the Slaves’ Hill site, including date and olive pits, were sent to the University of Oxford for radiocarbon dating, which confirmed their age to the 10th century B.C., reinforcing their belief that the sites were not Egyptian.
It’s hoped that these most recent revelations will help convince the archaeological community of the unlikelihood that the Egyptians constructed and controlled the important copper-smelting centers in the region, but the researchers stress that though the sites date to the time of the fabled King Solomon, there is no evidence that he or his Israelite tribe were the ones who built the mines. In fact, there is strong evidence to suggest that it was another group mentioned in the Bible, the Edomites, who actually controlled the operations.
The Edomites were a semi-nomadic tribe, usually depicted in the Bible as a traditional enemy of the Israelites before their eventual forced conversion to Judaism in the 2nd century B.C. Their early civilization thrived on trade, but by the time of the construction of the copper-smelting mines at Khirbat en-Nahas and the Timna Valley more than 3,000 years ago, they had developed into a highly organized state. Tens of thousands of workers toiled away at these desert sites—some of the largest copper-smelting mines in the ancient world—with a high level of efficiency. True to their early nomadic nature, they eschewed long-term housing in favor of tent camps at the periphery of the mines, leaving little physical trace of their physical existence behind until now. As for any concrete evidence of King Solomon or what, if any role, he may have played in the copper-mine production in the region, the search continues: Dr. Ben-Yousef will lead another dig at the site later this year.