Wood was used to fuel King Solomon's ancient mines, which led to environmental devastation
By: April Carson
New research suggests that the extensive use of Arava desert vegetation to fuel the famous King Solomon’s copper mines at Timna caused both the industry, and the local environment, to eventually collapse - a result of cutting down plants for short-term profit, an issue present in ancient as well as modern times.
The research team from Tel Aviv University found that the ecological destruction caused back then can still be felt today.
“The exploitation of desert vegetation for fuel is an ancient practice that has often led to environmental devastation,” said study author Dr. Yael Kiro of TAU’s Steinhardt Museum of Natural History and the Department of Geography and the Environment.
Timna Valley is a picturesque location pockmarked with cliffs and canyons, which lies in the heart of Israel's Arava Desert. Forming part of the Saharo-Arabian Desert Belt natural ecosystem, it experiences very little rainfall each year and as such, its vegetation is quite sparse. The Evrona and Yotvata oases are two beautiful locations situated six to seven miles from Timna Valley where you can find more greenery amidst desert landscapes.
During the Chalcolithic (fifth millennium BCE) and especially for about a half-millennium span during the Late Bronze and Iron Ages (thirteenth to ninth centuries BCE), this harsh environment was one of the most significant copper production centers in the ancient world.
Egypt had withdrawn from the region, leaving the lucrative business in the hands of local Edomites, who were weakened by internal divisions. This created an opportunity for the Israelites, who had recently emerged as a powerful force in the region.
Prof. Erez Ben-Yosef, director of archaeological excavations in the Timna Valley said that copper production actually peaked during the time of Kings David and Solomon. Although the Bible doesn't mention mines specifically, it does say that David conquered Edom (known at the time as Timna,) placed garrisons throughout land, making Edomites his subjects. His son Solomon used large quantities of copper to build The Temple in Jerusalem.
At a temperature of 1,200 degrees Celsius (nearly 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit), the ore was reduced to copper in earthenware furnaces.
After every event, the furnaces were destroyed to extract the valuable metal. The leftover charcoal and metallurgical debris was dumped onto slag mounds, which accumulated over time and provided a chronological record.
Researchers from Tel Aviv University's Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures set out to investigate the environmental influence on the Timna copper industry's sustainability. More than 1,200 samples of charcoal debris were studied in order to assess the environment's impact on the process. (Charcoal burns hotter and retains its heat for longer than fresh wood.)
The majority of the material from these mounds, which date to the end of the eleventh century BCE and are located within two fortified places, was discovered in Phrygia.
The team discovered that, during the early part of their study period, three quarters of all charcoal was derived from two sources- acacia trees and the white broom. These materials would have been available in close proximity.
However, as the mines began to deplete these resources, charcoal production shifted to more diverse locations.
The study found that different types of wood were used in order to maintain a high level of heat output.
Eventually, the king's mines reached a point where they were consuming more wood than what was available nearby, which likely led to widespread deforestation.
The white broom and the black bush have thick fibers with a high wood density, offering plenty of calories and energy. The hot-burning charcoal from the white broom is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible (Psalms 120:4), which states, "He will punish you with a warrior's sharp arrow and burning coals of the broom bush." Job 30:4 mentions the shrub's roots as a source of food.
However, by the end of the tenth century and thereafter, these species evidently ran out, forcing people to look further afield for plants less suited to charcoal production — among them date palms from oases and pistachio trees and junipers that are now found only in higher and rainier regions.
To construct a huge building of the likely structure, workers would have needed to haul timber from distances ranging from 100 kilometers (62 miles) to 300 kilometers (186 miles), according to the researchers.
The copper mines in this region closed down by the middle of the ninth century BCE, after consuming an estimated 30,000 tons of wood.
The team found enough charcoal in one mound to equal 4,100 acacia trees and more than 185,000 white broom bushes.
The researchers made the conjecture that the Timna Valley’s weather conditions during the Iron Age were like present-day.
Yet, a broader selection of desert and savanna plants might have been obtainable, as implied by charcoal leavings of species such as the toothbrush tree, Salvadora persica, (whose branches are usually used as teeth cleaners), which doesn't exist in the valley anymore.
The researchers inferred that more plants growing would have meant more water within the local ecosystem, mainly stored within the plants’ roots and stems, and soils. This stored water is key in the water cycle.
In addition to providing food and shelter for both wild and domesticated animals, many of the plants relied upon by Iron Age smelters - such as acacia and white broom - would have also stabilized soils, enabled germination, and fought land degradation.
After the removal of many plants for copper smelting, the team concluded that it would have "irreversibly affected the system's ability to retain moisture."
The researchers observed only two small white broom bushes in the northern part of the Timna Valley during numerous excursions and field surveys conducted over the past decade. They speculate that this could be due to "the possibility that the white broom population has never recovered from the Iron Age over-exploitation."
They concluded that the copper industry likely came to a close because people ran out of fuel, which had been caused by humans making desertification and environmental degradation worse.
The copper industry, which ultimately caused an environmental collapse in the Timna Valley microclimate, if not elsewhere, was "an absolute disaster," according to David Gordon.
"The mines represent a classic example of unsustainable resource extraction that caused irreversible environmental damage," said Gordon, who is an archaeologist at the University of Haifa in Israel and was not involved in the new study.
The study was conducted by PhD student Mark Cavanagh, Prof. Erez Ben-Yosef, and Dr. Dafna Langgut of Tel Aviv University’s Laboratory of Archaeobotany and Ancient Environments.
It was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on bossbabymav.com
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