Did the Bible’s King David and his son Solomon control the copper industry in present-day southern Jordan? Though that remains an open question, the possibility is raised once again by research reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Led by Thomas Levy of UC San Diego and Mohammad Najjar of Jordan’s Friends of Archaeology, an international team of archaeologists has excavated an ancient copper-production center at Khirbat en-Nahas down to virgin soil, through more than 20 feet of industrial smelting debris, or slag. The 2006 dig has brought up new artifacts and with them a new suite of radiocarbon dates placing the bulk of industrial-scale production at Khirbat en-Nahas in the 10th century BCE – in line with biblical narrative on the legendary rule of David and Solomon. The new data pushes back the archaeological chronology some three centuries earlier than the current scholarly consensus.
Khirbat en-Nahas, comprising some 100 ancient buildings including a fortress, is situated in the midst of a large area covered by black slag – more than 24 acres that you can clearly see on Google Earth’s satellite imagery. Mining trails and mines abound. The size argues for industrial-scale production at Khirbat en-Nahas, Levy explained. And the depth of the waste at the site, more than 20 feet, he said, provides a “measuring stick” to monitor social and technological change during the Iron Age, which spans around 1200 to 500 BCE, a key period in the histories of ancient Israel and Edom.
The archaeological team, Levy said, used high-precision radiocarbon dating on date seeds, sticks of tamarisk and other woods used for charcoal in smelting (along with Bayesian analysis) to obtain the 10th- and 9th-century BCE dates. The analyses were carried out by Thomas Higham of the University of Oxford.
Additional evidence comes from ancient Egyptian artifacts found at the site. The artifacts, a scarab and an amulet, were in a layer of the excavation associated with a serious disruption in production at the end of the 10th century BCE – possibly tying Khirbat en-Nahas to the well-documented military campaign of Pharaoh Sheshonq I (aka “Shishak” in the Bible) who, following Solomon’s death, sought to crush economic activity in the area.
Future research at Khirbat en-Nahas, Levy said, will focus on who actually controlled the copper industry there – Kings David and Solomon or perhaps regional Edomite leaders (who had not been written about in the biblical texts) – and also on the environmental impacts of all this ancient smelting.