There is always new research coming out and amazing things are found every day in Israel. There are so many one-of-a-kind discoveries that it is simply not possible to preserve everything while moving forward with modern progress. Recently, with development in one of the neighborhoods in the southern reaches of Beer Sheva, an innovation from 6500 years ago was found showing Beer Sheva’s important role in advancing the global metal revolution.
In the heart of Beer Sheva’s residential neighborhood of Neve Noy was found a furnace from the Chalcolithic periods. They also found slag, crucibles and other implements used in smelting copper.
During the Chalcolithic period, the latest in hi-tech was processing copper from seams and refining it. In the Levant, the main sources of copper were from the Timna Valley near Eilat and Feynan, Jordan. Timna has been extensively studied and much is known about the process and the people who lived there. But Feynan, in a remote area of Jordan, has not been studied as much. Supply routes are obvious for Timna, located not far from the Gulf of Eilat and the Red Sea. Feynan, though, is even today an isolated place.
There are no copper resources near Beer Sheva. Lead isotope analysis, is unique for each mine, showed the the Beer Sheva copper came only from Feynan, some 100 km (60 miles) away. At this time, it seems that those who mined the copper in Feynan did not have the expertise to process it. (Copper processing and mining in Timna didn’t even exist at this time. The Beer Sheva furnace predates Timna production by over 1,000 years.)
The remains that were found on Yasmin Street by Talia Abulafia from the Israel Antiquities Authority and Prof. Erez Ben-Yosef from Tel Aviv University point to a two-stage smelting technology. First the raw copper ore was placed in a furnace. This furnace heated the copper to a very high temperature while limiting oxygen to separate copper from most of the impurities which coalesced to create slag as a byproduct. The remaining copper was further refined in clay crucibles. Excavation was carried out between 2017-2019 before being covered over.
During the Chalcolithic time period, there are not large centers of population – no cities existed then. It has been assumed that strata in societies came with the building of cities later in the Bronze Age and specialization in the work force at that time. The discovery of furnaces distant from mines indicates that some people became experts in processing this material. Researchers posit that there were guilds and housing quarters which held the furnaces; and the people who held the secrets of how to use them were considered the elite of society.
Copper also was not used for every day activities – those functions continued to be filled by stone tools. Copper was reserved for cultic and other specialized purposes. In the area of the Dead Sea, in Nachal Mishmar, a horde of copper cultic items was found – today you can see them at the Israel Museum.
Hillel and I went to look for the site of this Beer Sheva furnace – maybe the first furnace ever in the world. Here is what we found. I hope at least they have a fireplace in the house as a remembrance of this place’s illustrious past.