Ancient metal workers were not slaves but high status craftsmen
There has long been an assumption in mainstream archaeology that many of the impressive monuments and great accomplishments of ancient civilizations were built with slave labour. Perhaps it is because we see so few examples in today’s society of the masses working hard in cooperation for a common good. However, more and more findings have proven this assumption wrong. In the latest example, new research has revealed that Iron Age copper smelters were not slaves, as previously believed, but respected craftsmen with sophisticated skills.
In 1934, American archaeologist Nelson Glueck named one of the largest known copper production sites of the Levant "Slaves' Hill." This hilltop station, located deep in the Arava Valley in what is now Israel, seemed to bear all the marks of an Iron Age slave camp -- fiery furnaces, harsh desert conditions, and a massive barrier preventing escape. However, new evidence overturns this entire narrative.
Hill of Slaves in Timna Valley. Image source.
In the course of ongoing excavations at Timna Valley, researchers from Tel Aviv University (TAU) analyzed remnants of food eaten by copper smelters 3,000 years ago. The result of this analysis, published in the journal Antiquity, indicates that the labourers operating the furnaces were in fact skilled craftsmen who enjoyed high social status and adulation. They believe their discovery may have ramifications for similar sites across the region.
"What we found represents a general trend or reality related to metal workers in antiquity," said Dr. Ben-Yosef of TAU. "They had a very unique role in society, and we can demonstrate this by looking at Timna."
Copper mines in Timna, 35 km north of Eilat. Photo credit: Doron Horowitz
Examining ancient leftovers
The rare arid conditions of Timna have resulted in unparalleled preservation of organic materials usually destroyed by the march of time: bones, seeds, fruits, and even fabric dating back to around 1,000 BC. Using a technique called "wet sieving," the archaeologists found miniscule animal and fish bones, evidence of a rich and diverse diet.
"The copper smelters were given the better cuts of meat -- the meatiest parts of the animals," said Dr. Sapir-Hen. "Someone took great care to give the people working in the furnaces the best of everything. They also enjoyed fish, which must have been brought from the Mediterranean hundreds of kilometres away. This was not the diet of slaves but of highly-regarded, maybe even worshipped, craftsmen."
This discovery echoes previous findings at other ancient sites. It was long believed that the pyramids of Egypt were built by slaves serving a merciless pharaoh. This idea has been popularized by Hollywood productions, in which slaves are seen toiling away in the scorching sun beneath the whips of the pharaoh’s overseers. However, in the last four years, numerous discoveries have shown this was far from reality. In 2010, archaeologists discovered that the graves of pyramid builders were located next to the king’s pyramid, which indicates that they were free men. The builders were also fed like royalty, supplied daily with high-quality meat and fish, and they received special treatment for contributing to a national project, such as exemption from taxes.
Likewise, research has shown that the great pyramid city of Caral in Peru was not built by a slave force but by a willing community. Archaeological evidence suggests that the city rulers encouraged the workforce during construction by staging celebratory roasts of fish and achira root. Afterward, the remains of these feasts were worked into the fabric of the mound. Alcohol is suspected of having been consumed, and music seems to have been played during these occasions.
The ‘magical art’ of copper smelting
Copper, used at the time to produce tools and weapons, was the most valuable resource in ancient societies. According to Dr. Ben-Yosef, the smelters needed to be well-versed in the sophisticated technology required to turn stone into usable copper. This knowledge was so advanced for the time it may have been considered magical or supernatural.
Timna copper ore. Image source.
"Like oil today, copper was a source of great power," said Dr. Ben-Yosef. "If a person had the exceptional knowledge to 'create copper,' it is not surprising he would have been treated well.
Copper production is a complex operation requiring many levels of expertise. Ancient mine workers at Timna may have indeed been slaves or prisoners, because theirs was a simple task performed under severe conditions. However, the act of smelting, turning stone into metal, required an enormous amount of skill and leadership. The smelter had to build a furnace out of clay in precise dimensions, provide the right amount of oxygen and charcoal, maintain a 1,200 degree (Celsius) heat, connect bellow pipes, blow a fixed amount of air, and add an exact mixture of minerals. All told, the smelter had to manage some 30-40 variables in order to produce the coveted copper ingots.
Model of copper smelting installation at Timna. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins
The remains of the wall found at the Timna site, once considered a barrier used to contain slave labourers, apparently played a different role as well. "We now know it was a wall used to defend the sophisticated technology and its most precious product -- the ingot, the result of the complex copper smelting process," said Dr. Ben-Yosef.
Featured image: Ancient Copper Strip-mine north of Mt. Michrot. Image source: megalithic.co.uk
The article ‘Ancient metal workers were not slaves but high status craftsmen’ has been adapted with permission from the article ‘Ancient metal workers were not slaves but highly regarded craftsmen’ in Science Daily.