Mystery Death in the Desert: What Was a Pregnant Woman Doing at an Ancient Mining Site?
3,200 years ago, a young Egyptian woman breathed her final breath before collapsing on the harsh desert sands near a copper mine. She was pregnant, and history suggests she probably wasn’t taking part in the hard, physical labor at the site. So what was she doing on a mining expedition in Timna, southern Israel?
Although the cause of the pregnant woman’s death is uncertain, researchers have decided she was probably in her early 20s when she died. Her appearance near the copper mine goes against the general perception that women always stayed at home and only sent offerings to the men at these locations.
According to Jewish Press , only the lower portion of the woman’s skeleton, complete with the fetus, was found. The upper portion of her body was lost to the sands of time. Her bones could not be radiocarbon dated as the dry desert conditions did away with any traces of collagen. This means researchers had to use other methods to find out more about the pregnant woman.
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Remains of the lower body of a pregnant woman found in a tomb in Timna. ( Central Timna Valley Project )
Lucky for them, when archaeologists sifted through the grave’s sand they discovered two very small and “exquisitely crafted” Egyptian glass beads– the researchers said it was these two artifacts which enabled them to create a hypothesis on the woman’s origins.
Moreover, Deborah Sweeney, an Egyptologist at Tel Aviv University, said the beads are also connected to the Egyptian goddess Hathor. One of Hathor’s roles was the protector of miners, so it isn’t surprising the temple located nearby was also dedicated to this deity.
One of the Egyptian glass “eye beads” found with the female skeleton buried in Timna. ( Central Timna Valley Project )
They were also able to make a hypothesis on the woman’s past employment by linking her to musical instruments and an image of a woman playing a sistrum at the former temple. As it has been suggested Hathor could be both an exceptionally kind or cruel deity, it could have been seen as a necessary measure to include the presence of women singing to please her at a mining site. Sweeney told Haaretz:
“Unfortunately, she must have died there for some reason, and was buried close to the temple so that Hathor would protect her. It’s actually quite sad. She was probably quite adventurous to go so far away from home, which was rare for women in Egypt. But she never came back.”
Hathor. ( Brooklyn Museum )
The Jerusalem Post reports the woman’s remains were an exceptional find made during the final days of last winter’s excavations, but they were not excavated until the researchers continued their dig this past summer.
Dr. Erez Ben-Yosef, leader of Tel Aviv University’s Central Timna Valley Project since 2012, expressed his surprise at the discovery to Haaretz:
“It is very rare to find human remains in Timna, and it is the first time we [found] a woman […] there are no water sources in Timna and it is very inhospitable, so no one ever settled there permanently. Home was close to water sources, and people only came for brief expeditions during the winter to mine copper.”
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Excavating the tumulus burial mound of the pregnant woman found at Timna. Hathor’s temple and the sandstone formation known as “Solomon’s Pillars" are on the left. ( Central Timna Valley Project )
Timna has long been recognized as a site for copper mining . Miners have been working there since about 4000 BC. It is a site many suggest housed some of “King Solomon’s copper mines”, but the conditions there were undoubtedly harsh – anything anyone working there would need to survive had to be brought in.
According to Dr. Ben-Yosef, no other human remains have been identified at the site since 1964. He provides a possible explanation for the lack of bones,
“Our hypothesis is that people would be buried there temporarily and their bones would be taken back home by a later expedition. There aren’t that many tombs because only important people were buried: if some poor slave died they probably just threw the body down a shaft in the mines and that was that.”
Hill of Slaves in Timna Valley. ( Alexey Sergeev )
Top Image: Stones cover the body of the first remains of a woman found at copper mines in Timna, Israel - and she was pregnant. Source: Central Timna Valley Project