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The Ashalim cave artifact

Oldest Known Lead Artifact was Found with Skeletons, Suggesting Mystical Significance

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Archaeologists working in a cave in Israel, which prehistoric people used as a burial ground, have found an object made of lead that is at least 6,000 years old. They are unsure what the artifact was used for or why it was with human remains, but they do know this: It is the oldest known lead object found in the Levant and possibly the world, though an analysis of its isotopes shows the lead probably originated in Anatolia.

The team of researchers who analyzed the object, led by Naama Yahalom-Mack of Hebrew University, published a paper in the journal PLOS One, which is available online .

The artifact is a perforated, circular lead object with a wooden stick inserted into it. The stick is 3.7 cm (1.5 inches) long. The wood dates to between 4300 and 4000 BC. The fact that the wood survived this long is amazing, even in the deathly dry Negev Desert where it was found.

Sunset in the Negev Desert near Yeruham, Israel

Sunset in the Negev Desert near Yeruham, Israel ( public domain )

The authors speculate it may have been either a mace or a spindle whorl, or it may have been used as both. They wrote: “Its eventual deposition in the deepest section of Ashalim Cave, in relation to the burial of selected individuals, serves as evidence of the symbolic significance it possessed until the final phase of its biography.” If it was a spindle whorl used to spin fibers into thread, another similar find was made with human remains at Qina Cave, also in the Negev.

The authors did not say this, but spinners and weavers from early antiquity, if not prehistory, were represented as working with the thread of life. The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets states about the Moirai: “The Three Fates of Greek myth: Clotho the Spinner, Lachesis the Measurer, Arotops the Cutter, western version of the Oriental Triple Goddess as Creator, Preserver, Destroyer. All nations of the ancient world knew the theory that life was a mystical thread spun by the Virgin, measure and sustained the Mother and cut by the Crone.”

The research team still has some questions to answer, most prominent among them what the object was used for. The authors speculate it was a mace, but if it was it is among the smallest known examples of a mace and the only one with a lead head. The article in PLOS One shows a photo of the object next to a small Swiss Army knife, and the lead object is only about twice as long.

A fantastic treasure hoard from the Cave of the Treasure in Nahal Mishmar in the Negev is contemporaneous with the lead Ashalim Cave object.

A fantastic treasure hoard from the Cave of the Treasure in Nahal Mishmar in the Negev is contemporaneous with the lead Ashalim Cave object. The Nahal Mishmar hoard includes 432 copper, bronze, ivory and stone decorated objects; 240 mace heads, about 100 scepters, 5 crowns, powder horns, tools and weapons. Some of the objects are shown in this photo. (Photo by Hanay/ Wikimedia Commons )

The researchers also don’t know if the lead was imported to what is now southern Israel and fashioned into the object there, or if it was made in Anatolia and imported as a finished product along trade routes that were already established by then. Whatever the case, they believe it was smelted from relatively pure lead ore. Smelting is a process whereby rocks are subjected to high heat to melt the metals out of them to obtain the pure elemental metal.

The Moirai, Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, who spin, draw out and cut the thread of Life, represent Death in this 16th century Flemish tapestry. Here the Fates triumph over the fallen body of Chastity.

The Moirai, Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, who spin, draw out and cut the thread of Life, represent Death in this 16 th century Flemish tapestry. Here the Fates triumph over the fallen body of Chastity. ( Wikimedia Commons )

The authors described the object:

The form of the Ashalim Cave lead object recalls the typical Late Chalcolithic [Copper Age] maceheads, which are considered to have been mostly ceremonial in function. However, its weight and size places it among the smallest maceheads known from this period, and its composition (of lead rather than copper or stone) sets it apart from all other known maceheads. Another possible interpretation, raised by Langgut et al ., asserts that the Ashalim Cave object was a spindle, in which case the shaft would have been the spindle rod and the lead object would have been used as a whorl. This interpretation is based on the morphology of the whole artifact, including the position of the depression and the perforated metal object, which resemble high-whorl spindles, and on abrasion marks visible on the lead object, possibly the result of the spinning process. Several other wooden shafts, not logged with a whorl, were recently found in a similar context (mortuary activity in a deepest section of a maze-like cave) in Qina Cave, also located in the northern Negev and dated to the Late Chalcolithic; these were identified as spindle rods and related spinning implements based on microscopic remains of linen fibres.

The object pre-dates any other lead object from the Levant, but there was still metallurgical activity there with copper around the same time, including the lost-wax casting of copper. The authors say only a handful of lead artifacts have been found from around the same time even in Anatolia and northern Mesopotamia, however they may not have been produced by smelting of lead. “Thus, it appears that the Ashalim Cave object, based on the concentration of trace elements such as cobalt, might be the earliest lead artifact proven so far to have been produced from smelted lead,” they wrote.

Featured image: The Ashalim cave artifact (Photo in PLOS One)

By: Mark Miller

Comments

Second article I have read today on Ancient Origins with a link to the original PlosOne article. Thanks.

Too bad most journals don't allow free access.

Tom Carberry

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