If you stand on one of the outcroppings of the Timna valley, the most salient fact of the place is emptiness. Here in the heat-blasted flatlands of the Arava Desert, off a lonely road in southern Israel, it seems there’s nothing but stark cliffs and rock formations all the way to the jagged red wall of the Edomite Mountains across the Jordanian border.
And yet the longer you spend in the Timna barrens, the more human fingerprints you begin to see. Scratches on a cliff face turn out to be, on closer investigation, 3,200-year-old hieroglyphics. On a boulder are the outlines of ghostly chariots. A tunnel vanishes into a hillside, the walls marked with the energetic strikes of bronze chisels.
There were once people here, and they were looking for something. Traces of the treasure can still be seen beneath your feet, in the greenish hue of pebbles or the emerald streak across the side of a cave.
When the Israeli archaeologist Erez Ben-Yosef arrived at the ancient copper mines of Timna, in 2009, he was 30 years old. The site wasn’t on Israel’s archaeological A-list, or even its B-list. It wasn’t the Jerusalem of Jesus, or the famous citadel of Masada, where Jewish rebels committed suicide rather than surrender to Rome. It was the kind of place unimportant enough to be entrusted to someone with fresh credentials and no experience leading a dig.
At the time, Ben-Yosef wasn’t interested in the Bible. His field was paleomagnetism, the investigation of changes in the earth’s magnetic field over time, and specifically the mysterious “spike” of the tenth century B.C., when magnetism leapt higher than at any time in history for reasons that are not entirely understood. With that in mind, Ben-Yosef and his colleagues from the University of California, San Diego unpacked their shovels and brushes at the foot of a sandstone cliff and started digging.
They began to extract pieces of organic material—charcoal, a few seeds, 11 items all told—and dispatched them to a lab at Oxford University for carbon-14 dating. They didn’t expect any surprises. The site had already been conclusively dated by an earlier expedition that had uncovered the ruins of a temple dedicated to an Egyptian goddess, linking the site to the empire of the pharaohs, the great power to the south. This conclusion was so firmly established that the local tourism board, in an attempt to draw visitors to this remote location, had put up kitschy statues in “walk like an Egyptian” poses.
But when Ben-Yosef got the results back from Oxford they showed something else—and so began the latest revolution in the story of Timna. The ongoing excavation is now one of the most fascinating in a country renowned for its archaeology. Far from any city, ancient or modern, Timna is illuminating the time of the Hebrew Bible—and showing just how much can be found in a place that seems, at first glance, like nowhere.
On the afternoon of March 30, 1934, a dozen men stopped their camels and camped in the Arava Desert. At the time, the country was ruled by the British. The leader of the expedition was Nelson Glueck, an archaeologist from Cincinnati, Ohio, later renowned as a man of both science and religion. In the 1960s, he would be on the cover of Time magazine and, as a rabbi, deliver the benediction at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. Glueck’s expedition had been riding for 11 days, surveying the wastes between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba.
Glueck’s guide was a local Bedouin chief, Sheikh Audeh ibn Jad, who struck the American archaeologist as a nearly biblical figure. “In name, which reflects that of the tribe of Gad, and in appearance, he could have been one of the Israelite chieftains who had journeyed with Moses and the children of Israel,” Glueck wrote in his book about the adventure, Rivers in the Desert. The group slept on the ground covered in their robes and ate unleavened bread, like Israelites fleeing Egypt.
Strewn about were piles of black slag, fist-size chunks left over from extracting copper from ore in furnaces. The site, Glueck wrote in his original report from 1935, was no less than “the largest and richest copper mining and smelting center in the entire ‘Arabah.’” It had been abandoned for millennia, but for Glueck it sprang to life.
An expert on ancient pottery, Glueck picked up sherds that were lying around and dated them back 3,000 years, to one of the most storied points of biblical history: the time of Solomon, King David’s son, renowned for his wealth and wisdom. According to the Hebrew Bible, Solomon’s kingdom stretched from Syria in the north to the Red Sea in the south, uniting the fractious Israelite tribes and serving as the high-water mark of Jewish power in the ancient world. And if the archaeologist’s dating of the sherds was correct, he knew exactly where he was standing: King Solomon’s Mines.
If that phrase gives you a jolt of excitement, as we can presume it did Glueck, it is because of the British writer H. Rider Haggard, whose 1885 novel King Solomon’s Mines was a sensation. The book is set not in the Holy Land but in the fictional African kingdom of Kukuanaland. The protagonist is the adventurer Allan Quatermain, whose search for the mines leads him to the African interior and into a cathedral-size cavern, where he finds a trove of diamonds as large as eggs and gold ingots stamped with Hebrew letters. After much peril, including a near-drowning in a subterranean river, Quatermain lives to tell the tale.
The colonialist politics and ethnic stereotypes of King Solomon’s Mines wouldn’t cut it today, but the story entranced generations of readers and was eventually adapted for the screen no fewer than five times, from a 1919 silent version to a 2004 TV miniseries with Patrick Swayze. For kids of the 1980s, like me, the memorable version is from 1985, with the newly minted star Sharon Stone in the role of the expedition’s blond and breathy damsel in distress, wearing a khaki outfit whose designer seemed oddly unconcerned with protecting her from scratches or malarial mosquitoes. There was also a guy who played Quatermain, but for some reason he made less of an impression.
In the Bible, King Solomon is said to have been rich in precious metals, and to have used vast quantities of copper for features of his Jerusalem temple, such as the “molten sea,” a giant basin that rested on the backs of 12 metal oxen. But the phrase “King Solomon’s mines” actually appears nowhere in the Bible. It was coined by the novelist.
Glueck, like many archaeologists then and now, had a bit of the novelist in him, which might be necessary in a profession that requires you to imagine a majestic temple based on what a normal observer would swear was just a pile of rocks. He knew that most people are attracted less to ruins than to the stories we tell about them, whether about ancient Rome or Machu Picchu. In the Holy Land, interest in archaeology is especially intense because so many of our most potent stories are set here. The biblical chronicles describe numerous battles between the polity that ruled this area, the kingdom of Edom, and the Israelites, who lived to the north. Glueck theorized that captives from those wars were sent to these mines. One natural acropolis with the remains of a wall gave him “the impression of being also a prison camp, where the drafted laborers were forcibly retained.” He called the outcropping Slaves’ Hill, a name it retains to this day.
Proving or disproving the Bible, Glueck said, was a fool’s errand. “Those people are essentially of little faith who seek through archaeological corroboration of historical source materials in the Bible to validate its religious teachings and spiritual insights,” he wrote in Rivers in the Desert, and he probably should have left it there. Instead, he continued: “As a matter of fact, however, it may be categorically stated that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a Biblical reference.” In other words, archaeology didn’t have to prove the Bible’s account of history, but it did prove it, or at least never disproved it—and he himself, he wrote with pride, had “discovered Solomon’s copper mines.”
The identification stuck for 30 years, until Beno Rothenberg, who’d once been Glueck’s assistant and photographer, returned in the 1950s at the head of his own archaeological expedition. A generation had passed, but enthusiastic biblical literalism was still the rule. In those days the famous Israeli archaeologist and military hero Yigael Yadin was uncovering what he identified as Solomon’s imperial construction works at ancient cities like Gezer and Hatzor, proving, Yadin said, the existence of the united Israelite monarchy known from the Bible and dated to around 1000 B.C. But fashions were beginning to change.
While Glueck had identified black slag left over from copper smelting (as had the Welsh explorer John Petherick nearly a century before him), it was Rothenberg who found the actual copper mines—warrens of twisting galleries and some 9,000 vertical shafts sunk into the ground, visible from the air like polka dots. The ancient miners toiled underground to harvest the greenish ore from rich veins around the edge of the valley, chiseling it from the rock and hauling it to the surface. At the mouth of the shaft, workers loaded the ore onto donkeys or their own backs and bore it to the charcoal-burning furnaces, knee-high clay urns attached to bellows that sent up plumes of smoke from the center of the mining complex. When the smelters smashed the furnace and the molten slag flowed out, what remained were precious lumps of copper.
In 1969, Rothenberg and his crew began to excavate near a towering rock formation known as Solomon’s Pillars—ironic, because the structure they uncovered ended up destroying the site’s ostensible connection to the biblical king. Here they found an Egyptian temple, complete with hieroglyphic inscriptions, a text from the Book of the Dead, cat figurines and a carved face of Hathor, the Egyptian goddess, with dark-rimmed eyes and a mysterious half-smile. Not only did the temple have nothing to do with King Solomon or Israelites, it predated Solomon’s kingdom by centuries—assuming such a kingdom ever existed.
If you were a rising young archaeologist in the 1970s, you were skeptical of stories about Jewish kings. The ascendant critical school in biblical scholarship, sometimes known by the general name “minimalism,” was making a strong case that there was no united Israelite monarchy around 1000 B.C.—this was a fiction composed by writers working under Judean kings perhaps three centuries later. The new generation of archaeologists argued that the Israelites of 1000 B.C. were little more than Bedouin tribes, and David and Solomon, if there were such people, weren’t more than local sheikhs. This was part of a more general movement in archaeology worldwide, away from romantic stories and toward a more technical approach that sought to look dispassionately at physical remains.
In biblical archaeology, the best-known expression of this school’s thinking for a general audience is probably The Bible Unearthed, a 2001 book by the Israeli archaeologist Israel Finkelstein, of Tel Aviv University, and the American scholar Neil Asher Silberman. Archaeology, the authors wrote, “has produced a stunning, almost encyclopedic knowledge of the material conditions, languages, societies, and historical developments of the centuries during which the traditions of ancient Israel gradually crystallized.” Armed with this interpretative power, archaeologists could now scientifically evaluate the truth of biblical stories. An organized kingdom such as David’s and Solomon’s would have left significant settlements and buildings—but in Judea at the relevant time, the authors wrote, there were no such buildings at all, or any evidence of writing. In fact, most of the saga contained in the Bible, including stories about the “glorious empire of David and Solomon,” was less a historical chronicle than “a brilliant product of the human imagination.”
At Timna, then, there would be no more talk of Solomon. The real mines were reinterpreted as an Egyptian enterprise, perhaps the one mentioned in a papyrus describing the reign of Ramses III in the 12th century B.C.: “I sent forth my messengers to the country of Atika, to the great copper mines which are in this place,” the pharaoh says, describing a pile of ingots he had placed under a balcony to be viewed by the people, “like wonders.”
The new theory held that the mines were shut down after Egypt’s empire collapsed in the civilizational cataclysm that hit the ancient world in the 12th century B.C., perhaps because of a devastating drought. This was the same crisis that saw the end of the Hittite Empire, the famed fall of Troy, and the destruction of kingdoms in Cyprus and throughout modern-day Greece. Accordingly, the mines weren’t even active at the time Solomon was said to exist. Mining resumed only a millennium later, after the rise of Rome. “There is no factual and, as a matter of fact, no ancient written literary evidence of the existence of ‘King Solomon’s Mines,’” Rothenberg wrote.
That was the story of Timna when Erez Ben-Yosef showed up in 2009. He had spent the previous few years excavating at another copper mine, at Faynan, on the other side of the Jordanian border, at a dig run by the University of California, San Diego and Jordan’s Department of Antiquities.
Ben-Yosef, 43, now teaches at Tel Aviv University. He speaks quietly, with the air of a careful observer. One of our meetings took place shortly after he’d returned from a meditation retreat at which he said nothing for ten days. He has no religious affiliation and describes himself as indifferent to the historical accuracy of the Bible. He didn’t come here to prove a point, but to listen to what the place could tell him. “The mere interaction with remains left by people who lived long ago teaches us about who we are as humans and about the essence of the human experience,” he told me. “It’s like reading a work of literature or a book of poetry. It’s not just about what happened in 900 B.C.”
The dig quickly took an unexpected turn. Having assumed they were working at an Egyptian site, Ben-Yosef and his team were taken aback by the carbon-dating results of their first samples: around 1000 B.C. The next batches came back with the same date. At that time the Egyptians were long gone and the mine was supposed to be defunct—and it was the time of David and Solomon, according to biblical chronology. “For a moment we thought there might be a mistake in the carbon dating,” Ben-Yosef recalled. “But then we began to see that there was a different story here than the one we knew.”
Accommodating himself to the same considerations that would have guided the ancient mining schedule, Ben-Yosef comes to dig with his team in the winter, when the scorching heat subsides. The team includes scientists trying to understand the ancient metallurgical arts employed here and others analyzing what the workers ate and wore. They’re helped by the remarkable preservation of organic materials in the dry heat, such as dates, shriveled but intact, found 3,000 years after they were picked.
When I visited the mines, Diana Medellin, an archaeological conservator, was conducting soil tests to determine how fabric deteriorates in the ground over time. Back at the labs in Tel Aviv, another scholar was analyzing chunks of the charcoal used to fuel the smelting furnaces, trying to trace the depletion of local trees, acacia and white broom, which forced the smelters to bring in wood from farther away. A few years ago the team produced one of those rare archaeology stories that migrates into pop culture: The bones of domesticated camels, they found, appear in the layers at Timna only after 930 B.C., suggesting that the animals were first introduced in the region at that time. The Bible, however, describes camels many centuries earlier, in the time of the Patriarchs—possibly an anachronism inserted by authors working much later. The story was picked up by Gawker (“The Whole Bible Thing Is B.S. Because of Camel Bones, Says Science”) and made it into the CBS sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” when Sheldon, a scientist, considers using the finding to challenge his mother’s Christian faith.
In the past decade, Ben-Yosef and his team have rewritten the site’s biography. They say a mining expedition from Egypt was indeed here first, which explained the hieroglyphics and the temple. But the mines actually became most active after the Egyptians left, during the power vacuum created by the collapse of the regional empires. A power vacuum is good for scrappy local players, and it’s precisely in this period that the Bible places Solomon’s united Israelite monarchy and, crucially, its neighbor to the south, Edom.
The elusive Edomites dominated the reddish mountains and plateaus around the mines. In Hebrew and other Semitic languages, their name literally means “red.” Not much is known about them. They first appear in a few ancient Egyptian records that characterize them, according to the scholar John Bartlett in his authoritative 1989 work Edom and the Edomites, “as bellicose by nature, but also as tent-dwellers, with cattle and other possessions, able to travel to Egypt when necessity arose.” They seem to have been herdsmen, farmers and raiders. Unfortunately for the Edomites, most of what we do know comes from the texts composed by their rivals, the Israelites, who saw them as symbols of treachery, if also as blood relations: the father of the Edomites, the Bible records, was no less than redheaded Esau, the twin brother of the Hebrew patriarch Jacob, later renamed Israel. With the Egyptian empire out of the picture by 1000 B.C., and no record of Israelite activity nearby, “The most logical candidate for the society that operated the mines is Edom,” says Ben-Yosef.
But archaeologists had found so few ruins that many doubted the existence of any kingdom here at the time in question. There were no fortified cities, no palaces, not even anything that could be called a town. The Edom of Solomon’s time, many suspected, was another fiction dreamed up by later authors.
But the dig at the Faynan copper mines, which were also active around 1000 B.C., was already producing evidence for an organized Edomite kingdom, such as advanced metallurgical tools and debris. At Timna, too, the sophistication of the people was obvious, in the remains of intense industry that can still be seen strewn around Slaves’ Hill: the tons of slag, the sherds of ceramic smelting furnaces and the tuyères, discarded clay nozzles of the leather bellows, which the smelter, on his knees, would have pumped to fuel the flames. These relics are 3,000 years old, but today you can simply bend down and pick them up, as if the workers left last week. (In an animal pen off to one corner, you can also, if so inclined, run your fingers through 3,000-year-old donkey droppings.) The smelters honed their technology as decades passed, first using iron ore for flux, the material added to the furnace to assist in copper extraction, then moving to the more efficient manganese, which they also mined nearby.
The archaeologists found the bones of fish from, astonishingly, the Mediterranean, a trek of more than 100 miles across the desert. The skilled craftsmen at the furnaces got better food than the menial workers toiling in the mine shafts: delicacies such as pistachios, lentils, almonds and grapes, all of which were hauled in from afar.
A key discovery emerged in a Jerusalem lab run by Naama Sukenik, an expert in organic materials with the Israel Antiquities Authority. When excavators sifting through the slag heaps at Timna sent her tiny red-and-blue textile fragments, Sukenik and her colleagues thought the quality of the weave and dye suggested Roman aristocracy. But carbon-14 dating placed these fragments, too, around 1000 B.C., when the mines were at their height and Rome was a mere village.
In 2019, Sukenik and her collaborators at Bar-Ilan University, working a hunch, dissolved samples from a tiny clump of pinkish wool found on Slaves’ Hill in a chemical solution and analyzed them using a high-performance liquid chromatography device, which separates a substance into its constituent parts. She was looking for two telltale molecules: monobromoindigotin and dibromoindigotin. Even when the machine confirmed their presence, she wasn’t sure she was seeing right. The color was none other than royal purple, the most expensive dye in the ancient world. Known as argaman in the Hebrew Bible, and associated with royalty and priesthood, the dye was manufactured on the Mediterranean coast in a complex process involving the glands of sea snails. People who wore royal purple were wealthy and plugged into the trade networks around the Mediterranean. If anyone was still picturing disorganized or unsophisticated nomads, they now stopped. “This was a heterogeneous society that included an elite,” Sukenik told me. And that elite may well have included the copper smelters, who transformed rock into precious metal using a technique that may have seemed like a kind of magic.
More pieces of the puzzle appeared in the form of copper artifacts from seemingly unrelated digs elsewhere. In the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, Greece, a 2016 analysis of three-legged cauldrons revealed that the metal came from the mines in the Arava Desert, 900 miles away. And an Israeli study published this year found that several statuettes from Egyptian palaces and temples from the same period, such as a small sculpture of Pharaoh Psusennes I unearthed in a burial complex at Tanis, were also made from Arava copper. The Edomites were shipping their product across the ancient world.
It stands to reason, then, that a neighboring kingdom would make use of the same source—that the mines could have supplied King Solomon, even if these weren’t exactly “King Solomon’s mines.” Perhaps Nelson Glueck wasn’t far off the mark after all. But did Solomon’s kingdom even exist, and can archaeology help us find out? Even at its height, Timna was never more than a remote and marginal outpost. But it’s on these central questions that Ben-Yosef’s expedition has made its most provocative contribution.
Looking at the materials and data he was collecting, Ben-Yosef faced what we might call the Timna dilemma. What the archaeologists had found was striking. But perhaps more striking was what no one had found: a town, a palace, a cemetery or homes of any kind. And yet Ben-Yosef’s findings left no doubt that the people operating the mines were advanced, wealthy and organized. What was going on?
Having started out interested in paleomagnetism, Ben-Yosef stumbled into the emotionally charged field of biblical archaeology. His academic position was at Tel Aviv University, the bastion of the critical approach whose adherents are skeptical of the Bible’s historical accuracy. (On the other side, in this simplified breakdown, are the “conservatives” or “maximalists” associated with the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who claim to have identified grand structures from the time of the united Israelite monarchy, supporting the biblical narrative.) Israel Finkelstein, of The Bible Unearthed fame, was a towering figure with an office down the hall from Ben-Yosef, who was still junior faculty. The younger scholar had to tread carefully. He formulated his ideas over several years, and published them only after he got tenure.
Archaeologists, he observed, work with objects that last centuries or millennia, primarily stone structures, and with the types of waste that accumulate in permanent settlements and survive over time. As a result, identifying an advanced society depends on the presence of such remains: the grander the buildings, the more advanced the society must have been. The rival schools of biblical archaeologists were split over whether the united Israelite kingdom was fact or fiction, arguing vehemently about whether certain ruins should be dated close to 1000 B.C. or later. But they agreed that the primary point was the existence or non-existence of buildings. They differed on the answer, in other words, but shared a faith in their ability to settle the question.
Further complicating matters, Ben-Yosef thought, was an old assumption he called the “Bedouin bias.” Beginning in the 1800s, biblical archaeologists met Arab tribesmen around the Ottoman Middle East, like Audeh ibn Jad, Nelson Glueck’s guide. The archaeologists concluded that ancient nomads must have been similar, not only in dress and behavior but in their resistance to central authority and to the kind of cooperative efforts required for logistical projects such as building large, permanent settlements.
But Ben-Yosef wondered why nomads 3,000 years ago would necessarily have been the same as modern Bedouin. There were other models for nomadic societies, such as the Mongols, who were organized and disciplined enough to conquer much of the known world. Perhaps the Edomites, Ben-Yosef speculated, simply moved around with the seasons, preferring tents to permanent homes and rendering themselves “archaeologically invisible.” Invisible, that is, but for one fluke: Their kingdom happened to be sitting on a copper deposit. If they hadn’t run a mine, leaving traces of debris in the shafts and slag heaps, we’d have no physical evidence that they ever existed.
Their mining operation, in Ben-Yosef’s interpretation, reveals the workings of an advanced society, despite the absence of permanent structures. That’s a significant conclusion in itself, but it becomes even more significant in biblical archaeology, because if that’s true of Edom, it can also be true of the united monarchy of Israel. Biblical skeptics point out that there are no significant structures corresponding to the time in question. But one plausible explanation could be that most Israelites simply lived in tents, because they were a nation of nomads. In fact, that is how the Bible describes them—as a tribal alliance moving out of the desert and into the land of Canaan, settling down only over time. (This is sometimes obscured in Bible translations. In the Book of Kings, for example, after the Israelites celebrated Solomon’s dedication of the Jerusalem Temple, some English versions record that they “went to their homes, joyful and glad.” What the Hebrew actually says is they went to their “tents.”) These Israelites could have been wealthy, organized and semi-nomadic, like the “invisible” Edomites. Finding nothing, in other words, didn’t mean there was nothing. Archaeology was simply not going to be able to find out.
In 2019, Ben-Yosef explained his theory in a paper, “The Architectural Bias in Current Biblical Archaeology,” in a journal of biblical studies, Vetus Testamentum. He followed up with a version for a general audience in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, stirring up the contentious little world of biblical archaeology.
Israel Finkelstein, the best-known scholar of the critical school, published a response in the journal Antiguo Oriente this year, disputing the identification of the people at the mines as Edomites, dismissing some of Ben-Yosef’s ideas as “not new” and others for “deficiencies” in interpretation. The same issue carried an equally detailed defense from Ben-Yosef.
The veteran Israeli archaeologist Aren Maeir, of Bar-Ilan University, who has spent the last 25 years leading the excavation at the Philistine city of Gath (the hometown, according to the Bible, of Goliath), and who isn’t identified with either school, told me that Ben-Yosef’s findings made a convincing case that a nomadic people could achieve a high level of social and political complexity. He also agreed with Ben-Yosef’s identification of this society as Edom. Still, he cautioned against applying Ben-Yosef’s conclusions too broadly in order to make a case for the accuracy of the biblical narrative. “Because scholars have supposedly not paid enough attention to nomads and have over-emphasized architecture, that doesn’t mean the united kingdom of David and Solomon was a large kingdom—there’s simply no evidence of that on any level, not just the level of architecture.” Nonetheless, he praised Ben-Yosef’s fieldwork as “a very good excavation.”
Thomas Levy, of the University of California, San Diego, one of two chief archaeologists at the Edomite copper mine at Faynan, praised the Timna excavation for providing “a beautiful picture of an Iron Age industrial landscape extending over hundreds of square kilometers.” Levy conceded that both mining operations were on the fringes of the biblical action. “And yet,” he said, “the work gives us a new set of hard data to interrogate ancient Israel, from the near periphery of ancient Israel. That’s exciting, and it’s where people haven’t been looking.”
But a visitor walking through the eerie formations of the Timna Valley, past the dark tunnel mouths and the enigmatic etchings, is forced to accept the limits of what we can see even when we are looking carefully. We like to think that any mystery will yield in the end: We just have to dig deeper, or build a bigger magnifying glass. But there is much that will always remain invisible.
What Ben-Yosef has produced isn’t an argument for or against the historical accuracy of the Bible but a critique of his own profession. Archaeology, he argues, has overstated its authority. Entire kingdoms could exist under our noses, and archaeologists would never find a trace. Timna is an anomaly that throws into relief the limits of what we can know. The treasure of the ancient mines, it turns out, is humility.