Back to the Stone Age

Trip Start Apr 01, 2008
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Trip End Jun 18, 2008


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Flag of Israel  ,
Thursday, May 29, 2008

Under the hot sun of the Negev Desert we straddled the blurred line between the Stone Age and the Bronze Age.  At Timna Park in southern Israel, we saw marks in the rock where ancient peoples used stone tools to mine precious copper out of the red sandstone.

Even today the green veins of copper ore stand out in stark contrast to the red rocks.  It's easy to see how humans chose this site some 6,000 years ago for what may be the world's oldest copper mine.  It's also the location of one of the earliest copper smelters.



Although the Midianites, Romans, Arabs and others extracted copper here at various times, it was the Egyptians who conducted the largest mining operations during the 14th to the 12th centuries BC.  The Egyptians used metal tools allowing them to build vertical shafts up to 90 feet deep that branched off to a series of horizontal tunnels.  Still visible are some of the footholds the miners used to enter the mine.  



In one of the excavated camps, there is a pit for storing copper ore, a stone platform where it was crushed, and rock hammers, mortars, pestles and anvils for grinding the metal.  The copper was melted onsite using goatskin bellows that were operated by foot.  Over the centuries the smelting process was improved by the addition of iron ore.

Near the smelting furnaces, archeologists found piles of slag, charcoal pits, stone tools and potshards.  The copper ingots, or loaves as they were called, were carried by donkeys through the desert to the Gulf of Eilat, where they were loaded on boats bound for Egypt.  

There was a great demand for copper in Egypt at that time.  It was used to make saws, chisels, knives, hoes and more.  The pharaohs would have had water brought to them in copper pitchers and looked in a copper mirror as they used a copper razor to shave their beards.  There is evidence they even had copper pipes for plumbing and irrigation.

The protector of these desert dwellers was the goddess Hathor.  Looking up at the clear night sky, Egyptians saw the Milky Way as milk flowing from a heavenly cow, personified by Hathor.  The park contains the remains of a temple dedicated to her, where thousands of figurines, seals, beads, scarabs and other artifacts were found.  An ancient rock carving depicts King Ramses III making an offering to the goddess Hathor.  





After exploring the ancient mine, smelter and religious sites, we turned our attention to an earlier geologic time, embodied by the dramatic sandstone rocks in the park.  I'm sure my geologist father could have explained how these rocks were created by the Syro-African Rift, the 4,000-mile fault line running from Syria to Mozambique.



For me it was enough to wonder at the beauty of the rock formations sculpted by wind and water over the millennia.  There are the 165-foot high King Solomon's Pillars that have nothing to do with King Solomon but are grand enough to please any ruler.  There was the craggy red-orange arch that formed a window through which we could see a patch of deep blue sky.  We climbed up, over and through the rocks, once squeezing through an opening so narrow I thought I might get stuck in the middle.

 

I also wondered at the hearty people who had lived and worked in that arid climate.  It was in the upper nineties (Fahrenheit) as we explored the park.  The metal railings and handgrips strategically placed to aid us in our climb were sometimes almost too hot to touch.  Despite my hat, sunglasses and large bottle of water, I had to make periodic retreats into the shade of one of the caves.

The spare desert landscape was dotted with a few acacia trees.  As might be expected, these trees have an ancient history of their own.  The Egyptians considered them to be the tree of life.  We saw how its branches provided shade for a mother ibex and her baby, a service that is available wherever the trees grow in the desert.  Its deep roots, which enable it to survive droughts, also help to anchor the sand, slowing down erosion.



Like most things in this part of the world, the tree's history has biblical dimensions.  Wood from the acacia tree was used to make the Ark of the Covenant, the chest that cradled the Ten Commandments.  Some believe that the burning bush Moses encountered on Mt. Sinai was an acacia tree.  One Hebrew University psychology professor, Benny Shannon, has even suggested that Moses was high on a substance made from the bark of the acacia tree when he saw the burning bush.

Our visit to Timna Park took us back to the Stone Age and beyond as we tried to imagine what it must have been like to graduate from stone tools to metal ones and to survive in that harsh environment.  Knowing that early inhabitants of the area would have marveled at the same massive stone pillars and sought shade in the same caves helped bridge the thousands of years separating us.
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