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Archeologists Unearthed a 6,500 Year-Old ‘Furnace’ in Beersheba

“It’s important to understand that the refining of copper was the high tech of that period.”

Ann Moises

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  • Archeologists discovered a 6,500 year-old workshop for smelting copper ore in Neveh Noy neighborhood in Beersheba, Israel in 2017.
  • The study conducted based on the archeological find suggested that Beersheba could have been home to the world’s first furnace.
  • Expert said this is a significant discovery because refining copper during that period was considered ‘high tech.’

During an Israel Antiquities Authority emergency archeological excavation in Beersheba in 2017, they discovered a workshop.

Over the course of three years, a team of experts from the Jacob M. Alkow Department of Archeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations at Tel Aviv University together with Israel Antiquities Authority and the Geological Survey of Israel studied this archeological find.

The results of their study revealed that a workshop from smelting copper operated in Beersheba 6,500 years ago.

Moreover, it showed the degree of technical advancement in that era and region.

“It’s important to understand that the refining of copper was the high tech of that period. There was no technology more sophisticated than that in the whole of the ancient world,” said Professor Erez Ben-Yosef of the Tel Aviv University.

“Tossing lumps of ore into a fire will get you nowhere. You need certain knowledge for building special furnaces that can reach very high temperatures while maintaining low levels of oxygen,” he added.

It also gives evidence to a theory that there was a ‘defined elite’ that had the expertise of creating shiny copper.

Members of this group probably kept the knowledge of the process a secret in order to preserve their influence and hold a privileged position. This suggests that a hierarchy in the society existed, although it was not yet urbanized.

According to the Jerusalem Post, the copper objects served some spiritual purpose and had a symbolic value; they were not meant to be used. Common objects for everyday use were still made of stone then.

Talia Abulafia, director of the excavation from the Israel Antiquities Authority said:

“The excavation revealed evidence for domestic production from the Chalcolithic period, about 6,500 years ago. The surprising finds include a small workshop for smelting copper with shards of furnace – a small installation made of tin in which copper ore was smelted – as well as a lot of copper slag.”

The Chalcolithic (from the Greek words ‘copper’ and ‘stone’) period was named as such because, although metalworking was already apparent, the tools people used were still made of stone.

They analyzed the isotopes of ore fragments in the furnace shards. Consequently, they found out that the raw ore came from Wadi Faynan.
Photo: Institute of Archeology, Tel-Aviv University

Wadi Faynan is located in the present day Jordan. The raw ore was brought more than 100 km to Neveh Noy neighborhood in Beersheba.

Furnaces would have been built near the mines to maximize efficiency. However, the researchers think that it was refined far from where it was mined to safeguard the technological secret.

After analyzing the remnants, they likewise discovered that the workshop had its ‘own special formula’ found only in the region.

“At the first stage of humankind’s copper production, crucibles rather than furnaces were used,” said Ben-Yosef.

“This small pottery vessel, which looks like a flower pot, is made of clay. It was a type of charcoal-based mobile furnace. Here, at the Neveh Noy workshop that the Israel Antiquities Authority uncovered, we show that the technology was based on real furnaces.

“This provides very early evidence for the use of furnaces in metallurgy and it raises the possibility that the furnace was invented in this region. It’s also possible the furnace was invented elsewhere, directly from crucible-based metallurgy, because some scientists view early furnaces as no more than large crucibles buried in the ground,” Ben-Yosef added.

“The debate will only be settled by future discoveries, but there is no doubt that ancient Beer Sheva played an important role in advancing the global metal revolution and that in the fifth millennium BCE the city was a technological powerhouse for this whole region.”

The results of the study were published on September 25 in the esteemed Journal of Archeological Science.

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