The site of Timna is located in Israel, 30 km north of the Gulf of Aqaba (). Currently, it is a nature park with many activities, but it is also an important site for metallurgy since it is the oldest copper mining site in the Middle East, which was already exploited in the 4th millennium BC by the local people. The locality is particularly inhospitable, without water, without vegetation other than a few spiny thorn bushes, and it is dominated by an infernal heat.
It was under the nineteenth dynasty that the Egyptians, who had a vital need for copper, became aware of the value of the site they designated by the name of Gebel Athak (or Atak, Atika).
The site has the shape of a rocky circle about 5 km in diameter, open to the east and bounded on the other faces by cliffs up to 300 m high, at the bottom of which are dug cylindrical pits. At the center of this circle is Mount Timna, some of whose walls are carved by erosion, giving impressive slender promontories, which have been called "Pillars of Solomon". Erosion has also shaped other bizarre rock structures, such as this famous mushroom ().
It was Nelson Glueck who, in the 1930s, attributed Timna's copper mines to King Solomon (10th century BC); he was wrong, but sometimes we continue to talk about "King Solomon's Mines" to designate the site.
Copper was the most important metal during the Bronze Age (bronze is an alloy of copper and tin) and had a high market value. In addition to within metallurgy, copper and copper salts had many other uses in ancient Egypt: in drugs, as pigments and as colouring agents in enamels and glass. But Egypt had little copper and that was sourced from mines in the eastern desert, in Sinai (Serabit el-Khadim) and later in wadi Arabah (Timna).
Above all the systematic study of the Arabah Expedition, under the leadership of Beno Rothenberg (1969-1984), was responsible for the identification of numerous archaeological sites in Timna: miners' pits and galleries, dry stones walls enclosing habitats, small sanctuary and work areas, furnaces for ore smelting, slag heaps, shrines, rock art and burials.
According to Rothenberg, there is mention of Timna under the name "Atika" in the Papyrus Harris I 78; 1-5 (Ramses III era), because we are talking about access to the mine by land and sea. The site is also mentioned in The first book of Samuel 30:30 under the name "Athak".
In Timna, traces of copper mining and metallurgy can be found from the fourth millennium BC. and there one can follow the gradual development of the metallurgical processes employed. Timna is the largest copper mining site in Egypt known to date. Mining activity reached its peak during the nineteenth and twentieth dynasties, but the Egyptian presence may be far older.
It was Ramses II who may in year 7, during the campaign against the country of Edom, have pacified the region and organized the lasting presence of Egyptians. This wise decision allowed the Two Lands to face the great changes that shook the Middle East in the 13th century BC, while other empires - like that of the Hittites for example - collapsed.
It seems that some local populations (Midianites, native to the eastern shore of the Gulf of Aqaba and Amelekites) became partners of the Egyptians, which would explain the coexistence of two different techniques of ore processing in the New Kingdom. It also seems that, besides their modest places of worship in the camps, these men participated in the worship of Hathor in her sanctuary.
After a period of uncertainty due to the disorder that surrounds the end of the nineteenth dynasty, Ramses III took matters into his own hands. He launched a great military expedition around year 20 of his reign to pacify the region and raised a fortress on the "Ways of Horus", housing troops able to oversee the whole region. It was indeed a question of recreating a permanent Egyptian presence in the mines, because the copper needs of Egypt were more and more important.
The Timna mines in the time of the Egyptians are formed by a series of shallow cylindrical pits (, ) connected by underground galleries. The wells can go down to about thirty meters before reaching the copper vein, which a winding gallery follows as far as possible.
According to Craddock (1995):
"The wells are small, shallow, and although connected by underground tunnels, there does not seem to be an overall mining strategy or a knowledge of ventilation and drainage options".
The tools for this work are rudimentary, of stone, more rarely copper, and even more rarely of bronze ()
The ore once extracted is melted in small furnaces found in workshops like .
The ore consists of a mixture of azurite, chrysocolla, malachite, pseudomalachite, and of turquoise, which gives it a blue or greenish colour (see ).
The first type of copper found is native copper, often nodular, which requires only simple operations and a moderate temperature to melt it; it does not leave slag.
To exploit less rich veins and with more complex composition, takes a higher temperature and uses a procedure called fluxing. This 'flow' in metallurgy is a stage which makes it possible to protect the metal from oxidation and /or to make a molten metal more fluid. Usually, iron oxide is used as a flux. In this case, the fusion results in the production of mineral-iron slag and reduced copper. This copper is in the form of spiculated clusters, mixed in with ash and slag, or in the form of a slab at the bottom of the furnace.
In Timna, to obtain 1 kg of copper metal, about 5 kg of copper ore, 50 kg of coal and 20 kg of iron ore were needed.
At the base of the oven are four reed nozzles ("pipes") connected to foot bellows (). Each man has his feet attached to two bellows and switches his weight from one to the other: while he flattens the right bellows, he raises his left foot at the same time as he pulls on a rope fixed to a valve flap, thus facilitating the entry of air into the left bellows. This action is well represented in the tomb of Rekhmire, .
The molten metal (at 1200 ° C) appears in a crucible that two men hold tight with wooden rods and which they tilt to let the liquid metal pour into a mould (, ). We cannot help but shudder thinking about the fragility of the rods and the working conditions of the founders…
I owe the reconstructed images of a furnace to melt the ore (which are reproductions of some of those at Timna), to the kindness of Philippe Andrieux, paleometallurgist, whom I thank. He worked especially on the operation of the Bronze and Iron Age foundry workshops. It shows the archaeoexperimental application of Rothenberg's work.
The reconstruction is based on the following excavation results:
- a hole in the soil, reddened by the action of iron oxides and containing slag.
- Immediately surrounding it, a layer of flat stones bearing traces of the action of a very high temperature, on which slag is sometimes stuck.
To rebuild the furnace, simply gather the small slabs, placing their heat discoloured side around the centre hole, facing inward.
The heating is done with bellows and wind pipes or nozzles (rarely found as they are made very fragile by the intense heat). All that remains is to regularly feed in charcoal () and ore ... and to pump! The liquid metal is then poured into moulds carved in the stone; different forms are possible, the most frequent is that of a rectangle with four 'ear' handles ().
Once the ingots were poured, they were transported to Egypt either by transiting through a port of the Red Sea, then by boat to an Egyptian port, or by land only, through the "Ways of Horus" then through the Delta.
Throughout the duration of occupation of the site by the Egyptians, the temple represented the main worship place of the miners. Originally, the local people had excavated an altar in the cliff. On the arrival of the Egyptians, a rectangular naos was built in front of this altar; the alter excavation was then widened into a vast niche to shelter a statue of the goddess Hathor. The sanctuary was later restored once more, then rebuilt by Ramses III.
Three divinities shared the temple, but it was the goddess Hathor who had the pre-eminence. Hathor, lady of turquoise, protector of the miners, is the tutelary deity of the
"country of mefkat" which covers the Sinai and the south Arabah. This term mefkat refers to turquoise, and probably also malachite and copper ore, but not copper metal (Levene). For the Egyptians, the metal is not riches given by the earth, it is a product of transformation, of a nature differing from that of the ore and not dependent on Hathor.
It seems that the Egyptian rites and those of the local Midianites coexisted within the temple. After the departure of the Egyptians, only the local rites continued. The naos was dismantled and the decorations of the blocks effaced, to give the illusion of natural elements; finally, the structure was entirely covered with fabrics to imitate a tent.
The temple was excavated by the Rothenberg Expedition, then underwent anastylosis in 1984.
More than 11,000 votive deposits were found: copper, clay or stone figurines, fragments of broken vessels, objects of copper, gold, lead, and a large quantity of bone and fish bones. Among the objects offered, thirty bore the names of nine kings of Egypt, all of the nineteenth or twentieth dynasty.
In November 2017, the tomb of a pregnant woman was first found in Timna; the tumulus is near the temple of Hathor in which this woman probably officiated as a singer ().
The indigenous miners also had many simple little shrines, including standing stones, offering tables, stone basins, as shown in the view opposite.