Archaeology news: Israel discovery of 6,500-year ‘high tech’ workshop could change history

The groundbreaking discovery comes off the back of a three-year study in the city of Beer Sheva in southern Israel’s Negev Desert. Since 2017, archaeological excavations in the city’s Neveh Noy neighbourhood have uncovered what appears to have once been a workshop smelting copper ore. And according to researchers from Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority, the site may have made the world’s first use of the furnace.

Talia Abulafia, director of the excavation on behalf of 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 a furnace – a small installation made of tin in which copper ore was smelted – as well as a lot of copper slag.”

The Chalcolithic or Copper Age describes a period between the fourth and third centuries BC in the Near East and parts of southeast Europe.

Although this archaeological period shows signs of copper tools being produced, it is still considered to be part of the Neolithic or Stone Age.

Most of the tools manufactured during this time were made of stone and the name itself, Chalcolithic, comes from the Greek words for copper and stone.

An analysis of the isotopes of ore found at Neveh Noy suggests the ore was transported there from Wadi Faynan in what is modern-day Jordan, more than 60 miles (100km) away.

What is surprising, during this period, is the copper ore was processed far from where it was mined.

Typically, furnaces would have been constructed at the mines to maximise efficiency.

But the researchers have proposed the drawn-out process of transporting ore to far off workshops was a means of protecting the technology.

Professor Ben-Yosef at Tel Aviv University said: “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.

“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.”

It is also very likely that very few members of an elite group knew the secrets of how to process the metal.

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A chemical analysis of the remnants has found the workshop had its own special “recipe” not seen anywhere else in the region.

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

“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 is also possible the technology was invented elsewhere and based directly on crucible-based metallurgy.

Professor 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 study was led by archaeologists from the Jacob M Alkow Department of Archeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations at Tel Aviv University, alongside experts from the Israel Antiquities Authority and Geological Survey of Israel.

The study’s results were published on September 25 in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

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