Israel: Timna Valley discovery shows ancient eco damage


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Excavating Slaves’ Hill in Israel's Timna Valley.
Courtesy of Hai Ashkenazi, courtesy of the Central Timna Valley ProjectExcavating Slaves’ Hill in Israel's Timna Valley.

'In essence, they destroyed the environment completely,' Erez Ben-Yosef explains to i24NEWS

A new publication from Israel's Tel Aviv University explains how 11th-ninth century BCE environmental exploitation has continued to affect the country's southern desert region. 

Researchers, in a study conducted by Ph.D. student Mark Cavanagh, Prof. Erez Ben-Yosef, and Dr. Dafna Langgut, collected samples of charcoal from mines used as fuel for metallurgical furnaces in the Timna Valley, where the copper industry flourished for a period of about 250 years.

Ben-Yosef told i24NEWS that this study began in 2012, a decade ago, and explained that the mines investigated dated back to the "periods of King David and Solomon." 

According to the researchers, Timna's copper industry was highly advanced for its time, with copper being extracted from the ore via smelting in a process that took roughly eight hours. 

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The wood charcoal used to reach the high temperatures needed for this process was manufactured beforehand at particular sites, done by slow combustion of trees and bushes that were cut down for this purpose.

"The copper industry at Timna was first discovered about 200 years ago, and ever since, every researcher who visited the area has asked the same question: What fuel was used to heat the smelting furnaces?" Cavanagh explained.

"Since vegetation is very sparse in this desert area, where did the firewood come from? To finally solve this mystery, we collected samples of charcoal from the smelting sites and examined them in the lab."

The researchers discovered that, while earlier samples of the fuel used contained mainly local white broom and acacia thorn trees, the quality of the firewood deteriorated over time. The later samples, well-preserved thanks to the desert climate, consisted of low-quality wood fuel and timber imported from afar.

This change, according to the study, was due to overexploitation that destroyed natural resources in the area - including high-quality firewood. Ben-Yosef noted one production site, named the "Slaves' Hill," burned as many as 400 acacias and 1,800 brooms yearly. 

"As these resources dwindled, the industry looked for other solutions, as evidenced by the changing composition of the charcoal," Ben-Yosef stated.  

However, transporting the wood from afar did not prove cost-effective, and eventually, the mines were shut down in the ninth century BCE. 

Ben-Yosef explained to i24NEWS, "In essence, they destroyed the environment completely," resulting in the mines being shut down. 

"We still, today, can see it in the absence of some species of plants that were never recovered." 

Courtesy of Erez Ben-Yosef and the Central Timna Valley Project
Courtesy of Erez Ben-Yosef and the Central Timna Valley ProjectInvestigating a pile of industrial waste mixed with charcoal on Slaves’ Hill, Timna Valley, Israel.

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