In one of the most important archaeological discoveries from the era of Kings David and Solomon, Tel Aviv University researchers have unearthed a trove of over 100 fabric pieces dating back at least 3,000 years. Excavated near Eilat in the Timna copper mines of the Arava Valley (which is thought by some to be the location of King Solomon’s mines), the fabric collection is highly diverse and includes textiles and ropes made from various materials such as wool and goat hair. The pieces also differ in color, size (some pieces are as small as 5 cm x 5 cm), design, and technique. The team surmises that they were used not only for clothes but also for donkey saddles, cloth sacks, ropes, and tents. The fabrics are thought to have been imported to the mine site from far away, as the inhospitable desert made raising sheep and goats a difficult prospect.
This discovery opens a new window into the lifestyles and social structures that defined Israel thousands of years ago. Due to their skill and the importance of metalwork to ancient Israel, the Edomite coppersmiths of Timna held a high position in society. According to Dr. Erez Ben-Yosef, the excavation team leader, “If a person had the exceptional knowledge to ‘create copper,’ he was considered well-versed in an extremely sophisticated technology. He would have been considered magical or supernatural, and his social status would have reflected this. Dr. Ben-Yosef goes on to say, “The wide variety of fabrics also provides new and important information about the Edomites, who, according to the Bible, warred with the Kingdom of Israel. We found simply woven, elaborately decorated fabrics worn by the upper echelon of their stratified society. Luxury-grade fabric adorned the highly skilled, highly respected craftsmen managing the copper furnaces. They were responsible for smelting the copper, which was a very complicated process.”
While the fabrics are not thought to have belonged to Israelites, they do provide an insight into fashion during the reigns of David and Solomon. As Dr. Ben-Yosef says, “We do not claim these are clothing of the Kingdom of Israel, but do assume the society in the 10th century BCE Arava wove cloth and dressed similarly to the manner in Jerusalem…They are the only textiles discovered from that era in the whole of the southern Levant. We have never found textile samples in Jerusalem, nor are we likely to.”
Also found at the dig site were thousands of seeds of the seven species for which Israel is known. The seeds were radiocarbon dated to confirm the age of the site. As Dr. Ben-Yosef notes, “This is the first time seeds from this period have been found uncharred and in such large quantities. With the advancement of modern science, we now enjoy research options that were unthinkable a few decades ago. We can reconstruct wine typical of King David’s era, for example, and understand the cultivation and domestication processes that have been preserved in the DNA of the seed.”
The fact that all these pieces have been preserved so well for thousands of years is due to to Timna’s unique environment. “The extreme aridity at Timna preserves organic remains that couldn’t have been preserved anywhere else, not at Megiddo or Lachish or Hatzor, and not even anywhere else in the Arava Valley.” Indeed, Timna is considered one of Israel’s best archaeological sites. It contains thousands of copper mines, rock drawings, furnaces, jewelry, and other items never before seen anywhere else in the world.
Dr. Ben Yosef and his team’s discovery is part of an ongoing project started in 2013 that is looking at, among other things, “copper production technology and the introduction of iron” as well as “regional and global political interactions and the economy of the southern Levant at that period.” The Timna mines are believed to have reached peak production, where they produced copper ingots shipped and sold to far-away markets for use in toolmaking, ornaments, and stone cutting. With this discovery and others like it, we are beginning to see just how complex the culture was at Timna and in broader Eretz Yisrael during the reigns of David and Solomon.