Metallurgy in the Ancient Levant

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© Courtesy of Badè Museum
Metallurgy in the Ancient Levant

Pacific School of Religion
1798 Scenic Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94709
October 5th, 2012 - April 5th, 2013

East Bay
(510) 849-8286
Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays 10:00am - 3:00pm or by appointment


“For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land - ... a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills,” - Deuteronomy 8: 7-9

The exploitation of metal is one of the most important technological innovations in human history. Metals were first used in ancient Israel/Palestine during the Chalcolithic Age (ca. 4300-3000 BCE). The word "chalcolithic" derives from the Greek words for "copper" (khalkos) and "stone" (lithikos). Copper is a naturally occurring soft, malleable metal that could be melted down and molded with relative ease. Copper was abundant and was mined for thousands of years in the southern Arabah desert. The metal seems to have been used by the inhabitants of the Chalcolithic era largely for personal adornment and as ceremonial objects. Because copper is so soft, it would not have been as practical as stone for use in agricultural tools or as weaponry. However, copper was highly valued as a luxury material, and was used to make beautiful items such as crowns and ceremonial maceheads.

Bronze began to be used widely around 3000 BCE. Initially, copper was alloyed with arsenic; around 2000 BCE true bronze, an alloy of 90% copper and 10% tin, took over. While sources of arsenic are local, tin had to be imported from afar. Tin, is found associated with granite rock, in Anatolia (modern Turkey), and in sources in Afghanistan. Stronger and more brittle than copper and stone, bronze represented a technologically advanced material used for weaponry, tool, and armor manufacturing.

Around 1000 BCE iron began to be used in ancient Israel. Unlike copper and tin, iron did not have to be mined from the ground but was extracted from ore on the earth’s surface. However, because the iron ore indigenous to ancient Israel was of poor quality, the Israelites may have imported iron ore from regions such as Syria, Gilead, or Anatolia. Iron that was made through a process called carburization (coming into contact with carbon) and then quenched (cooled) in cold water was the hardest and strongest metal available to the ancient Israelites. Therefore, iron replaced bronze as the metal of choice for weaponry as well as agricultural tools. Yet, bronze and copper continued to be used for the manufacture of specific products. For example, copper was used to make luxury bowls and cauldrons while bronze was used to produce statues, figurines, jewelry, and other vessels.