3,000-year-old Egyptian figurines shed light on Bronze Age collapse

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New Israeli study reveals previously unknown trade relationship between ancient Egypt and the Arava region, located in present-day Israel and Jordan

Three thousand years ago, powerful and advanced civilizations in the Near East and the Mediterranean disappeared.

Major cities were destroyed, diplomatic and trade relations were severed, and entire writing systems apparently disappeared overnight.

The mysterious circumstances surrounding what is known as the collapse of the Late Bronze Age (circa 1177 BCE) – as well as what followed shortly thereafter – have long stalked historians and archaeologists. The dominant view of historians is that a dark age has reigned in the region for several centuries, marked by violence and the collapse of society.

However, a new Israeli study done indicates that the devastation may not have been as complete as previously believed, at least as far as Egypt is concerned.

Dr Shirly Ben-Dor Evian, curator of Egyptian archeology at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, and Professor Erez Ben-Yosef, head of the archaeometallurgy laboratory at Tel Aviv University, led a team of researchers who performed a chemical analysis on the copper inside four 3,000-year-old Egyptian bronze funerary figures called oushabtis.

Ushabti, or funerary figurine, of the high official Wendjebauendjed. It was one of the bronze figurines analyzed by the researchers. (Elie Posner / Israel Museum, Jerusalem)

The figurines, from the museum’s collection, come from a treasury of precious metals and stones that were found inside a royal necropolis in Tanis, which once served as the capital for the pharaohs of the 21st Dynasty, who reigned over the kingdom of Lower Egypt.

“We saw that the copper came from these mines in the Arava region, which today has a Jordanian part and an Israeli part,” Ben-Dor Evian told The Media Line. “It was interesting to see that all four figures had the same signature brass, which we all know came from the same place.”

The findings, which were recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, point out that Egypt apparently continued to play an important role in the region despite internal conflicts and the decline of empires following the collapse of the age. bronze.

As its empire declined, Egypt split into two kingdoms.

“It is a very dark period in terms of Egypt’s foreign relations,” Ben-Dor Evian explained.

Entrance gallery of the Samuel and Saidye Bronfman Archaeological Wing at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. (Elie Posner / Israel Museum, Jerusalem)

Due to the lack of textual records, researchers hoped that an analysis of Egyptian material culture, that is, its objects, would help provide more answers about this murky time.

“Our study is the first to conduct a large sampling process on artifacts from around 1000 BCE,” she said. “[Tanis] was a new city founded by these new kings after the collapse of the empire. They needed a lot of copper for the bronze tools to build the city.

The team discovered that the copper used in the figurines had been imported by the pharaohs in Egypt from the deserts of present day southern Israel and Jordan, specifically the copper mines in Timna (Israel) and Feynan. (Jordan).

This in turn demonstrates that the ancient kingdom continued to engage in international trade after its decline, contrary to what was previously believed.

“It changes the way we understand what happens after the [Bronze Age] collapse, ”said Ben-Dor Evian. “When we talk about collapse, we think there is a dark age, no international trade and a lot of regionalism. But once you look at copper, you see a different view of it. “

The findings also raise many interesting questions about the mining industry in the Arava region during a period that has long been associated with Biblical King David (although it is important to note that there is a lack of definitive archaeological evidence for its existence).

“We now have a very interesting context for David’s activities in the region and his ambition to control this region and the copper industry,” Professor Erez Ben-Yosef, head of the archaeometallurgy laboratory, told The Media Line. from Tel Aviv University.

Copper – the main ingredient in bronze – can be traced back to its original mining source through isotopic analysis of lead.

“We were able to find the signature of the Arava mines in these Egyptian materials,” said Ben-Yosef, who led archaeological expeditions to Timna for more than a decade. “We had to take a certain amount of real metal [in the figurines] and we had to dissolve it in a very strong solution.

In order to do as little damage as possible, the researchers took only tiny samples of the ancient artifacts.

As for Ben-Dor Evian, she thinks the findings only scratch the surface of our understanding of this little-studied period of history.

“Once you change your outlook on this period, you will discover more aspects of this international trade and exchange,” she said. “Significance is a new way of looking at interconnectivity in the 10th century BCE. It gives us a whole new understanding of what was going on in the southern Levant, at least from that perspective.


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