Bronze figurines shed light on Egyptian-Israeli trade during King David’s time

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Did a massive trade route exist about 3,000 years ago between Egypt and Timna, home to the iconic copper mines that became famous as the “King Solomon Mines” located in the southern region of modern Israel ?

An innovative new study led by Dr Shirly Ben-Dor Evian, curator of the Israel Museum for Egyptian Archeology and Professor Erez Ben-Yosef, head of the archaeometallurgy laboratory at Tel Aviv University and director of excavations to Timna, suggests the answer is yes.

The study analyzed the bronze composition of four 3,000-year-old figurines from the museum’s collection found in the necropolis of Tanis, an Egyptian city in the Delta region that served as the capital of its regional kingdom. The researchers were able to ensure that the copper used to produce the metal was mined in Timna.

The results – recently published in the academic journal Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports – shed new light on the relationship between Egypt and the populations of the Levant. And according to Ben Yosef, they offer one more element to support his view that a nomadic kingdom at the time could constitute a rich and sophisticated society capable of maintaining complex business relationships with foreign entities, offering important information not only on what was happening to Timna. – which, according to him, was part of the biblical kingdom of Edom – but also of the Jerusalem of King David and King Solomon.

The four artifacts – known as the Shabti – are typical funerary figurines that have been used in Egypt for millennia.

“In ancient Egypt, all subjects were required to devote time during the year to forced labor for the kingdom,” said Ben-Dor Evian. “Only members of the elite benefited from a special dispensation from the king. However, it was feared that this exemption would not be granted in the afterlife. For this reason, members of the upper classes were buried with these figurines, which they believed to act as their servants and work on their behalf.

The Egyptologist noted that sometimes the shabtis in a tomb numbered in the hundreds – one for each day of the year, plus a few special figurines who would act and overseers as well as a few extras, in case one of the servants was not. able to work. Artifacts often featured items such as baskets or agricultural implements.

While for several centuries shabtis were made from several materials, including earthenware – a primitive form of glass – pottery and wood, during the Third Intermediate Period (1070-664 BCE) bronze has become a very popular material, including for funeral figurines.

“For decades, the prevalence of bronze objects has been an archaeological mystery as we do not know of any mining sites in Egypt at the time,” said Ben-Dor Evian.

For this reason, the researcher came up with the idea of ​​examining the bronze of a group of artifacts in the museum’s collection. The figurines were chosen because they bore the names of King Psusennes I, his wife and the leader of his army, well-known historical figures dating from the second half of the 11th century BCE.

At the time, Egypt was divided and not as powerful as a few centuries ago.

“Yet we see how he continued to influence the region of the Levant, as shown for example in the iconography of the region, including in some of the seals used by the King of Judah,” said Ben-Dor Evian. “You could describe it as a cultural influence. We know that trade can be a powerful source for this.

The expert contacted Ben Yosef and with a group of doctoral students they performed the isotopic analysis of lead on the figurines. For all, the copper was traced to Timna.

“Prior to our study, only one other similar study had been conducted, on an individual bronze object in Germany,” said Ben Yosef. “Also in this case, the copper was from Timna.”

While it may still be premature to assert that the large amount of copper used in Egypt at the time was fully mined at Timna, the fact that five analyzed objects all returned with the same result offers a strong argument for suggest that an important trade route between the two regions existed.

According to Ben Yosef, this development has further highlighted the sophistication of the society present in Timna.

The Timna mines were traditionally associated with King Solomon and the Kingdom of Israel, until an excavation in the late 1960s revealed a small Egyptian temple that has been brought forward as evidence that mining activity was linked to Egypt and dated back to the 13th century BCE some 200 years before King David.

After Ben Yosef started digging again in 2013, radiocarbon dating of the organic material found proved that the most intense activity at the site occurred around 1000 BCE, during the time of David and Solomon , when Egypt was no longer powerful.

While the archaeologist believes Timna was part of the Edomite kingdom, which figures prominently in the Bible, he also suggested that what was happening in Timna was still very much related to the vicissitudes of contemporary Jerusalem.

Jerusalem could have indirectly controlled the mines – as the biblical text itself suggests when it recounts how David conquered Edom.

Some scholars believe that the kingdom of David and Solomon could not have been as powerful as that described in the Bible, as archaeological remains from the time are very rare. However, according to Ben Yosef, the finds at Timna as well as the massive scale of its mining without any evidence of significant buildings offer evidence that a rich and powerful territorial entity could have existed without leaving such archaeological remains.

Ben-Dor Evian does not believe that cultural affiliation with Timna can be proven at this stage, but agrees on the importance of his operations.

Looking to the future, researchers hope to better understand the centuries that followed, and especially what happened in terms of relations between Egypt and the Levant under Sheshonq, who descended on the throne of Tanis around 950 BC. era and is known to have launched a military campaign against the Kingdom of Israel, both from archaeological evidence and from the biblical text.

“In the fifth year of King Rehoboam, King Shishak of Egypt marched against Jerusalem and took away the treasures of the house of the Lord and the treasures of the royal palace. He took everything away; he even took away all the golden shields that Solomon had made, ”we read in a passage from the Book of Kings.

How did the war influence the copper trade? An isotopic analysis of lead from contemporary artefacts might be able to provide answers.


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