The above picture was taken in Timna, Israel, where mining copper has been going on over the past 8,000 years. You see the mountains bordering the Great Rift Valley in the background. I am walking across the stone floor of the valley toward three capped Egyptian mine shafts (Bronze Age). In the picture below, you see a close-up view of what the blue-green copper ore looks like, forming the surface of the Timna valley floor. The stone floor is covered by a thin layer of loose sand and stone fragments.
Timna’s copper ore is Malachite, of which copper oxide represents 70% by weight. The following picture shows a chunk of Malachite showing its colors on the valley floor.
To separate the copper from the Malachite, you must crush the ore, heat it, remove the oxygen, and separate the impurities which represent the other 30% by weight. The oxygen must be reduced out of its bond with the copper, which can be done by sealing the oven and burning charcoal which leaches out the oxygen (forming CO and CO2), releasing the copper to flow into a catchment. The catchment would probably be stone, with the shape of an ingot carved in its surface. After the oven cools and is unsealed, the “slag” of solid impurities is removed and the ingot is extracted. Check this Wikipedia link for a thorough introduction to smelting copper. To solidify your understanding of this process, you might watch this video demonstration of primitive smelting on a smaller scale.
In the picture above, you see a ladder leading down into a Timna Chalcolithic copper mine shaft. The mine dates to 7,000 BP. I went down a shaft and the following two pictures give a view from below. The first shows the base of the ladder facing lateral shafts going away.
The photo below shows a view in the other direction towards two other vertical shafts with sunlight reaching the tunnel floor. (ignore the circle in the middle which is a lens reflection)
The mining technique was to follow a copper ore vein vertically down into the stone about ten feet and then begin digging tunnels horizontally following the veins of Malachite. You’ll note above that natural light and ventilation were managed by the spacing of the vertical shafts. Because of summer heat in this desert (up to 88° F) and the inability to circulate fresh air underground, Egyptian mining of commodity copper below ground at Timna in the Bronze age became the sentence of criminals and of unskilled or rebellious slaves. However, in the earlier Chalcolithic age, copper would have been a luxury product of great value and the work would have been done by ambitious men in some secrecy. The miners would likely have done as much of the work as they could in private, keeping the shaft locations and processes jealously secret. I illustrate this in the novels by the secrecy of the En Gedi priests who have their own mines, smelter, and smithy operations, producing items illustrated by the following photos of the Nahal Mishmar horde which was found in a cave in the vicinity.
The prehistoric Chalcolithic mines are similar to the subsequent, historic Egyptian middle Bronze Age mines, except in scale. Egyptian mines are more methodical, and there are 8,000 Egyptian mine shafts compared to perhaps a few dozen Chalcolithic shafts. Of course, we don’t know how many Chalcolithic shafts were taken over and expanded by the Egyptians, becoming “Egyptian mines.” Probably quite a few, but an insignificant number in the face of the scope of Egyptian operations. We could see the veins of copper (turquoise blue) in the face of the stone underfoot, and that’s where they’d bore down to follow the veins of ore, going down through the rock 5 to 50 feet, then laterally to follow that or another vein, adding boreholes to the surface for air and light. I climbed down one Chalcolithic shaft (see photos above) showing these features.
I also visited a Chalcolithic smelting site, divided into three distinct ruins. Area (1) was composed of storage sheds for charcoal, copper ore, iron oxide, and other minerals used for slag. Area (2) was a smelter about the size of the one Wergos and Akwar built at their first ore mine in Raising Up Pharaoh. Both areas are adjoining and shown below.
After deliberation about whether to caravan huge quantities of wood to smelt copper in the desert or to caravan heavy loads of ore to smelt near the forest, Wergos and Akwar decided to use charcoal to solve the fuel problem i.e. make charcoal where the wood is, and carry very large quantities of the very light charcoal to the oven. The ore here at Timna appears to have been very rich, because after smelting they removed the puddled copper from the concave bottom of the smelter in the form of a standard ingot. However, in the Bronze Age, the Egyptians continued to charge the Timna smelter with fresh charcoal, ore, and slag, until they got a big enough ingot for shipping. That’s what I’ll want Wergos and Akwar to do in their mines at Kapos, in the seventh book of the Raising Up Pharaoh series.
Area (3) was a miners’ Temple with seven standing stones. There was a description of how the Egyptians, and miners from other lands, viewed the Egyptian goddess Hathor, goddess of copper and of miners. Hathor took the forms of a cow and of a beautiful woman. How they worshiped her was a bit more graphic than we need to record here! That’s the Hathor temple below.
The mining operations of the Egyptians, over a thousand years after the Chalcolithic mines, were on a large scale. There were 8,000 surface bore holes, which have all filled with blowing dust over the later millennia. Only a few have been excavated. The movie at the site said the Egyptians took their ingots to Ezion-Geber, where they shipped them by sea to their shore, thus avoiding an arduous caravan trip across the Sinai. However, considering the city of Arad flourished in Chalcolithic times, I suspect the Chalcolithic smelters probably transshipped west across the Negev to Gaza on the Mediterranean coast, as-well-as north along the Jordan to Jericho.
Reflections on the Prehistoric Miners of Timna
The Timna Valley opens west of the Arabah, 20 miles north of Eilat. The landscape reminds me of the first pictures of moonscape taken by astronaut Armstrong. But what was done in this valley — the first known mining of copper — changed mankind’s future. Nothing less than that! The mining started small, and grew slowly, long before men recorded history, about 8,000 BP.
After the first men collected copper nuggets in the area, someone discovered fire could melt more copper out of a crushed pile of the rocks they found the nuggets in — not much to our eyes, but more than they could find in nuggets. This first smelting was nothing more than melting. Most of the copper was trapped in the malachite ore as copper oxide, about 70% by weight.
Since wood wasn’t locally available, it needed to be transported to this desolate valley. Some practical man thought it would be smarter to use charcoal, which he could produce in the forest, allowing him to carry much more fuel for smelting on each trip. For a small amount of charcoal produces the same heat as a large pile of wood. I doubt he was thinking of anything else.
The results were astounding. I’d love to see his face as he looked at his increased yield, after the charcoal in his oven removed the oxygen from the malachite ore. Miners were probably content for generations with the increased yield. Then another bright man stumbled upon crushing and mixing the local iron ore with the malachite and charcoal, producing another leap in yield.
The locally run mines and smelters prospered as production grew from those prehistoric achievements until the early third millennium. They shipped the ingots in caravans across the Negev desert, or north, under the paid protection of warrior kingdoms such as Arad. The Negev was growing dryer, but such kingdoms were still sustainable, with the copper trade.
For reasons we don’t understand, both the mining industry and Arad were snuffed out about 2,700 BC — and lay dormant over a thousand years. The mines were resurrected in 1,500 BC, and productivity was ramped up by the Egyptians for about 300 years, but not Arad, for the copper was now shipped to Egypt through Ezion-Geber and the Red Sea. I wish I knew all the stories.