Invisible Nomads

Credit: Susan Ackerman, July 2015; ASOR

In Numbers 21, Israel continued its travels east, attacking Arad, moving from Mount Hor to avoid Edom, and then onto the banks of the Arnon River. In moving across the rift valley and into the Transjordan, they crossed the Aravah, the arid region stretching from the Dead Sea going south to the Gulf of Aqaba.

Archaeological studies in this region highlight the limitations of the field of archaeology, and have important implications for arguments about the United Monarchy of King David and Solomon.

The Aravah region contains two major copper deposits that were major ancient copper production sites: Faynan in Jordan and Timna in southern Israel.

Faynan is located in southern Jordan, roughly 20 miles southeast of the Dead Sea. At its peak, Faynan was possibly the largest copper production facility in the eastern Mediterranean after Cyprus, the island which gave Latin and later English the term copper. Remains of the activity at Faynan are evidenced in the 200,000 tons of slag residue from smelting activities and thousands of mines.

Timna, situated north of Eilat, Israel, was a large copper production facility in the Late Bronze Age and into the Iron Age. It too contains vast slag remains and ancient mines, evidence of the large scale copper production that occurred on-site.

Notably, the production at these sites in the Iron Age does not appear to be associated with any of the major powers in the region. For example, in the Late Bronze Age at Timnah, Egypt controlled the site, as seen with an Egyptian temple to Hathor, an Egyptian goddess. By contrast, in the 10th and 9th centuries BCE, evidence for Egyptian control is absent. Instead, the copper production sites appear to have been run by a nomadic kingdom. One suggestion is that the site was run by a nomadic Edomite kingdom. Others suggestions are the Midianites or another nomadic group.

The operational activities at both Faynan and Timnah were highly complex. The sites were arid, and required vast quantities of water, food, slaves, wood and mining equipment to be procured and transported to and managed on-site. This required a high degree of organization and cooperation.

Nomads do not easily appear in the archaeological record. Nomads do not leave the developed sites, fixed buildings and monumental architecture that archaeologists use to determine the size and power of typical settled kingdoms.

Faynan and Timnah demonstrate that nomads were capable of highly complex organizational activities despite lacking a permanent capital or home site. Jerusalem in the 10th century BCE does not appear to be a highly developed capital. But the finds at Faynan and Timnah show that it need not have been to be able to lead a complex kingdom of associated tribes. A 10th century BCE Kingdom of Israel led from Judah by a King David or King Solomon may have had a large nomadic component that does not appear in the archaeological record, but that still was able to control and direct resources at a distance from Jerusalem.

The image above is of the remains of an Iron Age fortress at Khirbat en-Nahas, in the Faynan region of Jordan.