Ruins bolster legend of Solomon

Maugh is a Times staff writer.

A massive copper smelting plant in the biblical land of Edom is at least three centuries older than researchers previously believed, placing it firmly in the traditional timeline of King Solomon, considered the greatest ruler of Israel, researchers reported Monday.

The existence of Solomon 3,000 years ago has been questioned by some scholars over the last two decades because of the paucity of archaeological evidence supporting the biblical record and the belief that there were no complex societies in Israel or Edom capable of building fortresses, monuments and other sophisticated public works, such as large mines, in the 10th century BC.

“This is the most hotly debated period in biblical archaeology today,” said archaeologist Thomas E. Levy of UC San Diego, who reported the new radiocarbon dates for the copper smelting operation in modern-day Jordan in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We’re not answering the question” of whether Solomon existed, he said. “But we’ve brought empirical data that shows we have to reevaluate those questions. We’re back in the ballgame now.”

Archaeologist William Schniedewind of UCLA agreed, saying Levy “is completely right. The scientific evidence seems to be going in his favor.”


Critics, however, charge that Levy is overinterpreting the importance of the radiocarbon dates, because there is no evidence of habitation at the earliest dates to go with them. That suggests the site was operated periodically by nomads and not associated with any city or kingdom, much less an empire, according to archaeologist Piotr Bienkowski of the University of Manchester in Britain.

Without further evidence, “it is premature to start talking about links with a ‘biblical Solomon,’ ” he said.

Archaeologist Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University in Israel, added: “Taking the biblical description of King Solomon literally means ignoring two centuries of biblical research.”

The stories recounted in the Old Testament, he said, “depict the concerns, theology and background of the time of the writers” in the 5th century BC and cannot be accepted as factual.

According to the Old Testament, Solomon was the son of King David and Bathsheba who brought Israel to its ancient fruition, ruling an empire that stretched from the Euphrates to the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba. He is said to have built the First Temple in Jerusalem, amassed a fortune in gold and written the Book of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs.

The legendary King Solomon’s Mines of book and movie fame, however, were mythical gold and diamond mines in Africa, according to experts.

According to the Bible, Solomon reigned for 40 years before dying in 931 BC.

Finkelstein and others, however, have argued that Jerusalem was barely inhabited at that time and could not have been the center of an empire. This “minimalist” view holds that Israel did not develop into a true state until the 8th century BC.

The current center of the controversy is a 24-acre site called Khirbat en-Nahas -- Arabic for “ruins of copper” -- about 30 miles south of the Dead Sea and 30 miles north of the famed archaeological site of Petra in Jordan. It is the largest Iron Age copper factory in the Middle East.

The most notable characteristic of the site is the massive accumulation of black slag produced during the ancient smelting process. The site includes more than 100 buildings, including a fortress. Mines and mining trails abound.

Because wood was used to produce the heat for smelting, charcoal samples are available for dating. Two years ago, Levy reported radiocarbon dates from the site indicating that mining was taking place in the 10th century BC. Finkelstein and others objected, noting that archaeological evidence in the nearby highlands of Edom showed no evidence of habitation before the 8th century BC.

To answer those criticisms, Levy’s team excavated through 20 feet of slag near the center of the site, carefully documenting the location of each bit of charcoal and other artifacts. The charcoal was then dated by physicist Thomas Higham of Oxford University.

The bottom stratum of the site revealed a period of extensive mining that lasted for about 40 years around 940 BC and produced 9 feet of slag. There was then a major disruption in mining about 910 BC, followed by a resumption in the 9th century BC.

In the stratum associated with the disruption, they found an Egyptian scarab from the eastern Nile delta and an amulet linked to the Egyptian goddess Mut.

The “tantalizing question,” Levy said, is whether these artifacts are associated with the Egyptian pharaoh Sheshonq I (known as Shishak in the Bible), who conquered much of Palestine following the death of Solomon.

Records in Egypt show that Sheshonq’s troops occupied Hazevah, about eight miles from Khirbat en-Nahas.

“We can’t believe everything ancient writings tell us,” Levy said. “But this research represents a confluence between the archaeological and scientific data and the Bible.”