In an unprecedented discovery, Tel Aviv University archeologists recently uncovered an extensive collection of ancient fabrics in the Arava Valley dating back to the era of King David, shedding unparalleled light on the historical fashions of the Holy Land.
The excavation – carried out at the ancient copper mines of Timna, and led by TAU’s Dr.
Erez Ben-Yosef – revealed the 3,000-year-old collection of textiles, which included diverse colors, design and origin, the university announced on Wednesday.
The area of the dig, located between the Dead Sea and Eilat, is believed by some researchers to be the site of King Solomon’s mines.
“The arid condition of the mines has seen the remarkable preservation of 3,000-year-old organic materials, including seeds, leather and fabric, and other extremely rare artifacts that provide a unique window into the culture and practices of this period,” the university said.
“The textiles also offer insight into the complex society of the early Edomites, the semi-nomadic people believed to have operated the mines at Timna.”
According to Dr. Orit Shamir, a senior researcher at the Antiquities Authority who led the study of the fabrics, most of the ancient relics are only 5 x 5 centimeters in size and vary in color, weaving technique, and ornamentation.
“Some of these fabrics resemble textiles known only from the Roman era,” said Shamir.
“No textiles have ever been found at excavation sites like Jerusalem, Megiddo and Hazor, so this provides a unique window into an entire aspect of life from which we’ve never had physical evidence before,” added Ben-Yosef.
“We found fragments of textiles that originated from bags, clothing, tents, ropes and cords.”
The wide variety of fabrics, he noted, provides new and important information about the Edomites, who, according to the Bible, warred with the Kingdom of Israel.
“We found simply woven, elaborately decorated fabrics worn by the upper echelon of their stratified society,” he said. “Luxury- grade fabric adorned the highly skilled, highly respected craftsmen managing the copper furnaces. They were responsible for smelting the copper, which was a very complicated process.”
The TAU archeologists also recently discovered thousands of seeds from the biblical “Seven Species” at the site – the two grains and five fruits considered to be indigenous to Israel. Some of the seeds were subjected to radiocarbon dating, providing robust confirmation for the age of the site.
“This is the first time seeds from this period have been found uncharred and in such large quantities,” Ben-Yosef said.
“With the advancement of modern science, we now enjoy research options that were unthinkable a few decades ago.
We can reconstruct wine typical of King David’s era, for example, and understand the cultivation and domestication processes that have been preserved in the DNA of the seeds.”
Copper, he noted, was considered an invaluable resource in ancient societies, and was used to produce tools and weapons.
However, its production required many levels of expertise.
“Miners in ancient Timna may have been slaves or prisoners; theirs was a simple task performed under difficult conditions,” Ben-Yosef said.
“But the act of smelting, of turning stone into metal, required an enormous amount of skill and organization. The smelter had to manage some 30 to 40 variables in order to produce the coveted copper ingots.”
The archeologist added that the possession of copper was a source of great wealth and power, comparable to oil today.
“If a person had the exceptional knowledge to ‘create copper,’ he was considered well-versed in an extremely sophisticated technology,” Ben-Yosef said.
“He would have been considered magical or supernatural, and his social status would have reflected this.”
To support this ancient “silicon valley” of copper production in the middle of the desert, food, water and textiles had to be transported long distances through the unforgiving dry climate and into the valley, he said.
The latest discovery of fabrics – many of which were made far from Timna in specialized textile workshops – provides a glimpse into the trade practices and regional economy of that time.
“We found linen, which was not produced locally,” said TAU masters student Vanessa Workman.
“It was most likely from the Jordan Valley or northern Israel. The majority of the fabrics were made of sheep’s wool, a cloth that is seldom found in this ancient period.”
“This tells us how developed and sophisticated both their textile craft and trade networks must have been,” she continued.
“This discovery strengthens our understanding of the Edomites as an important geopolitical presence. The fabrics are of a very high quality, with complex designs and beautiful dyes.”