January 28, 2010
The Jordanian desert is freezing. It's mid-winter. The sun is bright, the desert mountains spectacular, but it's cold. We are in a place as desolate and beautiful as any in the world. It's called Wadi Faynan and, as we are discovering, it was one of the sites of the world's first industrial revolution -- copper production. Three thousand years ago, Wadi Faynan was a factory: smelters to the horizon, mine shafts everywhere, and armies of miners and slaves heading underground, many to their deaths. It may be beautiful today, but 3,000 years ago it was probably pretty close to hell.
Dr. Mohommad Najjar, codirector of the excavation of the copper-production site at Wadi Faynan, prepares to descend into a triple-shafted mine. All photos by Jeremy Zipple.
To this day, the desert is coated with copper slag. Amazingly, our scientists are discovering off-the-charts levels of lead and arsenic -- the toxic residues of ancient copper smelting -- still contaminating the sand. Chronicles written at the time say miners were often forced to spend weeks underground without once coming up for air, in cramped gallery mines and suffocating darkness. It's a horrifying thought.