For decades, there’s been an ongoing debate about the biblical king Solomon and the source of his legendary wealth. Now, recently discovered 3,000-year-old manure is adding fresh fuel to this debate.
In the arid climate of Israel’s Timna Valley, archeologists uncovered this dung in an ancient mining camp atop a sandstone mesa known as Slaves’ Hill. All along the area are copper mines and smelting camps—sites where ancient people once heated ore and turned it into metal.
In 2013, Erez Ben-Yosef from the University of Tel Aviv began excavating the site. It wasn’t until last year, when he and his team were uncovering several walled structures, that they discovered what appeared to be animal excrement of relatively recent origin.
But when they got the radiocarbon dates back from the lab, they confirmed the dung had been from donkeys and other livestock dating back the 10th century B.C. The implications of these results were even more surprising. Here’s Michelle Z. Donahue reporting for National Geographic:
“Until we started the project in 2013, this was considered to be a late Bronze Age site related to the New Kingdom of Egypt in the 13 th and early 12 th centuries B.C.,” Ben-Yosef says. There’s clear evidence of an Egyptian presence during those centuries… But high-precision radiocarbon dating of the dung, as well as textiles and other organic material, showed that the mining camp’s heyday was the 10 th century B.C.—the era of the biblical kings David and Solomon.”
According to the Bible, King Solomon had a wealthy kingdom and lavishly decorated temple in Jerusalem with gold and bronze objects. In order to build something of this magnitude, it would have required importing metal from industrial-scale mining operations, probably somewhere in the Middle East.
The validity behind this wealthy kingdom has been a debate. Some archaeologists argue Solomon was just a small-scale chieftain incapable of organizing a project of this scale. Yet in the late 1990s, a team of archaeologists discovered a copper-rich site in southern Jordan which suggested metal was produced there at a massive scale. This site, in conjunction with other smelting camps along the region, support some theories that the biblical king’s legend may have some truth.
The mining operation found in Timna Valley hasn’t been linked to Solomon himself, but it does suggest a more complex society inhabited that region—a society, possibly the Edomites, that may have been paying taxes to Jerusalem as a result of war.
The dung samples included seeds and pollen spores, so Ben-Yosef’s team could determine the animals’ diet. They surprisingly found the feed was imported from an area more than 100 miles to the north, close to the Mediterranean cost. Long distance trade was key to survival in the barren desert and metal was an essential product in this period. So, it was worthwhile to invest so much in an operation in the middle of the desert.
Ben-Yosef says more than 1,000 tons of smelting debris has been found on Slaves’ Hill, an industrial-scale production worthy of an ancient kingdom. Whether this is directly linked to the Israelite kingdom during the 10th century is still up for discussion.
Still, Ben-Yosef is encouraged by these findings. “Until recently we had almost nothing from this period in this area,” he says. “But now we not only know that this was a source of copper, but also that it’s from the days of King David and his son Solomon.”