Behind the Scenes With King Solomon

Editor's Note: Graham Townsley, producer of Quest for Solomon's Mines, wrote the following dispatches while filming on location in Jordan and Israel earlier this year. The field notes give a taste of what's to come in the program, which premieres tonight, Tuesday, November 23, at 8 p.m., on PBS.

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.

A god-forsaken place, you might say, but, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. We're on the edges of the Jordan Valley. This is God's country. The place is Bible central, positively drenched in biblical history. We're here in search of the Old Testament. One of the big questions about Wadi Faynan, or at least the question that will probably give our film its title, is: Are these King Solomon's mines? The question is not strictly serious, because Solomon's mines are sort of a fictional construct; not even the Bible talks about them. But he must have had mines, and our hope is that these ones, which seem to date from the time of Solomon, will lead us into the realities behind the Old Testament stories of the early Israelite kings.

And this is what I like about this story -- the chance to talk not just about kings and empires but about the real people, the workers, who were the engines of all that fabled history. We don't know much about King Solomon -- although we are discovering some fascinating facts -- but about the people who worked down these mines, we may be able to discover quite a lot.

January 31, 2010

Two wonderful days doing our dramatic reenactments of life in the Bronze Age and its copper mines. Our shoot has been its own little Mideast peace process. The crew is Israeli: Our wonderful cameraman, Yoram Millo, is a veteran of the Israeli film industry, while his assistant, Ifdah, was a soldier in the first Lebanese war. The production manager and actors are all Jordanian, lots of them of Palestinian/Lebanese origin.


Recreation of ancient miners working deep in the copper mines of Wadi Faynan.

The potential conflicts and resentments are huge, but everybody is having a blast. There is maximum chaos, shouting, and the appearance of pandemonium, but what good humor and humanity! So many moments when we think it will just never all come together, but it finally does -- and beautifully.

The Jordanian extras are magnificent. The scenes in which they play sweating miners toiling down in the mines being brutalized by overseers -- all shot on the latest Red Camera in hi-definition and slow motion -- turn out beautifully. At the breaks, everybody huddles around fires, delicious mint tea is served, and cigarettes, pita bread, and hummus are passed around. To everybody it seems surreal but fun.

When we drive back to Amman, the crew van is rocking to the music on the radio. "Very modern, very cool," our production manager Ghassan says with a satisfied smile. It's Lady Gaga. They love her.

February 2, 2010

After Jordan, it's Israel. This is the part of our shoot that really takes us into the core of the archeological debates about Solomon and his time, the 10th century B.C. Like many debates here, they are intense.


Three researchers -- Erez Ben Yosef, Assaf Holzer, and Ron Shaar -- conduct an ancient copper-smelting experiment at Timna, Israel.

Our interviews with some of Israel's foremost archeologists -- Israel Finkelstein, Ami Mazar, Jossi Garfinkel -- have been fascinating. It turns out there are a number of contentious issues here. One is a technical one about dating: Can the remains that archeologists are turning up, which some experts date to the time of King Solomon, actually be securely dated to that time? Or are they, in fact, much later?

But behind this innocent-sounding question is a much bigger issue that calls into question the whole idea of biblical archeology. Should archeologists be taking early biblical texts as serious pointers to the realities of the 10th century? Or are they just legends, symbolic stories, the founding myths of the Israelites, which just happened to be the only ones preserved by history? Should archeologists be searching for the truth of biblical stories or forgetting about the Bible and concentrating on the economic and social process of the late Bronze Age? These questions go to the heart of how you do archeology.

And very quickly the debate becomes freighted with some pretty heavy religious and political baggage. When Israel Finkelstein published a book 15 years ago pointing out that for all the efforts of archeologists to discover remains of the 10th century B.C., they have come up with nothing -- no palaces, no fortresses, and no evidence of a great Israelite kingdom -- he received serious threats. His idea that David and Solomon were not the rulers of a mighty Israelite kingdom but legendary figures more like King Arthur, invented as beautiful images and good stories by later centuries, was deeply offensive and threatening to many. It's a sobering reminder that in the Middle East, no debate about the past is innocent.

But what I am coming to really like about the story of our film is that it is a wonderful example of how science can actually push aside ideological issues and start to tell us about what really happened. Was there a Solomonic kingdom or wasn't there? Was there a copper industry in the 10th century B.C. requiring a high degree of centralized command and control, or wasn't there? These are the questions our scientists are discovering answers to, and the techniques they are using to do it are fascinating.

Watch Quest for Solomon's Mines on Tuesday, November 23, at 8 pm, on PBS -- or online beginning November 24.

User Comments:

wow , what a post . i like it!

Thank you very much for the Nova program tonight about Israel (King Soloman, etc.). This is one of the best I have seen on PBS which I often watch. God bless you.

Great program. What was the source of the fuel for this large copper smelting. There appears to be no nearby forests that would support the magnitude and duration of operation. Or was there once and this is the very reason it no longer exists.

Very interesting research. All the more recent archaeology seems to point to the reliability of the Bible. Amazing, but not surprising. Thanks Nova.

Like Brian, I'd like to know where the CHARCOAL came from and how it was transported. Copper in the desert doesn't surprise me. What does is that they could find anything to burn in the middle of this forsaken landscape.

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Graham Townsley

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