Close to the site of the biblical city of Tel Be’er Sheva, a team of archaeologists sweat under the hot desert sun. As they dig, they hope to uncover the secrets of this ancient settlement in modern-day Israel and preserve them for many generations to come. But what they discover is something truly remarkable: relics from a top-secret technology that could have been among the very first of its kind.
For years, the team made up of specialists from various Israeli institutions has been excavating beneath Neveh Noy, a 1950s settlement in the south of the modern city, now known as Beersheba. But although the neighborhood itself is relatively modern, it stands on foundations far older. And in amongst these, the archaeologists have made some startling finds.
In a workshop dating back 6,500 years, the team discovered evidence of a technology that was once among the most advanced in the entire world. So advanced, in fact, that it would go on to transform human life on Earth. But at the time, it was a closely guarded secret, known only to a very select few.
So what was this ground-breaking new technology, so important that it was kept under wraps for generations? And why did it emerge here, when the Ghassulian culture was thriving in this part of the Middle East? Now, the archaeologists have released the results of their study, and the surprising truth has finally been revealed.
Amazingly, this discovery at Beersheba is believed to date back to the Chalcolithic period, an era which began about 6,500 years ago. But the first written mention of the city occurs in the Bible, where it is described as the home of the three patriarchs. According to Genesis, it is where some of the most pivotal events in the founding of Judaism took place.
While these important events were playing out, however, the inhabitants of Tel Be’er Sheva remained ignorant of the even older treasures beneath their feet. And eventually, the city became little more than a forgotten settlement on the fringes of ancient Palestine. Then, in the 4th century, the region came under the control of the Byzantine Empire – and things began to change.
With this shift in power, Tel Be’er Sheva became a significant city once more, forming part of the empire’s defences against tribes from the Negev Desert. Then, in the 7th century, it was all but reduced to rubble as Arab invaders overran wide portions of western Asia around the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Forsaken by its inhabitants, it was left to fade into obscurity once more.
Eventually, in the 16th century, the Ottomans conquered Palestine and a new empire rose to power in the region. But these rulers also had little interest in Tel Be’er Sheva, leaving it to serve as a meeting place for the nomadic Bedouins of the nearby desert. Would they have acted differently, perhaps, had they known about the ancient secret lurking under the city?
As it was, the Ottomans waited more than 300 years before attempting to develop Tel Be’er Sheva in line with the rest of their empire. And as the 19th century came to a close, a police station was constructed. Soon after came roads, new dwellings and an attempt at urban planning: what would become modern-day Beersheba was slowly taking shape. Still, none of this work would uncover what shocked archaeologists would later find.
Any progress in the region was brought to an abrupt halt, though, as the effects of World War I began to spread out across the globe. In 1917 British forces invaded modern-day Beersheba as part of their efforts to conquer Syria and Palestine. And the following year, the next chapter in the life of this tumultuous city began.
From 1918 until 1948 Beersheba was part of what was known as Mandatory Palestine, overseen by the British. The city served as an administrative hub – as well as the backdrop for much political tension. As Jewish settlers arrived in the region, the Arab inhabitants protested against the loss of their lands. And often, tensions escalated into violence on the city streets.
Eventually, a large proportion of the Jewish immigrants left Beersheba, although many later returned when the State of Israel was established in 1948. And while the settlement of the region remained controversial, the city began to develop at a breakneck pace. But it would be another 70 years before anyone would discover the secret hiding underground.
In that time, the neighborhood of Neveh Noy was founded in a spot outside what is now known as the Old City. Originally consisting of simple cottages built from stone, it became a popular destination for immigrants arriving from Tunisia and Morocco. But its story actually began much longer ago, with a settlement dating back to the Chalcolithic era.
During this period, which lasted for about 700 years, a culture known as the Ghassulian emerged. Centered on the Southern Levant, its influence stretched across parts of what is now Palestine, Jordan and Israel. And it also left its mark on the valley where the city of Tel Be’er Sheva would develop.
A creative and artistic people, the Ghassulians used stone tools to forge metal into fine objects. And at the same time, they learned how to cultivate grapes for wine, produced beautiful pottery and constructed dwellings underground. But the most impressive skill belonging to this ancient culture has only recently been revealed.
Of course, the revelations that were uncovered back in 2017 are far from the only archaeological discoveries to be made in and around Tel Be’er Sheva over the years. In 1969 for example experts began excavating a site located some five miles east of Neveh Noy. Its location is thought to be near the heart of the original biblical city.
As well as biblical links, excavations have revealed something else about Tel Be’er Sheva: the region has been inhabited since around the fourth millennium B.C. And as such, the city is a veritable hotbed of archaeological treasures. But like many places, this corner of Israel is changing fast, putting its fascinating heritage at risk.
As part of a scheme to protect the region’s historical treasures, the Israel Antiquities Authority, or IAA, began conducting emergency excavations in Beersheba in 2017. And in the neighborhood of Neveh Noy, they certainly found something worth protecting. In fact, it was a relic so valuable that the organization commissioned an extensive study that would take years to complete.
In Neveh Noy, experts from Tel Aviv University and the Geological Survey of Israel joined forces with the IAA to excavate the fascinating site. And what they found confirmed the ground-breaking nature of the initial find. In September 2020 they eventually published the results of their study in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.
So what had these archaeologists found beneath the unassuming streets of Neveh Noy? According to the study, they had uncovered what could be the earliest example of a technology that would go on to change the world. Here, artisans fine-tuned a process that would ultimately launch humanity into its next age.
What the archaeologists found, it was revealed, is believed to be the first example of a furnace, used for smelting copper ore, found anywhere in the world. In fact, they uncovered an entire workshop dedicated to the technology, which would have been exceptionally advanced for its time. But what exactly is the significance of this find?
When humans first discovered copper ore, experts believe, they were content with hammering the material and using it to make attractive, green-hued ornaments. But after millennia had passed, they began to wonder what else they could do with this substance. Eventually, they began melting it inside pottery vessels known as crucibles, extracting pure metal from the ore for the first time.
The real revelation came, however, when humans invented the furnace, allowing them to smelt large amounts of copper ore. And now, archaeologists have located one of the very earliest known examples of this game-changing technology in Tel Be’er Sheva. In fact, according to the study, numerous examples from the same period have been discovered across the biblical city.
Of course, this discovery is not concrete evidence that furnaces originated in Tel Be’er Sheva. But representing as it does as the earliest permanent and non-portable example ever found, it highlights just how advanced the Ghassulians were for their time. And as such, it has shed new light on how this ancient society functioned towards the end of the Neolithic era.
“The excavation revealed evidence for domestic production from the Chalcolithic period, about 6,500 years ago,” the IAA’s Talia Abulafia told the news website Phys.org in October 2020. “The surprising finds include a small workshop for smelting copper with shards of a furnace – a small installation made of tin in which copper ore was smelted – as well as a lot of copper slag.”
According to the study, the workshop at Neveh Noy produced metal from copper ore in two phases. First, it seems, ore would be heated inside the furnace, before being transferred to a crucible, where it would be further purified. But the specific details of the process would have been regarded as highly valuable knowledge at the time, kept a closely-guarded secret from prying eyes.
Historically, furnaces have typically been built in close proximity to the mines which produce the ore for smelting. But at Neveh Noy, things were different. In fact, analysis of the resulting metal’s chemical signature revealed that raw materials were hauled to the site from another location: Wadi Faynan, some 60 miles to the east. So why the long journey?
Although they cannot be sure, experts suspect that this decision was made in order to keep valuable knowledge about the process under wraps. Speaking to Phys.org, Professor Erez Ben-Yosef, who worked on the study, explained, “It’s important to understand that the refining of copper was the high-tech of that period. There was no technology more sophisticated than that in the whole of the ancient world.”
And just like those working at the forefront of industry today, the metalworkers of Tel Be’er Sheva did not want their secrets to get out. Ben-Yosef continued, “Tossing lumps of ore into a fire will get you nowhere. You need certain knowledge for building special furnaces that can reach very high temperatures while maintaining low levels of oxygen.”
And so, experts have theorized, the Ghassulians built their furnaces far away from the mines, where their ovens could be watched over by a small, select group who guarded such precious knowledge. According to Ben-Yosef, “At the beginning of the metallurgical revolution, the secret of metalworking was kept by guilds of experts. All over the world, we see metalworkers’ quarters within Chalcolithic settlements, like the neighborhood we found in [Tel Be’er Sheva].”
Interestingly, this find hasn’t just shed a light on the early days of metalworking – it has illuminated Chalcolithic society as a whole. After all, these were people who lived before the widespread shift of populations into defined settlements, and experts have long debated the extent to which they lived in a hierarchical society. But discoveries such as this clearly point to the existence of a clique equipped with secret knowledge.
According to the study, this elite, based in Tel Be’er Sheva, traded with the people of Wadi Faynan, acquiring the ore necessary for the smelting process. But in the mining regions, people were kept in the dark about this mysterious art. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that the tricks of the trade were not even shared between different workshops or guilds.
Apparently, analysis has revealed that each establishment stuck to its own individual version of the process, approaching the art of copper smelting in a slightly different way. According to Ben-Yosef, it was a process not dissimilar to the research and development techniques that modern companies employ. And as a result, the workshops of Tel Be’er Sheva found themselves at the forefront of a technological revolution.
“[The furnaces] were the result of prehistoric R&D by groups of people as curious as we are today, investing time,” Ben-Yosef told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in October 2020. “Scientific exploration wasn’t invented today – it’s human nature. Human nature is to be curious and to explore. Society encouraged them to explore, to find cool new stuff.”
But what was the significance of Tel Be’er Sheva, and why did the guilds decide to hone their craft in that specific region? According to experts, it could have been because the settlement was close to a wadi, or valley, which held water throughout the year. And as such, it would have provided the ideal conditions for smelting copper ore.
So what did the metalworkers of Tel Be’er Sheva choose to do with their discovery? Compared to the much-smaller crucibles, the furnaces allowed the guilds to produce far more copper than before. But it would be a long time before mankind would find a practical purpose for this ground-breaking new invention.
In fact, the copper produced in the furnaces would have been too malleable to create anything of great function. And so, the metalworkers focused on producing decorative items for use in rituals instead. According to Ben-Yosef, this distinction provides a fascinating insight into the evolving relationship between technology and mankind.
“They say necessity is the mother of invention,” Ben-Yosef told Haaratz. “We need a better weapon, so we invent a new material. But the story of metal shows it isn’t necessarily so. It started with an aesthetic. For thousands of years the use of metals was non-functional, not to do with material improvement.”
Despite the efforts of Tel Be’er Sheva’s secretive guilds, the practice of metalworking would eventually spread across the ancient world. And with it came the realization that copper, when hammered, could be hardened into something more suitable for tools. But it wasn’t until the discovery of bronze that these new technologies would really bring about drastic global change.
Today, we use metal in ways which the inhabitants of ancient Neveh Noy would likely have found impossible to imagine. From the objects which furnish our homes to the parts that power our cellphones and computers, it’s a material that permeates our everyday lives. And yet, few are aware of how this story began. Now, thanks to the work of archaeologists at Beersheba, we can understand more about how this ubiquitous technology came to be.