Research Highlight: 'Unique' Collaboration Helps Determine the Age of Biblical-Era Industry


Strange things seem to have been afoot in the Holy Land during the time of Abraham. It appears from carbon dating, however, that domesticated camels were not.

A former UC San Diego student who worked with Lisa Tauxe, a specialist in paleomagnetics at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and Tom Levy, an archaeologist in UC San Diego’s Division of Social Sciences, has determined that camels were not domesticated when the events of the Bible’s first book, Genesis, are believed to have taken place. Erez Ben-Yosef of Tel Aviv University and his colleague Lidar Sapir-Hen determined that domesticated camels were likely not to be found in the Holy Land any earlier than 1,000 years B.C.E.

Ben-Yosef said that re-dating archaeological layers at a site in the copper ore district of Timna in southern Israel’s Arava valley by high precision radiocarbon dating and archaeomagnetism was the first step to realize that camels that were previously dated to the Late Bronze Age, around the 13th Century B.C.E., are actually much younger and should be dated to no earlier than the last decades of the 10th century B.C.E.

Ben-Yosef, who received his doctorate in anthropological archaeology from UC San Diego in 2010, and colleagues made that conclusion after examining the bones left behind at the site of an ancient copper smelting operation at which he, Tauxe, and Levy have been excavating for more than a decade and comparing them to animal bone assemblages from all other known 13th to 10th Century B.C.E. sites in Israel, the Palestinian territories, and Jordan.

“It’s an example of how collaborations like this can lead to unexpected discoveries,” said Tauxe, who hosted Ben-Yosef as a postdoctoral researcher before he became a lecturer in archaeology at Tel Aviv University.

The finding would seem to call into question the accuracy of certain Biblical passages that scholars believe describe events that took places hundreds of years earlier. In those passages are numerous references to camels owned by Abraham and his descendants.

But despite the media attention paid to that potential continuity glitch in the Bible’s narrative, Levy said that “because the Bible is more a theological text than a historical one, the accuracy or inaccuracy of biblical narratives is not of central interest to archaeologists.”

Levy added, “While camels might have been domesticated in Arabia as early as the 16th Century B.C.E., Erez’s team has shown that they weren’t introduced into the Holy Land until quite late – in the 10th Century B.C.E. when copper production in Timna and Faynan 105 kilometers (65 miles) to the north in Jordan, where I work with Jordanian archaeologist Mohammad Najjar, was carried out for the first time on an industrial scale.  They needed camels to ‘schlep’ copper and ore across the region.”

Indeed, the UC San Diego researchers said that the more important science is coming from the rare collaboration that brought them to the dig in the first place.  Among their feats is narrowing the ages of certain artifacts down to the scale of decades using a combination of radiocarbon dating and measurements of geomagnetic intensity.

“UCSD is uniquely situated to do this kind of thing,” said Levy. “I do the archaeology and Lisa does the geophysics. Together we’ve been able to come up with innovative ways to date archaeological sites. She is an inspiration for how transdisciplinary, team science, should be done.” 

Levy, who researches the archaeological record and the role of technology in social evolution, first teamed up with Tauxe, who studies the history of Earth’s magnetic field in 2005.

The strength of the field has waxed and waned throughout Earth’s history and sometimes, at its weakest moments, has reversed in polarity.  Reversals happen on average every 250,000 years, and the last full reversal occurred 780,000 years ago. Because the field reverses occasionally, the orientation of magnetic minerals that are trapped in rock can give clues to the age of the rock. Knowledge of the status of Earth’s magnetic field at a given time can be used to support estimates of an object’s age established by carbon dating or other means.

The slag at the Timna site was formed from fast-cooling melts used in copper mining operations in the southern part of the Levant – a geographical area including present-day Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and other countries. The melting and recooling of these materials fixed their magnetic strength at the moment they cooled, thus giving scientists a way to determine when that cooling took place.

Levy has used the research in Jordan’s Faynan region and other locations to determine that the copper mines were in operation between the 12th and 9th Centuries B.C.E. He and colleagues also found evidence that the miners’ technological capabilities advanced at some point after the Biblical narratives about King Solomon, through their discovery of changing smelting techniques.

 The body of evidence, including the camel bones analyzed by Ben-Yosef, yielded important clues about the size of the operation and thus about the economy of the Levant in the last millennium before the common era. Tauxe, Levy, Ben-Yosef and Tauxe’s current post-doctoral researcher, Ron Shaar, have plans to perform the same archaeological analysis in other ancient mines around the Mediterranean.

“You can’t get very far in archaeomagnetic research without a good relationship with an excellent archaeologist and UC San Diego supports cross-disciplinary interactions making our research collaboration possible,” Tauxe said.

Meanwhile, Tauxe has found something that could interest Bible conspiracy buffs more than the camel bones. Her research to date suggests that that exact period in history and the Levant were a time and place where Earth’s magnetic field was especially intense. The planet’s magnetic field, which is often thought of as a bar magnet, is governed by the activities of its core.  The resulting magnetic field is far more complicated than human observations spanning the past century suggest. 

“The collaboration resulted in mutual benefits for all aspects of the study,” said Ben-Yosef.  “It so happened that the same archaeological layers hold a unique paleomagnetic story, with the record of the strongest magnetic field known so far.”  


– Robert Monroe


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