Bronze Age Factory Discovered in Jordan

John Roach
for National Geographic News
June 25, 2002
Archaeologists working at a desert site in Jordan have excavated a large and very well-preserved copper factory from the Early Bronze Age. The discovery is providing insight into metal production as the first urban cultures emerged.

"This unique find gives us a remarkable window on the role of craft production in some of the earliest urban societies in the world," said Thomas Levy, an archaeologist at the University of California–San Diego, who led the excavation.

The factory site, called Khirbat Hamra Ifdan, is about 31 miles (50 kilometers) south of the Dead Sea in Jordan, in the arid Faynan District. The region is one of three main sources of copper in the southeast Mediterranean basin.

The factory collapsed during an earthquake about 2700 B.C. Buried in the rubble were hundreds of casting molds for copper axes, pins, chisels, and bars. Thousands of stone hammers, anvils, crucibles, metal objects, and pieces of ancient metallurgical debris were also recovered.

"The feeling of discovery when lifting a collapsed wall and seeing evidence of a workshop which may well have been in operation only hours or days before the collapse of these buildings gives you a sense of being a witness to ancient events and processes," said Russell Adams, another UCSD archaeologist working on the excavation.

Team members say the site in Jordan is as well preserved as the ruins at Pompeii, the ancient town in Italy that was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. The copper factory site has been protected in part by its location, in a natural drainage area on a red sandstone plateau that receives less than four inches (ten centimeters) of rain a year.

View of Copper Production

The archaeologists used geographic information system (GIS) technology to identify and map all the stages in the production of copper objects at the factory, offering for the first time a look at how ancient societies mass-produced metal objects.

"In the case of Khirbat Hamra Ifdan it is the first time that we have a complete, what we call metallurgical chain," said team member Andreas Hauptmann, an archaeometallurgist at the German Mining Museum in Bochum.

The GIS maps trace the copper production through about 70 rooms, alleyways, and courtyards—an indication that the production of metal objects at Khirbat Hamra Ifdan was a highly specialized process performed by skilled crafts people, said Levy.

Adams said the evidence of mass production at Khirbat Hamra Ifdan and other evidence pointing to innovations in mining, smelting, and fuel production "indicate that Early Bronze Age elites were able to muster, organize, and control a very large and technically skilled work force."

Analysis of the copper objects made at the ancient factory suggests that there was "perfect quality control" at the factory, according to Hauptmann. "It is amazing to see the different steps that were needed to produce such a high-quality copper," he said.

Part of Trade Network

The archaeologists, who report their discovery in the June 2002 issue of the scientific journal Antiquity, suggest that Khirbat Hamra Ifdan was an important industrial center that contributed to the rise of urban societies in Israel, Jordan, Egypt, and other parts of the eastern Mediterranean.

Hauptmann has linked the copper produced at the factory to copper objects found in Egypt and Israel. "Copper bears a personal fingerprint," he said. "Once you determine such a fingerprint in the metal, you can trace this fingerprint at other localities."

This sleuthing is giving the archaeological team evidence of a copper trade network in the ancient Near East.

Henry Wright, curator of archaeology at the University of Michigan's Museum of Anthropology in Ann Arbor and member of the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration, said the research by Levy and colleagues is a great contribution to understanding the economic bases of the earliest civilizations.

The only other comparable Early Bronze Age metal factory in the ancient Near East known from this time period, he noted, was found at Kestrel in the Taurus mountains of Turkey by Aslihan Yener, an archaeologist at the University of Chicago.

"These two industrial settlements," said Wright, "must be key elements in a vast network connecting emerging cities in all of southwest Asia and beyond."

The excavations at Khirbat Hamra Ifdan were supported in part by a grant from the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration.

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