King Solomon's Mines Rediscovered?

Rebecca Carroll
for National Geographic News
October 28, 2008
Copper mines in southern Jordan were active centuries earlier than previously believed, according to a new study that suggests the area was producing the metal at the same time the biblical figure of King Solomon is said to have built Jerusalem's first Jewish temple.

Industrial-scale metal production was occurring at a site in Jordan in the tenth century B.C., according to the study's carbon dating of ancient industrial mining debris and analysis of the settlement's layout.

Previous studies had concluded no copper production occurred in the area before the seventh century B.C.

"We're conclusively showing that the Iron Age chronology [of this region] has to be pushed back another 300 years," said lead author Thomas Levy, an anthropologist at the University of California, San Diego.

Biblical References

The shift in estimated Iron Age dates means the Jordan copper mine would have been in operation during the reigns of Kings David and Solomon—who are referred to in the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible) but have not been verified as actual historical figures.

"Now we have to readdress many of the questions about the relationship between the biblical text about this region in those centuries and the archeological record," Levy said.

(Levy's research was funded in part by the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. National Geographic owns National Geographic News.)

The study appears in the current issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

According to the Bible, God chose King Solomon to build Jerusalem's first temple.

(Related: "Solomon's Temple Artifacts Found by Muslim Workers" [October 23, 2007].)

Hundreds of tons of copper were given to the project, as well as smaller amounts of gold and silver, the Bible says. Some English versions of the Old Testament use the word bronze instead of copper as a result of a mistranslation, Levy said.

If the biblical account is historical, King Solomon and his father King David would have had to rule Israel during the tenth century B.C., scholars agree.

Solomon's Temple and other projects would have required great quantities of metal.

"If he built the temple during the tenth century B.C., he—according to the Bible—had to bring a lot of copper to Jerusalem, and the copper had to come from somewhere," said Amihai Mazar, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who was not involved with the study.

If the Bible's accounts of David and Solomon are rooted in reality, it's reasonable to figure the copper came from the closest known source—the contemporaneous site excavated by Levy and Jordanian archaeologist Mohammad Najjar in the area the Bible calls Edom.

Historical Extremes

Seventy years ago American archaeologist Nelson Glueck declared he'd found "King Solomon's mines" around the area Levy's team is excavating.

"He was in the 'Golden Age' of biblical archaeology between the World Wars," Levy said of Glueck.

"He literally mapped everything that he saw archaeologically to the biblical narrative."

By the mid- to late-20th century, the tide had turned: Many academics were finding no verifiable connection between the Old Testament and actual history from the 12th through 9th centuries B.C.

Some believe that any useful historical accuracy in the holy book was lost during a period of revisions that is believed to have occurred between the seventh and fourth centuries B.C.

Research beginning in the 1970s determined Glueck's mine site became active only in the 7th century BC—hundreds of years after David and Solomon would have lived.

To this day, little archaeological evidence has been found to confirm the reigns of either King David or King Solomon.

"To what extent the Bible really recalls ancient historical reality from the tenth century is hard to say," said the Hebrew University's Mazar, who has been to the site but was not involved with the study.

Striking a Balance

Levy believes his study is a model for archaeologists working in areas described in ancient, sacred texts.

He avoided over-reliance on the biblical chronology, but also did not reject it.

His team created sophisticated, three-dimensional digital recording methods to map the layout of the site and the location of all the artifacts to determine ancient settlement patterns. Organic remains were radiocarbon dated at a lab in the U.K.

According to Mazar, the science is solid.

Levy argues that archaeologists should consider wide-ranging sources of information when examining a site from historical texts and ecological information to cultural materials, anthropology, and sacred texts.

"I think that with archaeology, we need to use every possible source of data at our disposal," he said.

"If you were interested in ancient India, you'd want to have an objective look at the Mahabharata," he said, referring to the set of sanskrit epics thought to date back to the eighth century B.C. And Icelandic archaeologists might consider the Sagas of Iceland, written in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries A.D.

"We try to create an objective historical archaeology," Levy said.

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