Biblical Archaeology Review 41:1, January/February 2015

First Person: Life Was Not So Bad for Smelters

By Hershel Shanks

Mohammad Najjar and Thomas Levy have been excavating at an ancient copper mining and smelting site in the Faynan district of Jordan for more than 20 years. They describe it as “hell on earth.”a The mines are in the midst of an inhospitable desert, not far from the lowest spot on earth.b The heat can be intolerable, and water is scarce. People have been mining copper here for 12,000 years, and they have been smelting the extracted copper since the Chalcolithic period, 4,500 years ago. In the Biblical period, this area was part of Edom; later it was part of the Nabatean kingdom. For most of this time, Najjar and Levy tell us, “The copper was mined and smelted by slaves and war captives. They were supervised either by soldiers or by contractors to whom the slaves were leased.” In the Roman period, as punishment, criminals and persecuted Christians were in effect sentenced to death by work in the mines—damnatio ad metalla, condemned to the mines, was the punishment.

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