Why Did They Dig Copper?
In Hershel Shanks’s First Person “Life Was Not So Bad for Smelters” (BAR 41:01), he notes that “people have been mining copper [in the Faynan district of Jordan] for 12,000 years, and they have been smelting the extracted copper since the Chalcolithic period, 4,500 years ago.” Why did people mine copper for 7,500 years prior to the Chalcolithic period if they did not, or could not, smelt it into usable material?
Thomas E. Levy responds:
My colleague Dr. Mohammad Najjar and I have been exploring the role of ancient mining and metallurgy on social change in Jordan’s Faynan district since 1997. As part of that work, we have looked at the exploitation of copper in those periods before smelting began (Chalcolithic period, c. 4500–3800 B.C.E.), yet copper was an important mineral to acquire. This began during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPN) period around 7500 B.C.E. when malachite was mined to be used in bead production and as a pigment. Trace element studies have shown that Faynan copper ore was used as “eye makeup” on the famous PPN statues discovered at Ain Ghazal around 125 miles from Faynan.