The Mysteries of “King Solomon’s Mines” (Smithsonian, cover story, Dec. 2021)

Photo: Yadid Levy


An Archaeological Dig Reignites the Debate Over the Old Testament’s Historical Accuracy

Beneath a desert in Israel, a scholar and his team are unearthing astonishing new evidence of an advanced society in the time of the biblical Solomon

Matti Friedman

If you stand on one of the outcroppings of the Timna valley, the most salient fact of the place is emptiness. Here in the heat-blasted flatlands of the Arava Desert, off a lonely road in southern Israel, it seems there’s nothing but stark cliffs and rock formations all the way to the jagged red wall of the Edomite Mountains across the Jordanian border. And yet the longer you spend in the Timna barrens, the more human fingerprints you begin to see. Scratches on a cliff face turn out to be, on closer investigation, 3,200-year-old hieroglyphics. On a boulder are the outlines of ghostly chariots. A tunnel vanishes into a hillside, the walls marked with the energetic strikes of bronze chisels. There were once people here, and they were looking for something. Traces of the treasure can still be seen beneath your feet, in the greenish hue of pebbles or the emerald streak across the side of a cave.

When the Israeli archaeologist Erez Ben-Yosef arrived at the ancient copper mines of Timna, in 2009, he was 30 years old. The site wasn’t on Israel’s archaeological A-list, or even its B-list. It wasn’t the Jerusalem of Jesus, or the famous citadel of Masada, where Jewish rebels committed suicide rather than surrender to Rome. It was the kind of place unimportant enough to be entrusted to someone with fresh credentials and no experience leading a dig.

At the time, Ben-Yosef wasn’t interested in the Bible. His field was paleomagnetism, the investigation of changes in the earth’s magnetic field over time, and specifically the mysterious “spike” of the tenth century B.C., when magnetism leapt higher than at any time in history for reasons that are not entirely understood. With that in mind, Ben-Yosef and his colleagues from the University of California, San Diego unpacked their shovels and brushes at the foot of a sandstone cliff and started digging.

They began to extract pieces of organic material—charcoal, a few seeds, 11 items all told—and dispatched them to a lab at Oxford University for carbon-14 dating. They didn’t expect any surprises. The site had already been conclusively dated by an earlier expedition that had uncovered the ruins of a temple dedicated to an Egyptian goddess, linking the site to the empire of the pharaohs, the great power to the south. This conclusion was so firmly established that the local tourism board, in an attempt to draw visitors to this remote location, had put up kitschy statues in “walk like an Egyptian” poses.

But when Ben-Yosef got the results back from Oxford they showed something else—and so began the latest revolution in the story of Timna. The ongoing excavation is now one of the most fascinating in a country renowned for its archaeology. Far from any city, ancient or modern, Timna is illuminating the time of the Hebrew Bible—and showing just how much can be found in a place that seems, at first glance, like nowhere.

[Read the rest here.]