When the archaeological team excavating the remains of several walled structures, including a fortified gate, at Timna in Southern Israel, they almost overlooked what appeared to be recent animal excrement, but now that pile of poop is proving to be a key piece of evidence supporting the Bible’s account of the reign of King Solomon.
“We thought maybe some nomads had camped there with their goats a few decades ago,” University of Tel Aviv archaeologist Erez Ben-Yosef told National Geographic, adding that the dung still contained undecayed plant matter. “But the [radiocarbon] dates came back from the lab, and they confirmed we were talking about donkeys and other livestock from the 10th century B.C. It was hard to believe.”
According to the Bible, Solomon, the son of David, ruled over a greatly expanded Israel in the 10th century B.C., with its influence extending from Tadmor in Syria – the present Palmyra where ISIS has destroyed so many Roman-era archaelogical treasures – to the Gulf of Aqaba in the south. This included control of the international trunk road along which all the trade between Mesopotamia and Egypt passed and the King’s Highway that controlled the lucrative trade between Damascus and Arabia.
In addition, by treaty with the king of Tyre in modern Lebanon and with the help of his Phoenician seaman, Solomon built a fleet of ships and a port along the Gulf of Aqaba that opened trade with Southern Arabia and possibly to India and Southern Africa beyond. With Tyre and its sister city-state Sidon dominating sea trade in the Mediterranean, Israel and its partner exercised total control over the geography connecting Africa and Asia, and the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. It didn’t hurt that Solomon also secured a treaty with Egypt sealed by his marriage to Pharaoh’s daughter.
Such were the geopolitics that provided the material basis for the great wealth and general lack of conflict the Bible records during Solomon’s reign. But despite the Bible’s coherent explanation for Israel’s dominance at the time, the general consensus among scholars has been that David and Solomon were merely small-scale chieftains – if they existed at all – not the powerful kings depicted in the Bible, and they never could have organized the industries required to support the major building projects attributed to Solomon, particularly the Temple with all its requirements for various metals.
In Southern Israel near the Gulf of Aqaba, the site Timna was excavated in the 1930s by the American archaeologist Nelson Glueck, who found extensive deposits of iron and copper and evidence of smelting operations. His announcement that he had found King Solomon’s mines, where the metals for Solomon’s building projects were excavated, was rejected by scholars who took a low view of the Bible as a dependable source of historical information.
“Glueck became a laughingstock in the scholarly world,” said Thomas Levy, professor of archaeology at the University of California, San Diego.
But now, 85-plus years on, Glueck – and the Bible – may be getting the last word. And that word is donkey poop.
While Ben-Yosef’s team working at Timna were stunned by the extreme age of the donkey dung, it was the the fact that it dated to the time of Solomon that was most intriguing.
“Until we started the project in 2013, this was considered to be a late Bronze Age site related to the New Kingdom of Egypt in the 13th and early 12th centuries B.C.,” Ben-Yosef said. And, indeed, there is evidence of Egyptian presence at Timna during the period.
But Ben-Yosef had unearthed other evidence that confirmed the 10th century B.C. date. In February 2016, he revealed a 3,000-year-old collection of textiles preserved by the arid condition of the mines at Timna – “organic materials, including seeds, leather and fabric, and other extremely rare artifacts that provide a unique window into the culture and practices of this period.”
“We found simply woven, elaborately decorated fabrics worn by the upper echelon of their stratified society,” he said. “Luxury-grade fabric adorned the highly skilled, highly respected craftsmen managing the copper furnaces. They were responsible for smelting the copper, which was a very complicated process.”
The textiles and fabrics were attributed to the Edomites, a kingdom then dominating what is now Southern Jordan, but the Bible notes that during the reigns of David and Solomon, Edom had been reduced to a vassal of Israel. David “put garrisons in Edom; throughout all Edom he put garrisons, and all the Edomites became David’s servants.”
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The extraordinary preservation of organic materials in the donkey dung as well as seeds and pollen found in the dung piles revealed the animals were fed with grape pomace – a byproduct of crushing grapes for wine – and hay, rather than straw. The feed stock originated 60 miles northeast in Edom and 120 miles north in Judah. The pack animals brought not only supplies for the workers at the mines, but their own feed as well. Their dung, found piled against the inner wall of the walled site, was used to help fuel the smelting furnaces.
While archaeologists have not yet definitively linked the operations at Timna to Solomon, the evidence indicates metals were being mined at an industrial scale during the Israelite king’s reign. Whether the operation was being conducted by Israel, by Edomites under Israel’s control or by Edomites paying tribute, the excavations confirm the material conditions the Bible describes existing in the 10th century B.C.
“Until recently, we had almost nothing from this period in this area,” Ben-Yosef said. “But now we not only know that this was a source of copper, but also that it’s from the days of King David and his son Solomon.”
Bible clue found in 3,000-year-old donkey dung