Awl be Darned: Metal Arrived in the Southern Levant Long Before Previously Thought

The Copper Age, sometimes referred to as the Chalcolithic period, was a time of technological transition for humans. As stone tools gave way to metal ones, the Levant—which includes parts of modern-day Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria—emerged as a significant hub of copper crafting. Important archaeological finds, like the cache of copper artifacts found in the Nahal Mishmar Cave, are testaments to a robust copper-working tradition in the region, dating back to at least 4500-3800 BC. Although little is known about the origin and proliferation of metallurgy, or metal-working, in the Near East, a recent study published in PLOS ONE may offer new evidence of the earliest known use of copper in the southern Levant.

The recently discovered awl

The recently discovered copper awl

In the study, archaeologists from institutions in Israel and Germany describe a copper awl they discovered at an archaeological dig in Tel Tsaf, Israel, that they estimate dates back to 5100-4600 BC. An awl is a sharp spike, generally attached to a handle, that can be used to pierce holes in leather or textiles. Residue at the base of the spike indicates that it initially was connected to a wooden handle.  Researchers found the awl at a complex of mud brick buildings, rectangular rooms, and large circular grain silos. In addition, a multitude of beads, intricately decorated pottery, obsidian objects, and more were also found on site, and they appear to have originated from locations as far away as Armenia, Syria, Mesopotamia, and Egypt.  The presence of objects from other regions suggests that the site was connected to far-reaching trade networks.  The awl in question was found in an elaborate burial with a woman of about forty years of age, along with an ornate necklace made from over 1,500 ostrich eggshell beads. Its favored place as part of a burial indicates that it would have been a highly prized item.

The awl was discovered in this burial of a woman of about 40

The awl was discovered in this burial of a woman of about 40. A necklace of ostrich eggshell beads is visible in the bottom left corner.

The estimated age of the awl may make it the first known copper artifact in the Levant. Its presence at the excavation site shows that metal tools and objects may have arrived in the southern Levant via long-distance trade networks hundreds of years earlier than previously thought, long before the technology to make it locally was widely understood and adopted in the region.

The authors of this study used X-ray spectroscopy, or the bombarding of a sample with a beam of high-energy particles, to determine the awl’s chemical composition by analyzing the unique signal that different elements emit in response. The spectroscopy revealed significant amounts of tin in the awl, an additive that creates bronze when mixed with copper. Bronze, like copper, is so important that it also gets its own Age (the Bronze Age). However, because this awl predates the advent of bronze by thousands of years, the authors speculate that the tin may have actually been incidental and naturally occurring.  Copper with traces of tin is known to occur naturally in the Caucuses, a range of mountains stretching between the Caspian and Black Seas, and the awl may have originated there and made its way through trade networks to where it was finally discovered in Tel Tsaf. Copper-working know-how may have proliferated along the same networks, paving the way for widespread local production of copper artifacts, and followed closely, no doubt, by the ever-present scourge of copper theft.

Related Links:

What Early Neolithic People Left Behind: Levantine Arrowheads Found in Saudi Arabia

Dressed-Up Donkey Discovered at Religious Burial Site

Citation: Garfinkel Y, Klimscha F, Shalev S, Rosenberg D (2014) The Beginning of Metallurgy in the Southern Levant: A Late 6th Millennium CalBC Copper Awl from Tel Tsaf, Israel. PLoS ONE 9(3): e92591. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0092591

Images: Images are Figures 4 and 5 of the published article

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