The Chalcolithic Mines of Timna
The Arava desert is a brutal place. Temperatures soar to beyond 110 degrees in the summer, water is scarce and shade scarcer. But of the brutal corners of this remotest of Israel's deserts, one of the harshest spots is the red sandstone valley known as Timna. Here you stand before what appears to be a big pit. If you climb in, however, you'll see more than just a big hole in the ground. It is, in fact, a collection of holes all connected by a network of primitively carved tunnels.
Human beings did this 6,000 years ago, before the dawn of cities, written language or metals. There was no bronze, no iron, no tin. It was still, essentially the stone age; the final stone age, technically known as the Chalcolithic (or “copper-rock”) Period. Somehow, from these simple craters, a thing that was to change history sprang forth. One can never know what prompted these early industrial pioneers to start digging for copper ore, a metal that melts at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, but one can spin a yarn of sorts. Allow me.
A simple nomadic clan with very little to show for itself discovers that these little green rocks (sandstone-based copper ore) are a bit of fun. If, for example, you mix the stuff with water, you can paint green marks on your body. If after a successful hunt, you're sitting around the fire gnawing on ibex meat and you want to give the kids a giggle, you can throw the rocks into the fire to make delightful green sparks. Then, several generations later, on a night when the fire is particularly hot, someone notices that if these pieces of sandstone melt, they turn to glass (You haven't forgotten that melted sand becomes glass, have you?). Now there's a commodity. Collect them, see how they sparkle, trade them with other clans. In fact, if you can't find enough lying about, dig a hole and look for them underground. And then, and this may have taken many generations, one day, when for some unknown reason, the fire is unreasonably huge, it is discovered that under ideal conditions, something comes out of the fire that's totally different than what went in. Pure copper. It can be shaped, it can be worked, it can be turned into items of value: Weapons, tools and ritual objects.
Weapons, tools and ritual objects. It sounds like such an innocent and clinical list, but in this simple way, we took one more step towards civilization. For it is these three essentials that set us apart from the rest of the creatures of the earth. Predators hunt, but they do so with tooth and claw, not with weapons. Some animals may briefly change their environment, but they do so without the aid of hammer or chisel. And perhaps most important of all, only human beings seek their maker by imitating the act of creation.
The earliest professions are enumerated in the fourth chapter of Genesis in an uncanny replay of human development. First came Cain, the farmer and Abel, the shepherd, followed by Jubal the artist, and finally Tubal Cain, “the forger of every cutting instrument of copper and iron.” Timna is the land of Tubal Cain.
Here in these holes, beneath the scorching sun, at the foot of stunning 2,000 foot high cliffs of red sandstone, our ancestors began their inexorable march towards the thing that we call technology. They became artisans.