Iron Age chemists ate like kings


The team excavated animal and fish bones at the Slaves' Hill site © CTV project at Tel Aviv University/American Friends of Tel Aviv University

Archaeologists in Israel have found new evidence that Iron Age ‘chemists’ – metal smelters who could extract copper from its ore – dined on fine meat and fish, and were admired and respected for their ability to get valuable metal from lumps of rock.

The ‘Slaves’ Hill’ archaeological site in Israel – dating back to 10BC – was identified in the 1930s as a place where copper was extracted from its ore in clay furnaces. It had been assumed that this work was undertaken by slaves, but research led by archeologists at Tel Aviv University suggests the workers who manned the furnaces at this site were in fact highly skilled craftsmen who were respected, and possibly even worshipped, for their seemingly ‘magical’ abilities to turn stone into metal.

Animal remains found around the site suggest the smelters’ meals included the best cuts of meat – usually reserved for those with a high social status – as well as fish that would have been brought hundreds of miles from the coast.

Copper was a hugely important material at the time, and was used to make tools and weapons. It was extracted from its ore by heating it to 1200°C in a furnace with a reducing agent such as carbon, usually in the form of charcoal. The ancient chemists who knew how to do this, the researchers say, were in a powerful position.


Related Content

A fresh look at alchemy

21 June 2013 Premium contentFeature

news image

Lawrence Principe cracks the alchemists' codes and discovers the sophisticated chemistry they used

Chemistry redux

19 February 2014 Premium contentFeature

news image

At least six UK universities have recently opened a chemistry department. Kathryn Roberts reports

Most Read

Perovskite solar cells show hydrogen production promise

26 September 2014 Research

news image

Highly efficient solar cells and catalysts made from cheap, common materials use sunlight to split water

Big name coffee chains drawn into acrylamide fight

23 September 2014 News and Analysis

news image

Starbucks and other coffee chains are being sued in California by a non-profit that wants carcinogen labels slapped on their ...

Most Commented

Perovskite solar cells show hydrogen production promise

26 September 2014 Research

news image

Highly efficient solar cells and catalysts made from cheap, common materials use sunlight to split water

First interstellar sighting of a branched alkyl molecule

25 September 2014 Research

news image

Discovery shows that stellar nurseries could hold amino acids too that might have been the spark for life on Earth