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14 August 2004
Site reveals the Middle East's Iron Age secrets

A recent dig at tel Beit Shemesh (Israel) has found a iron workshop dating back to the Ninth Century BCE- the earliest known in the eastern Mediterranean.
     Iron was employed for many centuries in the ancient Levant, but as an exotic metal used to make small ornaments and ceremonial artifacts, according to experts involved in the dig, which was sponsored by Tel Aviv University. Most utilitarian artifacts during the 3rd to 2nd millennium BCE were made of cheaper and more malleable copper and bronze. More recent archeological research has shown that iron replaced bronze as the leading metal only around 1,000 BCE. This is due to the fact that ancient forges weren't able to reach the high melting temperature of iron (1,537 degrees C).
     In addition, the spongy mass of slag and iron that results from iron smelting has to be consolidated by repeated heating and hammering to remove impurities - and even then, the iron was relatively soft and inferior to bronze. This was before blacksmiths learned to add carbon by burying the raw iron in a charcoal fire and hardening the resulting steel by plunging it into cold water. This tempering process was not used regularly until the 2nd Century CE.
     Until the TAU Institute of Archeology dig, which was co-directed by Drs. Shlomo Bunimovitz and Zvi Lederman, no iron workshop from the Iron Age had been found in Israel or the whole Near East. Thus scientists who wanted to study the transition from bronze to iron had to analyze finished artifacts instead of industrial remains. The Beit Shemesh dig provides a detailed study of iron technology during the crucial period of iron's adoption for common use.
     After it was discovered in 2001, the workshop was excavated and analyzed extensively by TAU researchers along with colleagues from University College in London. All the smithing hearths (pits) contained charcoal, square-shaped ceramic blowpipe nozzles and slag waste products. Hundreds of iron objects, mostly slag but also handmade artifacts, were found; these included bronze arrowheads which may have served as models for iron ones. The new finds suggest that only the rise of an independent Judean monarchy allowed the establishment of an advanced, practical iron industry in the area.

Source: Jerusalem Post (8 August 2004)

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