In the “Bronze Age” Where Did the Bronze Come From?

Introduction

Undoubtedly, this little monograph will be met with yawns of disinterest from most.  I started thinking about the question of how the wandering Hebrews could come up with enough bronze to fashion the altar God commanded them to make while researching another Exodus topic.  Since an entire epoch of some 2.100 years[i] was named for the metal, which happened to encompass the beginnings of civilization and the first monotheistic religion, I decided to at least ask the question.

Ingredients

Bronze is an alloy of two constituent metals: copper and tin.  I was drawn into this question trying to understand how the Israelites, wandering in the “wilderness” of Northwestern Arabia/Southern Jordan/Israel (i.e. Midian and Moab), how they could come up with enough copper and tin to fashion the altar God instructed them to make to accommodate “burnt” and other offerings. 

Altar of the Tabernacle

In Exodus 27:1-5 we read this:

[27:1] “You shall make the altar of acacia wood, five cubits long and five cubits broad. The altar shall be square, and its height shall be three cubits. [2] And you shall make horns for it on its four corners; its horns shall be of one piece with it, and you shall overlay it with bronze. [3] You shall make pots for it to receive its ashes, and shovels and basins and forks and fire pans. You shall make all its utensils of bronze. [4] You shall also make for it a grating, a network of bronze, and on the net you shall make four bronze rings at its four corners. [5] And you shall set it under the ledge of the altar so that the net extends halfway down the altar.

OK, that’s an industrial amount of bronze. They needed enough of the metal to “coat” the wooden altar of roughly 7.5’X7.5’X4.5’, plus pour into molds the metal to make all of the utensils, buckets, etc. and the “grating”.  So where would they be able to come up with enough copper and tin to make such a thing while wandering in the Arabah, the southern desert extending from roughly Jericho south to the area of central Saudi Arabia?

Copper

In New insights into Levantine copper trade: analysis of ingots from the Bronze and Iron Ages in Israel – ScienceDirect, the authors identify and analyze several ancient instances of copper ore.  They say:

To summarize, a total of twenty-seven copper ingots, mostly from the second and first millennia BCE, were analyzed for this study. These comprise the majority of copper ingots known so far from this region and therefore contribute considerably to the available knowledge of copper sources and trade routes in the Levant during the periods in question, particularly the changing balance between Cyprus and Arabah copper ore deposits and their role in the regional metal exchange networks.

Many of these ingots they were able to date (using lead isotope analysis) to the Late Bronze Age (1550-1200 BC) that encompasses the time period we’re interested in, that of the Exodus.  Of the ore locations of Cypress and the Arabah (southern desert) they identify the Arabah examples, citing Timna, as the oldest (Early or Intermediate Bronze Age).  The source of Late Bronze samples found near Hazor is identified as Cyprus (or “Alashiya”, a region of Cyprus).

The conclusion one gets from this scholarly paper is that there were ample sources of copper ore available to our wandering Hebrews with which to produce the needed bronze.

Tin

The paper Groundbreaking study: Ancient tin ingots found in Israel were mined in England | The Times of Israel reports the amazing conclusion of a paper[ii] analyzing the metallurgy of tin ingots found in several ancient contexts (including shipwreck sites off Haifa), that the tin used in bronze production in the Levant was mined in Great Britain, and shipped in trade with Bronze Age Levant Kings.  Interestingly, the previous (re: copper sources) paper identifies Mari, Syria as an additional source of Bronze Age tin.


Conclusion

So there you have it.  Now, assumedly not all of the Hebrews had been engaged in making mud bricks in Egypt so some would have had some knowledge of the metallurgy of making bronze.  And at some of their stops in the desert, they would have not been too far away from the well-traveled trade routes through which these materials would have traveled.  In addition, we know from the Bible that they left Egypt with lots of gold and silver to pay for these metals (certainly they had enough initially to have cast the “molten” calf at Mt. Horeb).  So…question answered.


[i] Bronze Age – Wikipedia

[ii] Berger, D., Soles, J. S., Giumlia-Mair, A. R., Brügmann, G., Galili, E., Lockhoff, N., & Pernicka, E. (2019) Isotope systematics and chemical composition of tin ingots from Mochlos (Crete) and other Late Bronze Age sites in the eastern Mediterranean Sea: An ultimate key to tin provenance? | PLOS ONE, 14(6), e0218326.

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