World-System Research and Ancient Israel’s Southern Neighbors (Part II)

By Juan Manuel Tebes
Pontificia Universidad Católica Argentina
Universidad de Buenos Aires
February 2011

Recent Debates on the History of the Negev and Edom

There is no doubt that the World-System model – with its focus on core and peripheral societies, and the long- and short-term processes that shaped their histories and relationships – serves as a useful tool to chart the socio-political fluctuations of ancient Israel’s southern neighbors. However, given the complexities and on-going changes in the Iron Age archaeology of the area, this is easier said than done.

In a recent seminar on the history and archaeology of the Negev and Edom in the Iron Age that took place in Jerusalem,1 lecturers and audience had a unique opportunity to see how difficult is to share some common background on the interpretation of historical and archaeological data that was, until not so far, undisputed. Discussion revolved around three key issues.

One of the issues of fiercest contention was the interpretation of the copper mining and ritual activities that took place in the southern Arabah mines, and particularly Timna valley, during the 13th and 12th centuries BCE. My2 and Tali Erickson-Gini’s3 presentations followed, in general terms, Beno Rothenberg’s decades-old accepted view that the exploitation at Timna was the chief product of the Egyptian intervention into the area (Rothenberg 1972). However, in a long-awaited, thought-provoking presentation, Uzi Avner4 went against the traditional view, arguing that the Timna evidence points rather to a more local role: the largely semi-nomadic population that had been living in the region for centuries. If the Ramessides were present in the southern Arabah, Avner advocated, it was a meager epiphenomenon alongside a tradition of copper mining and ritual practices (even in the so-called Temple of Hathor) that were millennia old. (Even more, to add more fuel to the discussion, two new studies, based mostly on old and new radiocarbon dates, have pushed forward the dates of occupation at Timna: Bimson & Tebes 2009; Ben-Yosef et al. 2010).

Readers are maybe more acquainted with the on-going debate between Thomas Levy and Israel Finkelstein (and their teams) concerning the date, function, and ethnicity of the builders and inhabitants of the square fortress at Khirbet en-Nahas (KEN) in the copper mining district of Faynan. While Levy – director of the recent excavations at the site – defends an early (10th-9th century BCE) date for the fortress, arguing KEN is a superb example of local, autonomous development of hierarchical societies (e.g., Levy and Najjar 2006), Finkelstein points out that, whereas evidence exists of copper mining since the 12th century BCE, the fortress was built in the 7th century as a result of the Assyrian expansion (by the Edomites or the Assyrians themselves) (e.g., Finkelstein & Piasetzky 2008) (for a middle-ground position, see Tebes 2009). Now, in Finkelstein’s model there remains the question of who were the people exploiting the Faynan mines before the fortress was built. In the Jerusalem seminar, Finkelstein5 tried to sort out the question by suggesting a possible influx of population from Moab – which he considers home of a local chiefdom – interested in expanding into this area rich in mineral resources.

A third axis of discussion was raised in the seminar: the sociopolitical position of the settlements that sprang in the northern Negev during the Late Iron Age, such as Beersheba, Arad, Aroer, Ira and Malhata. Yifat Thareani6 exposed the view of the majority when defending the role of the extension of the trade of south Arabian aromatics – itself a product of the increase in the demand of the Assyrian-dominated World-System – into the area as the main reason behind the wave of settlement occurring in the area since the late 8th century BCE (see also Singer-Avitz 1999; Bienkowski & van der Steen 2001; Tebes 2007). In her lecture, Liora Freud7 went against one of the main foundations for supporting this model: the occurrence of imported “Edomite” cooking-pots in the northern Negev. In a 2007 article, I concluded with confidence:

Certainly, it is true that most of the Edomite wares found in the Negev were manufactured with local clays, but the interesting point is the presence of cooking-pots manufactured from southern Jordanian clay and thus apparently brought from that area. Therefore, the occurrence of southern Jordanian Edomite cooking-pots both in the Negev and Edom represents the movements of pastoral groups for whom the Arabah was not in any sense a political limit. These groups followed the pastoral migration itineraries, and most likely, the trade routes as well (Tebes 2007: 625).

Freud’s lecture shook in large part that self-assurance in arguing that the material (that is, the clay) for manufacturing these “Edomite” cooking-pots could have come from sources west of the Wadi Arabah, i.e., from the Negev itself. She further challenged the important role given by scholarship to the semi-nomadic peoples in detriment of the Judaean villagers living in the Beersheba Valley. Although Freud’s hypothesis should stand the test of time (and some scholars present in the seminar think it will not), it stands as a major alternative to the core-induced model of development of the Late Iron Negev.

Was the Egyptian mining enclave at Timna an exploitation by the local peoples? Was early autonomous development of a hierarchical society at Faynan or late secondary-State formation triggered by the Assyrian expansion? Was the wave of settlement in the Late Iron Negev triggered by the extension of the Arabian trade in the hands of semi-nomads or natural spreading out of the Judaean administrative/agricultural towns? The intricacy of these debates demonstrates that there is not an easy, straightforward way of understanding the history of ancient Israel’s southern neighbors in terms of the World-System theory. Moreover, they show that theoretical models should accompany, but not replace, archaeological data. Before Levy’s dig at KEN it was normally understood that State formation in Edom followed on the heels of the Assyrian core’s expansion – a typical case of peripheral political development. Now this is one of several possibilities for explaining the rise of hierarchical societies in southern Transjordan during the Iron Age. However, it would be wrong to infer that Levy’s call (whether correct or not), by challenging the traditional dates of State formation in Edom, is at the same time undermining the validity of the World-System model. This theory allows the autonomous development of a periphery in absence of a powerful core demanding its raw materials, sending out conquering armies, or simply irradiating its appealing culture.

But this is the theme of the next, and last, article.


1 The seminar, called Unearthing the Wilderness: Workshop on the History and Archaeology of the Negev and Edom in the Iron Age, was organized and chaired by the present writer, taking place on December 12, 2010, at the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem. The proceedings, together with other contributions, will be published in the Ancient Near Eastern Studies Supplement series, Peeters Press (Leuven).

2 “The Symbolic and Social World of the Qurayyah Pottery Iconography.”

3 “Timna Site 2: Revisited.”

4 “The Egyptian Sanctuary at Timna Valley – Reconsidered.”

5 “New Perspectives on the Negev and Neighbouring Regions in the Beginning of the Iron Age.”

6 “The Judean Desert Frontier in the 7th Century BCE: A View from ‘Aroer.’”

7 “Local Production of Edomite Cooking Pots in the Beersheba Valley.”


Ben-Yosef, E., T.E. Levy, N.G. Smith, T. Higham, M. Najjar & L. Tauxe. 2010. “The Beginning of Iron Age Copper Production in the Southern Levant: New Evidence from Khirbat al-Jariya, Faynan, Jordan.” Antiquity 84: 724-746.

Bienkowski, P. & E.J. van der Steen. 2001. “Tribes, Trade and Towns: A New Framework for the Late Iron Age in Southern Jordan and the Negev.” BASOR 323: 21-47.

Bimson, J.J. & J.M. Tebes. 2009. “Timna Revisited: Egyptian Chronology and the Copper Mines of the Southern Arabah.” AO 7: 75-118.

Finkelstein, I. & E. Piasetzky. 2008. “Radiocarbon and the History of Copper Production at Khirbet en-Nahas.” TA 35: 82-95.

Levy, T.E. & M. Najjar. 2006. “Some Thoughts on Khirbet en-Nahas, Edom, Biblical History and Anthropology – A Response to Israel Finkelstein.” TA 33: 3-17.

Rothenberg, B. 1972. Timna: Valley of the Biblical Copper Mines. London, Thames and Hudson. Singer-Avitz, L. 1999. “Beersheba- A Gateway Community in Southern Arabian Long-Distance Trade in the Eighth Century B.C.E.” TA 26: 1-75.

Tebes, J.M. 2007. “Assyrians, Judaeans, Pastoral Groups, and the Trade Patterns in the Late Iron Age Negev.” History Compass 5-2: 619-631.

Tebes, J.M. 2009. The Pottery from Khirbet en-Nahas: Another View. Wadi Arabah Project website.

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