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At “Slaves’ Hill,” Some Workers Ate Better Than Others

New research suggests that the workers at copper mines in the Levant were valued workers, not slaves

(Neil Emmerson/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Back in the 1930s, when archaeologists excavated an ancient copper mine in Israel, they named it Slaves' Hill. Mining and refining copper is backbreaking work, and scholars have assumed for quite some time that the people who worked in the harsh conditions of early copper refineries were slaves. But now, a new study has looked at the food remnants found on the Slaves' Hill site, and the results indicate that the name might be a complete misnomer.

"The copper smelters were given the better cuts of meat — the meatiest parts of the animals," author Dr. Sapir-Hen said in a press release. "Someone took great care to give the people working in the furnaces the best of everything. They also enjoyed fish, which must have been brought from the Mediterranean hundreds of kilometers away. This was not the diet of slaves but of highly-regarded, maybe even worshipped, craftsmen.”

Copper smelters would have had to have detailed, specilized knowledge to operate the furnaces and turn the copper ore into more useful forms. Published in the journal Antiquity, the study suggests that at least some of the people working the site 3,000 years ago were treated as skilled workers, not slaves. 

But as Past Horizons reports, this study doesn’t prove that all people involved in the copper industry were of the same status. While the smelters and people working the furnaces may have had benefits of rich, rare foods, people working the actual mines might not have had access to the same kinds of quality products, and could very well have been slaves. 

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