During the Chalcolithic period, craft specialization developed to a higher level than at any previous time in the history of the Levant.11

In addition, long- and short-distance trade both increased significantly during the Chalcolithic period. Popular items that were traded included vessels carved out of basalt rock, copper, thin flint scrapers, obsidian, sickle blades and ivory statuettes. The raw materials used to craft these objects came from regions scattered throughout the Levant—from eastern Turkey in the north to Egypt in the south. By using statistical analyses, petrography (the study of rocks and minerals found in artifacts with the aim of identifying their sources) and scanning electron microscopes (SEM), archaeologists have been able to discover the intensity and nature of this ancient trade.

In the Chalcolithic village of Shiqmim, we discovered one of the earliest industrial sites for copper metallurgy in the Near East. The finds included tools, ornaments, ores, slags and crucibles (used in melting and smelting ores).12 Using the SEM, our experts (Sariel Shalev and Peter Northover) were able to match up the slags, ores and crucibles with the copper tools also found on the site. The ores, it turned out, came from the Wadi Feinan in Jordan, south of the Dead Sea, over 80 miles from Shiqmim. Obviously, the raw materials used to manufacture copper tools were traded over a considerable distance. Moreover, animal bone studies indicate that the Shiqmim copper workers probably depended on only one beast of burden, the donkey. We can easily imagine how much time and energy went into early metal production.

Ordinary tools were not the only copper objects manufactured in the Chalcolithic period. In the early 1960s, Pessah Bar-Adon surveyed the Nahal Mishmar, a wadi south of Ein Gedi that empties into the Dead Sea. There, high up in a cave that could be reached only by a rope ladder, Bar-Adon found the so-called Cave of the Treasure. Hidden behind a large stone were over 400 beautifully preserved copper mace heads, scepters, crowns and other objects—all from the Chalcolithic period. Most of these artifacts are nonutilitarian; they may have symbolized social rank, and/or they could have been used in cult activities. Similar objects, such as the scepter and mace head from Shiqmim, have been found at a number of sites in the Beer-Sheva valley. Metallurgical studies of these “cult or prestige” objects from Shiqmim reveal that, unlike the ores, slags and ordinary tools found at the site, these objects contain a very high arsenic content. This is a clear indication that the mace head and scepter were not manufactured on the site. To achieve the unusual shapes that characterize cult or prestige metal objects, the Chalcolithic craftsmen needed a copper alloy with a high arsenic content; such an alloy is more fluid than ordinary copper and, thus, is easier to cast in exotic shapes. Accordingly, we can now define two distinct metal industries during the Chalcolithic period: one for making simple, everyday tools and another for cult or prestige objects, which required more complicated casting.

Where did the copper alloy with the arsenic come from? So far, we don’t know.