Iron Working; A Judaic Heritage Part I — The Biblical Period

Fact Paper 4-I

© Samuel Kurinsky, all rights reserved

Smith at work
A SMITH AT WORK IN BIENNO, NORTHERN ITALY. The water-powered smithies of Bienno have been in continuous operation since the 14th century. Research by Father Franco Bontempi, a scholarly parish priest of the area, has traced the regionís iron industry back to before the Romans conquered the valley. The gravestones of an ancient Jewish cemetery refer to a synagogue of the early years of the Common Era, and to the involvement of the Jews in the iron industry. Iron smelting and working were practiced by the Israelites in the hills of Canaan in the 12th century BCE, initiating the Iron Age.

In the 12th Century BCE, hundreds of Israelite villages proliferated in the hills of Canaan. The Iron Age likewise appeared, coinciding with Israelite settlement.

A vivid picture of the agronomic and industrial intelligence of the inhabitants of the new Israelite villages emerged from excavations at the city of Ai and near-by Raddana. Ai is cited in the Bible as an important city conquered by the Israelites. The fieldwork was directed by John A. Callaway, who estimated settlement at about 1220 BCE.

The private homes were unique in construction and layout. They were distinguished by the use of pillars to support the roof, and were usually composed of four rooms surrounding a court. They were built over water-storing cisterns. Some of the village streets were paved.

Indicative items found in the home of an Israelite named Ahilud provided a clear picture of the life of its inhabitants. A storage jar handle turned up on which Ahiludís name is inscribed in old Hebrew script. Three family houses, clustered around a common courtyard, contained a number of domestic, agricultural and industrial activities. A silo was installed at the corner of one of the houses; three cooking pits in and near the courtyard and a large fire pit at the center of the large room of the main house provided cooking facilities for an extended family. A workroom contained a hearth for metalworking. "Here," reported Callahan, "metal ingots were melted into crucibles and the molten metal was poured in molds to form daggers, spear points and axe heads for Ahiludís household, as well as for other members of the community."1

The handle socket of an iron mattock (a heavy hoe) was found in Ahiludís house.

Pillared houses and iron implements were likewise found in Israelite settlements as far south as the Negev. An iron plow blade was found at Gibeah, Saulís capitol. Two iron sickles of the tenth century BCE were unearthed at Beer-Sheba; a sickle was also one of two iron artifacts recovered from Tel Masos, in the heart of the Negev.2

image of an iron sickle
An iron sickle recovered from Tel Masos, An Israelite settlement in southern Canaan founded at the end of the 13th century BCE and flourishing for some 300 years. Iron agricultural tools appear uniquely in Israelite communities from the Upper Galilee to the Negev during this early period. Courtesy of the Institute of Archaeology, Tel Aviv Univ.

At Megiddo a blacksmithís workshop from the Solomonic period was identified, together with a considerable horde of iron artifacts, including hoes, plowshares, goads, sickles, a spearhead, shovels, chisels, knives, rings, nails, as well as materials identified as iron ore, slag, and ash.3

Iron artifacts were also found at Taanach, A town that was from time to time contemporary with the Megiddo facility. An extensive investigation of these recoveries determined that by the end of the tenth century, "steel was being consciously produced,"4 in fact, an iron pickaxe, made of carburized iron dated to this early period, was found in the Upper Galilee in Tell Adir.5

The type of iron implements recovered is highly significant. Iron agricultural tools of that period were found only in an Israelite or Judahite context. Only a few iron knives have been found among the artifacts of other peoples of that early period. It can be justifiably assumed that they were obtained in trade with the Israelites.

Likewise, evidence of the earliest iron-making facilities has been found only in an Israelite or Judahite context. The occupational debris of the "Israelite I Period," (which coincides with what the archeologists term "Iron Age I") was found on a high Galilean ridge. Yohanan Aharoni, the noted Israeli archaeologist, noted that "Above this stratum was the debris of a settlement of Israelite II," thus leaving little doubt that the smith was early Israelite.6

image of an iron pick
A late 12th or early 13th century BCE iron pick, found in Tel Adir, Upper Galilee, made of carburized iron. This quasi-steel implement attests to the advanced metallurgy of the early Israelites.

Evidence of an iron-smelting facility was found at the site. Hematite spheres (droplets of metallic iron) showed up in the slag. Subsequently, seven habitation phases of the site were carefully examined. It was determined that Israelites continuously occupied the site from Late Bronze II through Iron Age I ( early tenth century BCE). According to the Bible this was the region in which Rechabite metalworkers roamed.

Many historians had heretofore credited the Philistines with iron-smelting intelligence. No archaeological evidence has ever been found to substantiate this claim. Harold Liebowitz, one of the investigators, reported that "One fact of considerable importance is the absence of evidence of Philistine occupation during any one of the seven occupation phases. Nor, it must be pointed out, does any other evidence exist that would place the Philistines in the region."7

Historians citing the Philistines as smiths base their argument on a single biblical phrase: "Now there was no smith found in all the land of Israel...1 It is interesting to note that those who most avidly quote this passage are the very ones who obdurately argue the inadmissibility of biblical "loreí as evidence! They ignore the scores of other biblical references to the art of smithing. In addition, they take the biblical phrase out of context and ignore the explication that follows. The rest of the sentence reads, "for the Philistines said, lest the Hebrews make them swords or spears."

Thus we learn that the Philistines were well aware of the smithing capabilities of the Israelites. Being then in the conquerorís seat, they confiscated the iron-working shops, prohibited the "Hebrew" smiths from carrying on their trade, leaving them only with tools with which to sharpen their agricultural implements.

"But all the Israelites went down to the Philistines, to sharpen every man his share, and his coulter and his mattock, and for the coulters and for the forks, and for the axes, to sharpen the goads."8

Thus, according to the Bible, the Israelites had owned and produced a large and varied assortment of iron agricultural implements, and the tools to sharpen them. The Philistine prohibition against smithing was intended to preclude the further manufacture and maintenance of military gear.

Archaeological evidence of iron-working in a Judaic and Israelite context supports this interpretation. The lack of such evidence in the context of all other cultures of the time suggests a diametrically opposite conclusion to that drawn by those who assign iron-working capabilities to the Philistines, or, for that matter, to any peoples of the time other than the Israelites, Judahites and the "Hebrews."

The Bible relates that to build the House of God, "David prepared iron in abundance for the nails of the doors of the gates, and for the joinings" (I Chron. 22.3,3). Thereafter, David instructed his son, Solomon, to carry on his work; "I have prepared for the House of the Lord... of brass and iron without weight... Moreover, there are workmen with thee in abundance... all manner of cunning men for all manner of work. Of the gold, the silver, and the brass, and the iron, there is no number." (I Chron. 22.14-16)."

These and many other equally illuminating passages contradict another widely promoted myth (likewise based only on a biblical passage) that Hiram of Tyre provided the metallurgic and other necessary know-how for constructing the House of the Lord. The myth is another classic example of how those who deny legitimacy to biblical history will nonetheless selectively quote the Bible when it serves their purpose.

We should stop to note, first of all, that according to the Bible Hiram had a Judaic mother and was, halachically, at the least, a Jew living in Tyre, as were many Jews. There is no mention of Hiramís father, so we might well assume him to likewise have been Jewish! Solomon contracted with Hiram for the hewing of Lebanese trees to provide the required timbers. The king of Tyre granted permission for doing so as a neighborly gesture. Solomon then provided Hiram with a crew of thirty thousand men "ten thousand a month in courses, a month they were in Lebanon, and two months at home (I Kings V: 27.8)." When enough raw material was obtained, Hiram came to Jerusalem with the (Judaic) workmen to join the crew there in the erection of the holy edifice. So much for the nay-sayers who ignore the significant passages and point to the Tyrians for the expertise in constructing the House of the Lord.

Iron continues to figure prominently in the catalogue of Judahite materials. . That fact is made evident by the recovery of a massive iron chain employed by the Judahites in the defense of Lachish against the Assyrians at the end of the eighth century BCE. Such a chain also appears in a relief depicting a siege of an unidentified Judahite city by Assurbanipal (883-859 BCE) predating the battle of Lachish by 150 years.9

A seventh-century iron chain with a four-pronged hook was recovered from Tel Sera, near Lachish. The site has been identified as the Biblical Ziklag, a city from which David set out to Hebron to be proclaimed king of Israel.10

A hoard of iron farm implements, including a pair of double plows, a single plow, a knife, and a sickle was hidden under the floor of an early seventh century BCE structure in a massive storage jar at Ekron (Tel Mikne). The Canaanite city on the border of Judah had passed back and forth between the Canaanites and the Judahites. The hoard was stowed away during a seventy-year period of peace between the two peoples (7-1-630 BCE). The association of the iron trove with an Israelite, however, is convincingly indicated by its association with a four-horned altar, unmistakably Judahite, found in the niche of the room near the iron implements, by epigraphic Hebrew letters on storage jars, and by stone shekel and bekah weights characteristic of Judah.11

The high degree of metallurgic expertise in Judah is attested by the action of Nebuchadnazzer after defeating Judah in 597 BCE The Babylonian king deported to Babylon "all the craftsmen and smiths (II Kings 24: 12-14)."

Iron smelting and smithing revived in Judah with the return of artisans under Cyrus; It continued to flourish into the Greek and Roman Periods. Jesus ben Sirach (Ecclesiastes) writing during the Greek period at the end of the third century BCE, describes the activity of Judaic smiths in vivid poetry:

...The smith that sitteth by the furnace,
And regardeth his weighty vessels;
The flame of the fire cracketh his flesh,
And with the heat of the furnace he gloweth;
To the hammerís sound he declineth his ear.
And to the vesselís pattern he directeth his eyes.


Note: a full exposition of an extensive bibliography on Iron-Age Israelite ferric arts is provided in chapters 9-12 of The Eighth Day; The Hidden History of the Jewish Contribution to Civilization, and in chapter 3 of The Glassmakers; An Odyssey of the Jews.

  1. Joseph A Callaway, "A visit with Ahilud,í Biblical Archaeological Review, Sept.-Oct. 1983.
  2. Yohanon Aharoni, The Archaeology of the Land of Israel, A. F. Rainey, 1510-7.
  3. Aharoni, Ibid., 156
  4. T. Stech-Wheeler, et al, "Iron at Taanach and early Iron Metallurgy in the Eastern Mediterranean," American Journal of Archaeology, July, 1981, 255.
  5. James D. Mulhy, "How Iron Technology Changed the Ancient World," Archaeology and the Bible, Washington D.C., 1990, 234
  6. Yohanon Aharoni, "The Israelite Occupation of Canaan," Biblical Archaeological Review, May-June 1982, 14.
  7. Harold Liebowitz, "Tel Yiníam," Israel Exploration Journal, 32-1 1982, 64-5, and Israel Exploration Journal 1983, 65.
  8. I Samuel 13:19-22.
  9. Yigael Aden, "The Mystery of the Unexplored Chain," Biblical Archaeological Review, July-Aug. 1984, 65-6.
  10. Eleazar Oís, "Explorations in the Negev and Sinai," Catalogue of the Bethsheba Sinai Museum, Showcase I item 2; showcase IV, items 1 and 4.
  11. Seymor Gitin, "Part II, Olive-suppliers to the World," Biblical Archaeological Review, March-Apr., 1990, 39.