Environmental impacts of ancient copper mining and metallurgy: Multi-proxy investigation of human-landscape dynamics in the Faynan valley, southern Jordan

Publication date: October 2016
Source:Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 74
Author(s): Kyle A. Knabb, Yigal Erel, Ofir Tirosh, Tammy Rittenour, Sofia Laparidou, Mohammad Najjar, Thomas E. Levy
The environmental impact of mining and metallurgy is an issue that has affected societies in the ancient Near East over the past 8000 years. We present the results of a multidisciplinary project using agricultural sediments from ancient terraces as a cultural archive of environmental pollution and land use in the copper ore-rich Faynan valley of southern Jordan. Due to the simultaneous production of agricultural goods and copper metallurgy throughout the last 6000 years in the valley, environmental pollution and its consequences for human health have been considered as a factor in settlement abatement. Sediments from two farming terrace systems adjacent to the major mining and smelting locales were analyzed. The sediment analyses included metal concentrations, lead-isotopes and phytolith analysis, and OSL dating. Although measurable concentrations of lead and other heavy metals persist in ancient metallurgical waste piles, our investigations found minimal evidence for contamination in the adjacent terrace systems. Based on these results, we argue that the occurrence of environmental pollution in the Faynan valley is highly variable, and that the distribution of heavy metals resulted from a combination of natural and cultural factors, including persistent landscape features that helped contain the most polluted metallurgical deposits. These findings are significant for understanding the processes of landscape change and human impacts on desert environments, including the ways in which past human actions have negatively affected the environment, as well as preserved and protected the environment from further degradation.