by Laura Geggel
A lead and wood artifact discovered in a roughly 6,000-year-old grave in a desert cave is the oldest evidence of smelted lead on record in the Levant, a new study finds.
The artifact, which looks like something between an ancient wand and a tiny sword, suggests that people in Israel’s northern Negev desert learned how to smelt lead during the Late Chalcolithic, a period known for copper work but not lead work, said Naama Yahalom-Mack, the study’s lead researcher and a postdoctoral student of archaeology with a specialty in metallurgy at the Institute of Earth Sciences and the Institute of Archaeology at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Moreover, an analysis of the lead suggests that it came from Anatolia (in modern-day Turkey), which is part of the Levant, or the area encompassing the eastern Mediterranean. The artifact was likely a valuable tool, given that it shows signs of wear and was placed in a grave alongside the remains of an individual in the cave, she said.
“This is an incredible find,” Yahalom-Mack told Live Science. “It’s a uniquely preserved object from the late fifth millennium, which includes metal that was brought all the way from Anatolia. It probably had very high significance for the people who were buried with it.”
Researchers discovered the artifact in Ashalim Cave, a sprawling underground cavern that’s been on archaeologists’ radar since the 1970s. In 2012, the Israel Cave Research Center remapped the cave, and called in a team of archaeologists when they discovered artifacts.
Archaeologists Mika Ullman and Uri Davidovich led the archaeological survey and studied themazelike rooms, including one used for a burial chamber. The chamber was so small and low that they had to get down on their stomachs and wiggle forward to see the secluded space, Yahalom-Mack said.
It was there that they found the lead artifact.
“It was just lying there,” Yahalom-Mack said. “All they needed to do was pick it up from the surface of the cave.”
The artifact is small — a stick of wood attached to a sculpted lead piece. The wood measures 8.8 inches (22.4 centimeters) long, and is made of tamarisk (a group of plants common in the Negev desert, from the genus Tamarix). The lead piece is 1.4 inches (3.7 cm) long and weighs about 5.5 ounces (155 grams), according to the study.
Radiocarbon dating suggests the wood was created between 4300 B.C. and 4000 B.C., “which is extremely early,” Yahalom-Mack said. “For a wooden artifact to be preserved [that long] is incredible.”