Dr. Adi Eliyahu Behar

Dr. Adi Eliyahu Behar integrates archaeology with chemistry to discover the origins of iron artifacts from the Early Iron Age and shed light on the development and production of iron in the Levant.

“Using new isotopic tools, I am able to identify the source of ferrous metals in archaeological finds dating from over 3,000 years ago.”

Adi Eliyahu Behar

Mixing chemistry with archaeology

Little did Dr. Adi Eliyahu Behar imagine that her academic career in chemistry would take her down an unexpected path, thousands of years back to biblical times.

After completing a Bachelor’s degree at Tel Aviv University and a Master’s degree at The Weizmann Institute of Science, both in Chemistry, she took a four-year break in the UK. Later, while searching for a subject for her PhD, she discovered a group back in Israel dealing with archaeological science, or “micro-archaeology”, under the direction of Prof. Steve Weiner from the Department of Chemistry at the Weizmann Institute. This link applies modern analytical science to the understanding and reconstruction of ancient archaeological materials and archaeological sites.

One of Adi’s current projects deals with the technological aspects of iron smelting and provenance of iron in the Southern Levant during the Early Iron Age (11-9th C BCE). This interdisciplinary project combines the analysis of archaeological materials in the lab together with performing a set of experimental trials in the field, involving collaboration between geochemists, archaeo-metallurgists and professional iron smelters.

During her doctorate studies, she began working with archaeological materials found at the Tel Dor archaeological site on Israel’s Mediterranean coast under the joint auspices of archaeologists from Haifa University and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In her work, she began developing analytical methods for identifying the use of fire for pyrotechnological processes, such as the making of ceramic, metals glass and glazes, in ancient times.

Following her doctorate, she joined a group of researchers working in collaboration with Prof. Weiner (Weizmann Institute) and Israel Finkelstein (Tel Aviv University), one of Israel’s most renowned archaeologists, on a project funded by the European Research Council, titled “Reconstructing Ancient (Biblical) Israel: The Exact and Life Sciences Perspective”. She and a colleague from The Hebrew University, Naama Yahalom-Mack, studied the specific area of the transition from the use of copper and bronze to the development of iron technologies. Adi’s research shed new light on the relatively unexplored subject of the emerging iron technology.

Adi’s doctoral and post-doctoral research have produced new insights about identification of archaeological findings that prove there was an iron industry in Israel, and shed light on the type of technology that was used and what products were being produced. There are still many questions left open, particularly regarding the source of raw materials. From where did the iron ore needed to produce iron come?

Copper production can be traced back to the 6th-5th millennia. The sources of copper and bronze are relatively known, and provenance analysis, which matches ore sources with the final products, can be scientifically done by measuring the lead isotope ratios of both, determining whether they originate in the Arabah, Cyprus, Greece or elsewhere. This analysis yields a great deal of information about bronze production and its implications on geopolitics and international trade routes.

The Iron Age in the Levant is estimated to have begun around 1200 BCE. Unlike with copper and bronze objects, whose origins can be traced by provenance analysis using lead isotopes, there is no such tool for determining the source of iron in archaeological artifacts. Paradoxically, although iron, which is found in rocks on the open ground, is much more prevalent and plentiful than copper, which needs to be located and mined underground, no evidence indicating the source of the iron or the location of its production can be identified from samples or artifacts. Adi was motivated to look for a way to determine the source of these iron findings.

Under the auspices of Ariel University, which gave her the opportunity to work as a research fellow, Adi won a personal research grant from the Israel Science Foundation to delve into the subject and investigate her unanswered questions.

In her research, she uses experimental archaeological methods together with newly-developing scientific methods to develop a provenancing tool for ferrous metals. Three successful smelting experiments using three different iron ore deposits from locations in modern Israel, for which there is no archaeological evidence of use, were carried out in a bloomery shaft furnace. In each of these smelts, a bloom was produced, which was then forged into a bar. By conducting the full production process, Adi and her colleges were able to show that the three ores chosen for the experiments were suitable for producing iron and may have been used in the past.  (The smelting method used in the field experiments was not necessarily the same as that used in ancient times, but it did yield molten iron bloom.)

Since the advent of the Iron Age, this primitive method of iron production developed and spread from the Levant throughout the world and influenced the course of history through the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, nearly two millennia later when blast furnaces evolved and new technologies emerged.

Archaeologists have access to many sophisticated scientific methods, such as carbon 14 or ancient DNA (aDNA) analysis, which have become their intrinsic tools. Until the development of these tools over the past 50 years, archaeologists could depend only on limited methods, such as typology to extract information from artifacts. Dr. Eliyahu Behar is currently collaborating with Dr. Michael Brauns, a German scientist, to develop a new dating tool.

Dr. Brauns published research about isotopic analysis of osmium, which is an element present in minute quantities in an iron ore. He developed a method of identifying the isotopic composition of osmium, similar to the isotopic cross-matching used to for determining the provenance of copper-based metals and the location of their production. Using the experimental smelting, Adi and her colleges have managed to demonstrate the high potential of the osmium isotopic system for provenance analysis of iron-based metals. Future research will help to correlate the ore sources with archaeological objects and tools, and by doing so, determine their geographic origins.

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