Professor Beno Rothenberg
1914 - 2012
Professor Beno Rothenberg was the legendary excavator of the Timna Valley and the founding father of the research discipline of archaeo-metallurgy, the study of ancient metals and their production process
In Memoriam: Professor Beno Rothenberg
(first published in 2012 in Israel Exploration Journal 62(1):244-246)
PROFESSOR BENO ROTHENBERG, a pioneer in archaeo-metallurgical studies and the excavator of Timna, passed away peacefully on March 13, 2012, in his home at Ramat Gan at the age of 98.
Although never completely embraced by the archaeological community in Israel, Beno Rothenberg’s contributions to the field were outstanding. Indeed, hehelped place the young country at the forefront of two budding sub-fields of archaeological research: the study of ancient metals (with a focus on evolution of production technologies) and the multidisciplinary approach dedicated to the application of analytical methods from the natural and exact sciences in archaeological studies (broadly termed ‘archaeometry’). It was, in fact, Rothenberg who coined the term ‘archaeo-metallurgy’, now a common title for a well-established discipline.
Born in Frankfurt in 1914, Beno Rothenberg immigrated with his family to Tel Aviv in 1933. His academic training was in the fields of mathematics and philosophy, studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the University of Frankfurt, where he received his Ph.D. in 1961. Prior to his engagement in archaeology, Rothenberg published several important articles in philosophy, as well as a book of poetry. After buying his own camera in 1945, Rothenberg became a passionate photographer, and he gained fame as one of the most prominent photographers of the early stages of the State of Israel.
Photography was what drew Rothenberg to archaeology. In the early 1950s, he was the photographer of the archaeological expeditions of the Jewish American archaeologist Nelson Glueck to the Negev; Rothenberg was promoted to expedition supervisor and became an administrator of the field team. In these positions and with Glueck’s support, he developed the skills that allowed him to embark on his own archaeological projects, beginning with a survey of the Sinai Peninsula in 1956. More or less concurrently with his work with Glueck’s expeditions, Rothenberg became a protégé of Yohanan Aharoni through their work in the Judaean Desert. Aharoni’s support became an important asset to Rothenberg in the 1960s, when Rothenberg’s new research trajectory led to scholarly collisions with Glueck and other prominent biblical archaeologists over the interpretation of archaeological data and biblical texts.
The desert landscapes of southern Israel were the focus of Rothenberg’s research for several decades. The stark images of the harsh empty land are sprinkled throughout his publications. His popular books are beautiful syntheses of photo albums, stories from the bonfire of various research expeditions, and vivid descriptions of scientific discoveries. Rothenberg’s enthusiasm for archaeological exploration blended with his artistic bent and appreciation of aesthetics, a combination that made his research colourful and attractive to layman and scholar alike; this was the grain around which his archaeological practice was centred, a distilled form of the archaeological endeavour in itself.
The romantic air of Rothenberg’s early explorations in the wilderness of southern Israel did not affect the objectivity of his interpretations, and he stuck to field evidence even in a period soaked with biblical literalism in archaeological research. With strict adherence to the facts on the ground, Rothenberg replaced Glueck’s ‘Solomon’s Mines’ at Timna with an interpretation of Egyptian-controlled mines after the discovery of the Hathor Temple. Years later, when I sat in his cozy apartment and introduced him to new analytic data which negated some of his previous chronological conclusions (Sites F2 and 30), he again hewed close to the scientific evidence and wholeheartedly (and graciously) accepted the revisions. More than that, he welcomed the new research methods, saying: ‘We did the best we could with the methods then available to us’. Not content with the standard archaeological practice of his days, Rothenberg realized the importance of collaborating with scientists of other fields, and he included geologists and material engineers in his team of the ‘Arava Expedition’ to aid in the excavations at the ancient copper mines and smelting sites of Timna. Consequently, Rothenberg was the first to locate the ancient mine shafts and galleries and the first to correctly interpret the various metallurgical remains, including installations that were entirely misunderstood by earlier scholars. Rothenberg’s discoveries at Timna, one of the best preserved ancient metal-production regions in the world, prompted him to establish the first research institution devoted to archaeo-metallurgical studies (Institute for Archaeo-Metallurgical Studies [IAMS]) in 1973. His connections with Tel Aviv University and his long-lasting affiliation with the Eretz Israel Museum (the home of the ‘Arava Expedition’ for many years) did not yield a permanent position, and he chose the University of London as the home of the new institution, still one of the leading research units of its kind in the world. Nevertheless, Rothenberg, devoted to Israel, continued to live and work in the country, limiting his travels to Europe to the minimum necessary.
Beno Rothenberg’s work in the Arava has culminated in two seminal publications: the final report of the excavations at the Hathor Temple in Timna (IAMS 1988), an extraordinarily rich (over 11,000 small finds) sanctuary, dated to the late fourteenth–mid-twelfth centuries BCE, and the detailed presentation and analysis of copper-smelting related artefacts throughout the millennia in The Ancient Metallurgy of Copper (IAMS 1990). The extensive surveys conducted by Rothenberg in the Negev and in the Sinai Peninsula still await final publication (the material is now with the Israel Antiquities Authority).
In addition to his research in the Arava Valley and the Sinai Peninsula, Rothenberg’s main archaeological achievements were his studies at the Phoenician and Roman silver-production sites of Rio Tinto and Huelva in Spain. Although some of the material from Rothenberg’s work in these regions did not see final publication, the data published constitute an invaluable source of information on ancient metallurgy and remain a basic reference in modern research. In both regions, Rothenberg had students working on various aspects of ancient metallurgy; some became prominent scholars working today in the U.K., Cyprus, Spain, the U.S. and Germany.
Leaving behind an important legacy, Beno Rothenberg had an impact on the archaeology of Israel and its place in the global archaeological scene. Although some of his interpretations have been contested, Rothenberg was a visionary archaeologist who understood the importance of ancient metallurgy as key to a better understanding of past human societies and considered the archaeology of the copper ore districts of the southern Levant to constitute an invaluable source for research into the interactions of humans with their natural environment. As Rothenberg himself put it, Timna is the best field laboratory for archaeo-metallurgy studies.
Beno Rothenberg’s seeds, sown in a rugged and not always welcoming land, have already demonstrated their potential in various ways. It is now up to us to protect and further cultivate what Rothenberg has built, to continue where he left off, and to integrate his approach and fundamental fields of research into the archaeological practice in Israel, the country that became his only home.