CHAPTER 2 RARE EARTH ELEMENTS
Jerusalem December, 1987
Under the December rain, Professor Avner Avram climbed the stairs of the Hebrew University's archaeology building and stepped into the hallway. The middle-aged professor paused to catch his breath and shake the accumulated rain from his raincoat. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he walked to an open door and entered.
"My dear Daphna!” he said to his wife who was bent over papers stacked on her desk. She swiveled around and greeted him with a broad grin.
“Avner. I’ve got news for you,” she said as she walked to hug and kiss him.
She gestured to an armchair by the desk. “Take a load off your feet. Coffee?"
"No thanks,” Avner answered. “I’m intrigued by your new finding in Timna."
"Believe it or not. I analyzed the sediment in the Timna jars and found traces of pure rhenium."
"Pure rhenium? Such a claim will raise serious doubts in the scientific world.”
“I expect them.”
“Rhenium has never been found before in a pure elemental form. How do you explain such a discovery?”
"I didn’t look for it. I hoped to find old artifacts and malachite. But it’s exciting is more than a surprise. Rhenium is an essential metal in the making of alloys used in jet engines to withstand high temperatures. If Israel has large rhenium deposits, can you imagine what such a rare mineral can do for the economy of the country?
"Daphna. You’re an archaeologist like me, yet you seem quite familiar with the subject."
"The topic of rare metals is fascinating. Some are used in making electronic components, surgical instruments and orthopedic implants. Catalysts used in oil refineries to increase yield depend on lanthanum. Without rare metals, modern technology would come to a screeching halt.”
Avner smiled as he remembered a Harvard seminar on the beginning of time. At least three professors had claimed that not all the elements in the universe ended up in abundance on earth after the Big Bang. Some may be in greater abundance on Mars or on asteroids.
Daphna opened a file marked ‘Rhenium’.
“I’ll tell you my thoughts. I wonder how our planet would be without rare earth metals. I fear for our technological revolution and even our civilization. At the present time, over fifty percent of these metals are supplied by China. Can you imagine what will happen if many companies move their factories to China to access these elements?”
“The economic balance of many countries will be affected.”
“Even wars may start.”
“You think so?”
“People don’t care about elements because they don't know much about them. If they lose their jobs, if their cost of living skyrockets, and - when they replace their cars with bicycles, can't use their TVs and can't get enough milk for their children, - they'll ask why their leaders didn’t solve the problem, even if it meant searching for solutions on the moon or sending astronauts to bring the needed elements from Mars.
“Sure, countries will declare wars to get rare elements. Imagine a medium-sized country discovering deposits of rhenium or neodymium the Soviet Union needs. Having to face an unrelated crisis like water rights or a border dispute, it may decide to impose a minerals embargo. Would the mighty USSR capitulate? Or would it just invade to take control of mines and processing factories? No United Nations resolution would stop the Soviets.”
“OK. I’ll ask again. How do you explain your find when pure rhenium has never been found on earth?”
Daphna walked to a bookcase and brought back a book entitled ‘Chemical Processes’. She sat next to Avner and opened a chapter on rhenium.
“Here, read the underlined paragraph.”
Avner took the book and read aloud.
Rhenium is a rare metal produced in a complex chemical process. It is extracted from flue gases during roasting of molybdenum concentrates and then converted to an ammonium compound which is then reduced in hydrogen to its high purity state.
“A mouthful of chemical details.”
Daphna smiled. “At first, I questioned the sediment test results. Then I suspected that someone had placed the pure metal in the mine after processing it in an industrial chemical laboratory, but I can’t rule out nature’s ability to offer a shortcut by performing the complex process.”
Doubting the nature’s ability theory, Avner glanced at the words she read.
“Did you date the sediment?” he asked.
“Sure, but it wasn’t easy. Over ninety five percent was non-organic matter which cannot be carbon dated. I had to use all the scientific methods to reach my conclusion.”
“I’m not interested in the scientific dating methods you used. What did you conclude?”
“The organic matter in the sediment is from about the tenth century BCE.” Dapha answered.
“That would be about the reign of King Solomon.”
“So it seems.”
Avner’s mind ran back three thousand years, trying to picture the King holding the jar with its sediments. He picked up one of the jars, turned it around, inspected its surface and placed it back on the table. He assured himself that the nature’s ability option was an impossible explanation.
* * *
Avner, Daphna and several scholars met with the executive director of the Timna copper mine museum, a ruddy-faced man in shorts and shirt sleeves. He led them to his office.
Three color posters with photographs of the valley hung behind the director’s wooden desk. A book titled History of Copper Mining was on a center table with six armchairs. After welcoming greetings they followed him to the visitors display room.
Samples of rough and polished malachite rocks from the mines were displayed in two glass cabinets flanked by photographs of the valley rocks and cliffs. The director started with an introductory talk about the history of the mines and the use of modern mining techniques.
“How old is the oldest mine at Timna?” asked one of the scholars.
“5,000 years is a wild guess. In the 1930s, Nelson Glueck attributed the Timna mines to King Solomon, who lived in the 10th century BCE. More recently, surveys and excavations in the Timna basin enabled us to reconstruct the long and complex history of copper production during the reign of the Egyptian Pharaohs of the 14th century BCE.”
“About 3400 years ago?” the scholar asked.
“Yes,” agreed the director. “Sometime before the Iron Age. About four centuries before King Solomon’s reign. The existence of his mines is stated in the books of Deuteronomy, Job and Ezekiel. Information on his trades is rather limited. He was renowned for his wisdom and trading with other nations. His dealings with King Hiram of Tyre and the Queen of Sheba resulted in mutually beneficial diplomatic relations. The legends on his wealth are many.”
“What are these legends?” asked another scholar.
“Well, for example, The Bible tells us of ships King Solomon sent from his southern port to bring gold from the land of Ophir, whose location remains a mystery. Shomer Otzar HaMelech, the guardian of the king’s treasure, certainly recorded those transactions somewhere.”
“Is copper the only metal mined at Timna?” he asked the director.
“We found an insignificant amount of molybdenum.”
“Does rhenium ring a bell?” Daphna asked.
“Pure rhenium has never been found in its metallic form on earth,” the director said.
* * *
The face Avner saw in the mirror with all its craggy lines guided his mind to the land of nostalgia. Time had taken its toll. His mind travelled back to the lonely stretch on White Horse beach on the way to Cape Cod in Massachusetts. He was sun bathing on the sand, gazing at the sea when he spotted Elaine, the woman who became his first love from the moment he laid his eyes on her, the woman he married and bore him his only son Gideon, the woman who lost her battle with cancer at the age of forty seven. His mind relived his meeting with Daphna and marrying her seven years later. His scientific achievements gave him a sense of fulfillments and satisfaction, but didn't diminish his lust of challenges presented to him by the information during his Timna visit.
Avner's archaeology interest was aroused. What Daphna found in the Timna cave was a fact. If somehow nature found a way to perform the three processing levels of refining, nature is smarter than humans. Pure rhenium may exist on another planet or on an asteroid, but if we could find it here on Earth, the ramifications of such a discovery would be enormous.
He was mostly puzzled by three questions:
Could a scroll of a royal treasure guardian survive 3,000 years?
The second question was bothersome.
Why is the media not aware of last year’s discovery of molybdenum at Timna?
The third question was more intriguing.
How would the Prime Minister react to the idea of space missions to gather rare earth metals from an asteroid or a planet in the solar system?
* * *
Daphna returned from her third Timna visit with a new dilemma on whether she should reveal to her husband her real interest in King Solomon. It all started with Tolstoy. In his diary of 1884 he wrote:
“We must create a ‘Reading Club.’ I know what we should read: Socrates, Pascal, Buddha, Confucius, the Talmud, Montesquieu and…..”
The list included no less than three hundred thinkers and writers considered by Tolstoy as the essentials of philosophy. Among them, he included King Solomon. He stated that a philosopher loves and seeks wisdom, while a ‘wise man’ is a person who already had wisdom. He labeled King Salomon “The Wise".
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