Negev Highlands, Israel
An ancient lead artefact discovered in a cave in Israel's Negev desert is the oldest known lead object found in the region Matthew Parker/Wikimedia Commons

A lead tool discovered in Israel what archaeologists say depicts the earliest evidence of use of the metal by humans. The tool was found in a cave in north of Negev desert, in southern Israel.

The lead object, weighing 155.8g, was found attached onto a 22.4cm long wooden shaft and dates back to the Late Chalcolithic period, roughly 6,000 years ago from the present. "The lead object was found attached to an intact wooden shaft in a field survey at Ashalim Cave, in the northern Negev Highlands. Radiocarbon dating of the shaft provided a calibrated date of ca. 4300–4000 BCE," the researchers wrote in a paper published online in the 2 December issue of the journal, PLos ONE.

Chemical analysis of the metal has revealed that the ancient tool was made of "almost" pure metallic lead, the researchers said of the find from the Late Chalcolithic period, which is already known for metallurgical works. According to the researchers, the lead used in the tool may have been extracted from its ores found in the Taurus Mountains in Anatolia, Turkey. "Either the finished object, or the raw material, was brought to the southern Levant (Israel)."

"The study of the Ashalim Cave object, the only pre-4th millennium lead artefact ever uncovered in the Levant, sheds new light on the early metallurgy of lead, its sources, and its technological role at the formative stages of metal production," the authors wrote.

Lead's use in Late Chalcolithic

Researchers suggest that the lead tool found in the cave may have been used in mortuary activity as human remains and potteries were also uncovered from the site earlier. "This may be supported by its final deposition in the deepest section of a complex maze cave, very difficult to access and used solely during the Late Chalcolithic for ritual activities related to the burial of specific individuals," the researchers noted, adding that the use of metals in burials is well attested during the era.

Another possible use of the object may have been as a spindle whorl. "This interpretation is based on the morphology of the whole artefact," the authors said. "The position of the depression and the perforated metal object resemble high-whorl spindles." They said the abrasion marks visible on the lead object were possibly the result of the spinning process.