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Technology

Why We Celebrate Labor Day

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A newly discovered Bronze Age copper factory in the deserts of southern Jordan suggests that some of the first great cities were built on the backs of sweatshop laborers, according to a team of archaeologists led by Thomas Levy of the University of California at San Diego. "The site is almost as well preserved as Pompeii," says Levy. "We can see 70 rooms, hallways, and courtyards where copper was smelted, refined, melted, cast, and finished into ingots, axes, chisels, and whatnot. It's a highly specialized assembly line, which is surprising when you consider that the Industrial Revolution was still thousands of years in the future." Researchers suspect that the factory was manned by migrant workers during fall and winter months and closed during the hot summers. The site was buried during a massive earthquake around 2700 B.C.

Items produced in the copper factory have been found in major cities of what is now Egypt, Israel, and the surrounding regions, but Levy's team has uncovered no luxury items at the dig that might have been received in trade. This hints that the factory was run by export-oriented owners who shared little of the profits with workers. Such centralization of authority would not have been possible without the development of a unified industrial center. "There are only a few other historical periods, such as the advent of agriculture during the Neolithic, when a technological advance has had such a radical impact on the way power is distributed. This would have been sort of the Silicon Valley of the early Bronze Age," Levy says.

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This clay mold was used to cast bronze pins about 4,700 years ago. Photograph courtesy of UCSD Levantine Archaeology Lab.

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