The earliest known factory for the production of standardized war weaponry may have been established during the early Copper Age in modern-day Israel. Based on an analysis of hundreds of stone projectiles recovered from two archaeological sites, researchers have concluded that the items were mass-produced, indicating the highly organized arming of warriors in preparation for battle around 7,200 years ago.
Archaeologists examined 424 slingstones found at the ancient settlements of ‘En Esur and ‘En Zippori, which were inhabited between 5800 and 4500 BCE. Noting that the stones appeared virtually identical, the researchers determined that the weapons were crafted to standard specifications, with an average length of 52 millimeters (2 inches), width of 31 millimeters (1.2 inches), and weight of 60 grams (2.1 ounces).
“The stones, that were intended to be projected from a sling, are smoothed, with a specific biconical aerodynamic form, enabling exact and effective projection,” said the Israel Antiquities Authority in a statement via email. In an accompanying study, the researchers explain that the biconical design “has been accepted as optimum for sling projectiles” and was later adopted by both the Greek and Roman armies.
“These stones are, in fact, the earliest evidence of warfare in the Southern Levant. The similarity of the slingstones points to large-scale industrial production,” say the researchers. “The overall uniformity of weight, form, and size of slingstones in the discussed assemblage suggests that the slingstones were systematically manufactured for use by standard users (warriors), equipped with standard slings, allowing them effective training,” they write.
Putting this discovery into historical context, the authors say that the apparent shift from non-formal slingstones (such as natural pebbles) to highly standardized weaponry may indicate a proliferation of organized warfare during the early Copper Age. This possibility is enhanced by the increase in the size of settlements in the Southern Levant at this time, while the remains of “monumental public buildings” at both ‘En Ẓippori and ‘En Esur hint at “a stratified society, involved in interregional or international exchange and prone to conflicts.”
The fact that the slingstones were often found in clusters also provides clues as to how they were used. According to the researchers, this arrangement indicates that the projectiles were often fired en masse, whereby “a slingstone cluster may represent ammunition of a barrage to be launched by a group of slingers”.
“In warfare, this may cause the breakage of formation in the opposite rank,” they say.
Interestingly, these mass-produced weapons abruptly disappear from the archaeological record about a millennium later, although it’s unclear if this indicates a decrease in regional hostilities. Despite this, the discovery of the slingstones paints a picture of organized warfare in the Middle East going back more than 7,000 years and continuing, tragically, to the present day.
The study is published in the journal ‘Atiqot.