In biblical lore, Edom was the implacable adversary and menacing neighbor of the Israelites. The Edomites lived south of the Dead Sea and east of the desolate rift valley known as Wadi Arabah, and from time to time they had to be dealt with by force, notably by the likes of Kings David and Solomon.

Today, the Edomites are again in the thick of combat - of the scholarly kind. The conflict is heated and protracted, as is often the case with issues related to the reliability of the Bible as history.

Chronology is at the crux of the debate. Exactly when did the nomadic tribes of Edom become an organized society with the might to threaten Israel? Were David and Solomon really kings of a state with growing power in the 10th century B.C.? Had writers of the Bible magnified the stature of the two societies at such an early time in history?

An international team of archaeologists has recorded radiocarbon dates that they say show the tribes of Edom may have indeed come together in a cohesive society at early as the 12th century B.C., certainly by the 10th. The evidence was found in the ruins of a large copper-processing center and fortress at Khirbat en-Nahas, in the lowlands of what was Edom and is now part of Jordan.

Thomas Levy, a leader of the excavations, said in an interview last week that the findings there and at abandoned mines elsewhere in the region demonstrated that the Edomites had developed a complex state much earlier than previously thought.

Levy, an archaeologist at the University of California, San Diego, said the research had yielded not only the first high-precision dates in the region, but also such telling artifacts as scarabs, ceramics, metal arrowheads, hammers, grinding stones, and slag heaps.

Radiocarbon analysis of charred wood, grain, and fruit in several sediment layers revealed two major phases of copper processing, first in the 12th and 11th centuries, later in the 10th and 9th centuries.

Khirbat en-Nahas is about 50 kilometers, or 30 miles, from the Dead Sea and 50 kilometers north of Petra, Jordan's most famous archaeological site. The name means "ruins of copper" in Arabic. One of the first ancient occupation sites in the Edomite lowlands to be intensively investigated, the ruins of its buildings and grounds spread over 9.7 hectares, or 24 acres, and the fortifications enclose an area 73 meters by 73 meters, or 240 feet by 240 feet.

"Only a complex society such as a paramount chiefdom or primitive kingdom would have the organizational know-how to produce copper metal on such an industrial scale," Levy concluded.

The first results of the research by Levy and Mohammad Najjar, director of excavations and surveys at the Department of Antiquities of Jordan, were described two years ago at a conference at the University of Oxford, England, and in a report in the British journal Antiquity. Reverberations of support and criticism have shaken the field of biblical archaeology ever since.

With the addition of new dates and more evidence of the importance of copper in the emergence of Edom, the two archaeologists have amplified their interpretations in an article being published this month in the magazine Biblical Archaeology Review.

"We have discovered a degree of social complexity in the land of Edom," they wrote, "that demonstrates the weak reed on the basis of which a number of scholars have scoffed at the idea of a state or complex chiefdom in Edom at this early period."

The findings, Levy and Najjar added, lend credence to biblical accounts of the rivalry between Edom and the Israelites in what was then known as Judah. By extension, they said, this supported the tradition that Judah itself had by the time of David and Solomon, in the early 10th century, emerged as a kingdom with ambition and the means of fighting off the Edomites.

The Hebrew Bible mentioned the Edomites no fewer than 99 times. In Genesis, Esau, Jacob's twin brother, is described as the ancestor of the Edomites, and a reference is made to "the kings who reigned in the land of Edom, before any king reigned over the Israelites." Levy said this statement showed that the Israelites acknowledged Edom's early political development.

In the context, Levy and Najjar wrote, "the biblical references to the Edomites, especially their conflicts with David and subsequent Judahite kings, garner a new plausibility."

Historians and archaeologists who generally endorse the new findings welcomed the more precise dating of ruins in the under-explored region and the attention focused on copper production in Edomite history. But they cautioned against interpretations that might encourage uncritical reliance on the Bible as a source of early history.

Most criticism has come from advocates of a "low chronology" or "minimalist" school of early biblical history. They contend that in David's time Edom was a pastoral society, and Judah not much more advanced. In this view, ancient Israel did not develop into a true state until the eighth century B.C., a century and a half after David.

More widely held in recent years is the estimate that Edom did not become a complex society and kingdom until the eighth or seventh centuries, presumably as a consequence of rule by the Assyrian empire.

Israel Finkelstein, an archaeologist at Tel Aviv University and a leading proponent of the low-chronology model, has said the new research does "not shed new light on the question of state formation in Edom." He argues that perhaps the copper operations were controlled by chieftains in Beersheba, to the west, and supplied material for urban centers west and north of Edom.

Levy and Najjar said their excavations showed that "this image of external control is not convincing."

Piotr Bienkowski, of the University of Manchester, England, and Eveline van der Steen, of East Carolina University, in Greenville, North Carolina, who have excavated the Edomite highlands, criticized the statistical analysis of the new dating and suggested that the data had been used to support an unjustified interpretation.

"One 'fortress' does not make a kingdom," they argued in a paper.

Levy said the most advanced statistical methods were applied in analyzing the radiocarbon dates, and the laboratory work was conducted at Oxford and the University of Groningen, the Netherlands.

"We realize that our work is far from complete, " Levy said, and a large team from the University of California will return this autumn to Khirbat en-Nahas for a deeper look into the early history of the Edomites.