In the heart of excavated Philistine Gath, a sheet of ancient, white plaster peeks out. A crude, tridentine marking is faintly visible from a distance, clearer up close – in any case, more likely the work of erosion than anything else.
Aren Maeir, professor of archeology at Bar-Ilan University and director of the Tell es- Safi/Gath excavation since 1996, glances over.
“This looks like a chicken foot,” he says. “Maybe one of the Philistine birds walked through here.”
Louise Hitchcock, an associate professor of classics and archeology at the University of Melbourne in Australia and a longtime team supervisor at the site, located between Ashkelon and Beit Shemesh, smiles at the reference to “Philistine birds,” a distinctive motif in the Early Iron Age Philistine pottery of Gath.
“It’s Goliath’s chicken!” she offers. “Are you getting that one down?” Ever since its identification as Gath, one of the cities of the Philistine Pentapolis in the southern part of Israel’s Coastal Plain, Tell es-Safi has become the subject of Goliath frenzy in popular coverage. Singled out in the Bible as the hometown of young David’s titanic nemesis, the Gath excavation finds itself typecast by media sources, which ask whether Maeir and his team have found Goliath’s (enter your choice of artifact here).
Walking around the site, a national park whose remains extend from the Early Bronze Age to the Ottoman period, one gets the sense that the team, seasoned in its anti-sensationalism, has taken the popular obsession with Goliath in stride. Jokes about “Goliath’s bathtub,” “Goliath’s temple” and “Goliath’s chicken” pierce the everyday rigor of digging and measuring with a bit of scholarly levity.
Far removed from the early- 20th-century paradigms of biblical archeology, which worked to seek evidence for the stories of the Bible, the excavators at Gath make no presumptions about Goliath’s existence. But questions of veracity aside, history tends not to pivot on dramatic one-on-one encounters.
What recent finds from the Bar-Ilan University excavation have shown is a rich timeline of cultural fluorescence, destruction, abandonment, re-population and second destruction – a microcosm of neighborhood turmoil in the Iron Age II, hints of which criss-cross the biblical narrative of the Divided Monarchy.
As the team stood to pick deeper into layers from the Iron Age II, a period spanning from the 10th to the 17th century BCE and roughly contemporary with the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible, the prospect of new archeological clues to the history of this crucial era topped the excavator’s curiosities.
“We came to the season with a series of questions in the various areas, and I think that for quite a few of them we have new answers, or new questions developed out of them,” said Maeir.
Among Gath’s most historically interesting recent yields is a bevy of evidence for the Aramean siege and destruction of the Philistine city in the late 9th century BCE. According to both II Kings and the Aramean epigraphic record, tension along the border between Syria and Israel has roots that go much further back than 1973 or 1948: Over 2,800 years ago, the expansionist King Hazael of Damascus made war with his southern neighbors, defeating Israel and Judah and penetrating as far as Philistine Gath.
“In the 9th century BCE, Gath was the largest city in Philistia – and perhaps in the entire country. But after the destruction by Hazael, it disappears from the record,” Maeir explains.
In addition to previously unearthed siege fortifications, the Area D team, led by Bar- Ilan’s Amit Dagan, has uncovered substantial evidence this season of what the lower city of Philistine Gath might have looked like when it fell to the Aramean sword.
The late-9th-century layer, which is well down the slope of Tell es-Safi, was likely home to some sort of temple complex, a metalworking site and a community engaged in substantial regional trade, as evidenced by the recent find of a complete conch shell in the midst of a collection of votive dishes. A large, collapsed trove of ceremonial chalices and jugs, coated in a thick layer of ash, is only the latest evidence of the end of Philistine Gath’s way of life at the hand of Hazael’s high-temperature destruction.
However, the victorious Arameans didn’t burn everything they found when they entered Gath in approximately 830 BCE. Prof. Jeffrey Chadwick of Brigham Young University in Utah, who supervises Area F of Gath’s upper city, has recently found evidence that for some decades after Hazael’s destruction of the Philistine city, Gath became a ghost town.
“We believe we have good evidence that the mud brick houses of Philistine Gath were knocked down by the earthquake mentioned in the Book of Amos,” says Chadwick.
“They stood until about 760 BCE, and then suddenly slid north one meter off their foundations.”
Seeking to expand their realm, Judahites from the highlands to the east soon settled directly atop the ruins of Philistine Gath, repopulating a small part of the once-major city and evening out the rubble of the Aramean destruction. But poised in the crucial middle ground between the coast and the highlands, Judahite Gath did not escape the ravages of Iron Age geopolitics for long.
“We have evidence of two [destruction] events here,” Chadwick continues. “The first belongs to [Assyrian king] Sargon II, from some time between 720 and 712 BCE. Some houses were rebuilt immediately after that, and then destroyed with the rest of Judahite Gath by Sennacherib in 701.”
In the past two weeks, his team has uncovered the remains of an Assyrian conflagration that put an end to Gath’s short-lived Judahite era.
The walk from one excavation area to the next is humbling.
The great limestone-fringed hill at the heart of Tel Zafit National Park is not just heavy with history – it’s made of it. Every rhythmic stroke of the pickaxe is another centimeter’s view into the forgotten daily lives of Gath’s one-time inhabitants, Canaanite, Philistine, Judahite or otherwise.
But according to Area D team leader Dagan, who heads one section of the dig site, it is precisely this sense of historical weight that makes the excavations at Gath such a popular summer destination for the adventurous.
“Tell me,” he says, “what besides history could unite a team of 120 people, religious, secular, young, old, Australian, Korean? Not the World Cup, where you’re just watching. Here, you get to be a participant in history.”
Maeir, speaking of Dagan’s area, promises no end to Gath’s historical odyssey.
“We thought that in another season or two we’d be done with Area D. If you ask me, it looks like we’re far from that. Things are only getting more complicated here at Tell es- Safi.”