They were an enigmatic and idiosyncratic Mediterranean tribe, noted in the Bible for their hatred of the ancient Israelites.
Now, following the analysis of an unprecedented 30-year excavation in the port city of Ashkelon of the remains from the only Philistine cemetery ever discovered, one of the biggest mysteries in archeology and academia may finally be solved.
“Archaeologists and scholars have long searched for the origin of the Philistines, and the discovery of the cemetery is poised to offer the key to this mystery,” the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon announced on Sunday.
“Findings from the cemetery, dated from the 11th to the 8th centuries BCE, may well support the claim – long inferred and recorded in the Bible – that the Philistines were migrants to the shores of ancient Israel who arrived from lands to the west around the 12th century BCE.”
During an exhibit of the findings from the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon at the Rockefeller Museum in east Jerusalem Sunday morning, the archeologists and scholars who led the excavation said new answers are beginning to emerge, redefining old theories.
“Ninety-nine percent of the chapters and articles written about Philistine burial customs should be revised or ignored now that we have the first and only Philistine cemetery found just outside the city walls of Tel Ashkelon, one of the five primary cities of the Philistines,” said Lawrence E. Stager, Dorot Professor of the Archaeology of Israel, Emeritus, at Harvard University.
The finds from the cemetery bring to a close 30 years of work in the Ashkelon National Park by the Leon Levy Expedition, which is organized and sponsored by the Leon Levy Foundation, the Semitic Museum at Harvard University, Boston College, Wheaton College and Troy University, under license from the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.
According to Stager, previous findings that were believed to be related to Philistine burial customs include the anthropoid coffins of the Egyptian fortresses (until they were discovered all over the Egyptian empire), and the rock-cut tombs on the Philistine periphery and beyond, in which pieces of Philistine pottery were found.
However, they were subsequently discredited, he said, given that tombs are frequently the site of imported pottery that has no connection with the ethnicity of the people themselves.
Several Biblical passages link the Philistines to ancient Crete. At the same time, archeologists have long noted dramatic cultural changes in the Ashkelon region in the early 12th century BCE, roughly at the time when ancient Egyptian texts mention “Sea Peoples” moving into the eastern Mediterranean.
Using these clues, scholars have argued that the Philistines emigrated from the Aegean in the early Iron Age, bringing the cultural practices of their homeland, which appear to have been pointedly different from those prevailing at the time in the area.
The Philistines are most famously known as the archenemy of ancient Israel from the Hebrew Bible, and excavations at the sites of Ashdod, Ekron, Ashkelon, and Gat (Tel es-Safi) have demonstrated just how culturally distinct they were from the Israelites of that period.
Indeed, Philistine burial practice was not like that of the Bronze Age Canaanites, said Stager, adding that it was also different from the burial practices in later Iron Age Judah, during which burials took place in two steps.
“First, the body was laid out in a central chamber,” he explained, “then a year later, the dry bones were gathered up into niches at the edges of the chamber.”
The Philistines, Stager noted, buried their dead primarily in pits that were excavated for each individual: male or female, adult or child.
“Later, additional individuals were sometimes placed in the same pit, which was dug again along roughly the same lines, but the new individuals were interred with their own grave goods,” he said. “Cremations, pit interments and multi-chambered tombs, were also found in the cemetery.”
Artifacts uncovered at the Ashkelon site, including ceramics, jewelry and weapons – as well as the bones themselves – hold the promise of being able to connect the Philistines to related populations across the Mediterranean, he said.
To this end, Stager said bone samples taken from the site are currently undergoing three types of testing – DNA, radiocarbon, and biological distance studies – to help ascertain the Philistines’ origin.
Moreover, excavation at the site – particularly in areas where the burials were undisturbed – has allowed archeologists and scholars to begin constructing a more complete picture of the typical grave goods buried with the Philistines.
Findings in the cemetery include decorated juglets, filled with what is believed to have been perfumed oil, storage jars, and small bowls.
Additionally, skeletons were found with bracelets and earrings, with some accompanied by weapons.
However, the majority of the Philistines were not buried with personal items.
“Ashkelon was a key Mediterranean port and center for maritime trade from the Bronze Age to the Crusades, when it was destroyed and left uninhabited until modern times,” said Stager, noting that sporadic excavations began in the area in the 19th century.
The bulk of Ashkelon’s history, he said, was only revealed beginning in 1985, when the Leon Levy Expedition first commenced.
“Archaeological finds show civilized settlements at the site beginning in the late Chalcolithic period, with increased importance as a wayfaring station on the route from Egypt to Mesopotamia starting in the Bronze Age,” said Stager.
The new finds from the cemetery, including highlights from 30 years of excavation in Ashkelon, are on display in the exhibition, Ashkelon: A Retrospective, 30 Years of the Leon Levy Expedition at the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum until February 17, 2017.
Curated by Nurith Goshen and Fawzi Ibrahim, the retrospective exhibition showcases new finds alongside iconic artifacts from Ashkelon’s history, such as a Canaanite silver calf (16th century BCE); Egyptian artifacts from the time of the destruction of the city by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in 604 BCE; coin hoards; jewelry and a collection of rare marbles.
The Leon Levy Expedition – led by Stager, and funded by Leon Levy and Shelby White of New York – has been conducting large-scale excavations on the tel of ancient Ashkelon since 1985. In the summer of 2007, a second phase of large-scale excavations at the site commenced under the directorship of Daniel Master, professor of Archeology at Wheaton College.
Master said the expedition is presently publishing a series of final reports on the finds and history of Ashkelon, to be published by the Semitic Museum at Harvard University.
He added that this summer is the final excavation season of the Leon Levy Expedition.
In the meantime, he said the ancient mystery that has long vexed archeologists and scholars alike is closer than ever to being solved.
“After decades of studying what Philistines left behind, we have finally come face to face with the people themselves,” said Master.
“With this discovery we are close to unlocking the secrets of their origins.”