In late July, archaeologists and students from four universities in three countries - Israel, Germany and Canada - converged on a remote, blisteringly hot hilltop in the northern Negev. Their goal was to perform the first ever archaeological excavation of a Philistine agricultural village, as compared to an urban area or a tel.
"We had a surprise," says co-director Prof. Steve Rosen of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU). "Based on prior surveys and test excavations of the site, Qubur al-Walaydah, we believed we'd find a Philistine farming village - an early Iron Age, transitional Bronze Age, farming community. Well, it was there and we found it - with evidence of lots of Philistines. Unfortunately, not much of it was left. It was situated very high up and most of it had been destroyed long ago by plowing."
That was the bad news. The good news was that beneath the mostly-destroyed Philistine village was something the group hadn't expected - a massive late Bronze Age settlement. "In terms of construction, the Bronze Age settlement was huge," Rosen says. "We have mud brick walls two meters thick and structures 10-15 meters across preserved more than a meter high, all underneath the ground. It's amazing - mud brick doesn't last, so finding this kind of thing is very exciting."
That said, it turned out to be a different dig than what they'd expected. "It was great for Gunnar," Rosen says, referring to the project's co-director, Dr. Gunner Lehmann, also of BGU. "Gunnar is a world-class expert in near eastern archaeology, so for him this was great. My specialty is in prehistoric archaeology, small scale societies, so for me it isn't quite as good."
For the 60-or-so multinational students on the site, it didn't seem to matter. "This was a study dig, designed to educate students," Rosen explains. "All the supervisors are students studying for their first degree. Eleven are from BGU and two are from Canada. It was designed to give them technical management experience, so for them, it was still great."
Four universities worked together on the project: BGU in Israel, the University of Saskatchewan, Canada, and two German universities, the University of Rostock and the University of Leipzig.
Once the mental transition had been made and expectations adjusted to the new reality, the surprise find proved very valuable. "The site had been explored in the 1970s," Lehmann expounds. "Located as it is on the eastern bank of Nahal Besor, it appeared to be very rich. The surface was full of flint and pottery, some of it painted. It was clear there was something extraordinary here, something not common. So when BGU asked me to do this site, I was excited. I wanted Steve [Rosen] to join me because of his expertise in rural sites. All of the archaeological urban sites between Gaza, Ashkelon and Ashdod have either been excavated or are in the process, so we were looking forward to this rural site."
The group expected to learn more about rural communities in the Iron Age, circa 1200 BCE. "In an agricultural village, you'd expect to find a different kind of architecture, something more modest than in an urban area," Lehmann notes. "Cities would have big institutions, places where the king would conduct the government, several public buildings and a temple. In a rural, farming community, the culture would be different. Since the Philistine conquest took place mainly in the cities, we were curious about what we'd find in a rural area."
During the Late Bronze Age (1600-1200 BCE), for reasons that aren't precisely known, both the Egyptian and Hittite kingdoms collapsed, issuing an open invitation to invaders. Peoples from areas along the Mediterranean coast - Greece, Asia Minor and the Aegean area - perceived the weakness and invaded. Called "Philistines" by the Egyptians, these invading 'sea peoples' failed in their attempt to conquer the Egyptians, but instead of returning to their original lands, they stayed, settling outside the Egyptian borders in and among the local Canaanite peoples, which included the Israelites. In the Bible, the saga of Samson is the story of the Israelites' battles with the incoming Philistines, much of which took place in nearby Gaza.
Information about the Philistines was being sought, Lehmann says. "They were the immigrating population. But how many were there? What was their place in the power structure? There's a marked contrast between a Philistine village and an Israelite village. The Hebrews, Israelites, were different from the other Canaanites in both language and cultural practices. So we were looking for transitional issues: how the neighboring villages expressed their individual cultures, and how they straddled the transition from farmland to desert, city to village, coastal plain to the inner country. The coast would have been dominated by the Philistines, while the inland would be dominated by Canaanites. So what was on that interstate line?"
Lehman describes the first day of the dig: "As soon as we opened the site, it was very clear that we had the remains of an Iron Age village, dating from the 12th and 11th centuries BCE. Most of the floors and walls were on the level of the topsoil. There were undisturbed grain silos that had been re-used as refuse pits, full of pottery and other artifacts. We found the remains of a wine press and a domed oven for baking bread. It was clearly rural. The walls were narrow, and a large quantity of flint blades once used as sickle implements were found. We found examples of painted pottery characteristic of a Philistine village, plus dishes and a cooking pot. We didn't find even one shard from the sort of pottery the Israelites would have used, or even what would be used by the other Canaanites."
Speculating, Lehmann adds, "The Philistines apparently prepared food differently than other local populations. They cooked differently. They ate different things. There is a discussion underway - not yet resolved - that the Philistines ate pork, as compared to the Hebrews who would have banned it by that time. The bones must be analyzed, but cooking and eating styles were very different."
The remnants of a loom were particularly interesting. "The loom itself had been made of porous materials and had disintegrated, but we found ten loom weights, preserved, standing in a row. They were distinctively Philistine, very different from the Hebrew or Canaanite style. The weights showed they produced textiles here that were very different from populations further to the south and east. Putting all this evidence together, it was clear there was a very distinct population that lived here, very much a Philistine village."
Then the excavation to the second settlement began. "We didn't destroy anything by going through to the buried settlement," Rosen says. "Plowing in the 19th and early 20th centuries had already taken care of that."
In many ways, the massive structures found in the underlying Bronze Age settlement raised more questions than they answered. "We were surprised by these monumental structures we found underneath," Lehmann says. "The walls are as thick as two meters - it's a very substantial structure, dating from the Late Bronze Age. It might possibly have been a tower, the base of a tower. What for? Military purposes, perhaps. We don't know. We were happy that the floors had not been cleaned before the inhabitants left - the cobble and earth floors were littered with pottery and artifacts. We love that kind of messiness."
In previous nearby excavations, as many as 20 similar structures, known as "Egyptian residences," had been found. "These structures date from the late 13th and early 12th centuries, BCE, so apparently there was a gap between the two settlements of maybe 60-80 years. The underlying Egyptian style of buildings is very different from the Canaanites. The bricks are made of different substances, and they're a different size and style."
The dig was concluded on August 23 and final analysis is not complete, but Lehmann speculated about the differences in the two settlements. "Agriculture may have been organized very differently in the two cultures," he suggested. "In the Philistine village, there was little evidence of centralization. We can speculate that perhaps those farmers were more independent, that crop production was based more on individual landholdings than it was in Egyptian villages where the Egyptian imperial administration - even in rural areas - was apparent. Egyptian farming seemed to have been based more on estates, controlled by the ruling Egyptian authorities. These are just assumptions at this point, not certainties."
In performing the dig, the 20 German students worked at the larger excavation alongside about 25 Israelis, while the Canadian contingent assumed responsibility for "Field Two," an area set off from the main site by a few hundred meters. The artifacts from Field Two were also significant - ceramics including storage jars, and hand burnished red-slipped bowls characteristic of the late Iron Age. But the most unique find was a lime kiln, with burned lime still present.
Lime, and the construction of lime kilns to make plaster, was an important element in ancient architecture. "Lime plaster goes back 12,000 years," Rosen points out. "When you look at any of these ancient sites, you see the equivalent of cinder blocks. But buildings didn't look like that when they were being used. They looked much like our houses today, covered with plaster - painted plaster, most likely. But the plaster disintegrated and fell away. It didn't last."
The lime kiln was unearthed by the Canadian team headed by husband-and-wife Chris and Laura Foley from the University of Saskatchewan. "What's really unique about this kiln is the way it was built," Laura Foley said. "We expected it would be very sophisticated, precisely constructed. But instead, it appears that the people who made it were very functional. They lived out here on the fringes of the desert, and what they did was to dig a hole. They didn't actually line it with mud bricks - what appears to be brick is just what happened to the surrounding soil when the tremendous heat of the kiln penetrated. A limestone kiln is hotter than a pottery kiln, 1,000 degrees centigrade as compared to 900 degrees for pottery."
Heaps of limestone cobbles were found next to kiln. "It appears that the foundation stones of the Philistine village were collected in the topsoil and burnt to lime - which also contributed to the village's destruction," Foley added. "Whoever built this kiln didn't live immediately next to it - it would have been way too hot."
The Canadian team had to endure a certain amount of administrative heat in even being able to come to Israel to participate in the dig, Foley explained. "At U of S, we have an archaeology department but we're too small to fund our own projects. Instead, for many years, we've been bringing students to either Israel or Jordan. This year, because of the "situation," the university wouldn't sponsor us in Israel, so in order to come we had to fund it privately. We advised our students, 'This is not a university project, but we're going because it's very exciting to be a part of a first year excavation. If you'd like to come with us you may, but it's not a U of S sponsored dig.' They all came - all 14 - and it's been wonderful."