Archaeologists have discovered remains more ancient and impressive than those previously discovered at the Philistine city of Gath, where the giant Philistine warrior Goliath was born and once lived.
Previous excavations at the site, known as Tell es-Safi, uncovered ruins dating to the 9th and 10th centuries BCE, but the new discovery suggests that the city of Gath was at its height in the 11th century BCE, during Goliath’s time.
Goliath was the Philistine whom David of Bethlehem, the eventual second king of Israel and Judah, famously defeated in single combat (1 Samuel: 17.) Together with Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod and Ekron, Gath was one of the five Philistine cities until its fall in c. 830 BCE at the hands of the Aramean king Hazael.
While archaeologists have known for decades that Tell es-Safi contained the ruins of Goliath’s birthplace, the recent discovery beneath a pre-existing site reveals that his native city was a place of even greater architectural grandeur than the Gath of a century later.
For Prof. Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan University’s archaeology department, who directed the discovery at Tell es-Safi, the findings offer a way to make sense of the biblical accounts of massive giants like Goliath when no archaeological evidence exists to verify them.
“There are no skeletons of people who are taller than NBA centers,” Maeir said. He suggested instead that the mythical stories of the Bible reflect how a society allegorizes the accomplishments of its ancestors, as seen through the massive structures they left behind.
“Gath was the largest city in the land of that time, and seems to have had very, very impressive architecture,” Maeir said. “The Philistines were the dominant culture in the region, both politically and militarily and probably culturally.”
The memory of this dominance, he said, accompanied by the presence of the society’s physical remains, inspired the tradition that the inhabitants of Gath were giants, a theme that appears in other biblical tales as well.
“When people see remains of very impressive architecture and say, ‘Wow! How could someone have built that?’ one of the explanations they sometimes offer is, ‘This must have been done by giants of the past,’” he said.
Maeir, who has been studying the Tell es-Safi site for 23 years, found impressive remains from many cultures but from the city of Gath in particular.
“One of the nice things about excavations at this site – and archaeology in general – is that every time you excavate, there are surprises,” Maeir said. “Up until now, we thought that Gath was the largest of the Philistine cities in the 10th and the 9th centuries [BCE], and the find that we have now may indicate that it was also the largest in the 11th century [BCE]. There are things that you thought you knew, but new discoveries tell you, ‘There’s something new here.’”