New Dig Shows the Philistines Weren’t Such Philistines

A graveyard containing over 200 sets of remains is giving researchers their first deep look into the little-known biblical tribe

Philistine Skeleton
Rachel Kalisher, a member of the physical anthropology team, measures a 10th-9th century BC skeleton Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon

Over the centuries, the term Philistine has come to represent a rough, uncultured person. But a new find in Israel has found that the Mediterranean tribe of biblical fame probably wasn’t so unsophisticated after all.

In 2013, archaeologists from the 30-year-long Leon Levy Expedition which has explored the ancient Philistine port city of Ashkelon, discovered a graveyard with 150 pit graves and six multi-body burial chambers yielding more than 200 sets of remains. According to a press release, radiocarbon dating places the bones between the 10th and 11th century B.C., the time when the Philistines were known to inhabit the area.

“When we found this cemetery right next to a Philistine city, we knew we had it,” Daniel Master, one of the expedition's archaeologists tells Nicholas St. Fleur for The New York Times. “We have the first Philistine cemetery that’s ever been discovered.”

Previous to this discovery, most of what researchers know about the Philistines came from pottery shards and a few scattered gravesites. In the Bible, the tribe, the arch enemies of the Israelites, is described as a group that moved into southern Israel from the West. In the Old Testament, the Philistines don’t come off very well—they are constantly battling the Israelites. The most famous Philistine by far is the giant warrior Goliath, who a young King David smites with a rock thrown from a sling before chopping off his head.

“The victors write history,” Master tells St. Fleur. “We found these Philistines, and finally we get to hear their story told by them rather than by their enemies.”

What the researchers discovered was a group of people who took great care in burying their dead, the press release reveals. Many of the bodies were buried with a bottle of perfume by the face, and in two cases were pointing into the nostril so the deceased could smell the fragrance throughout eternity, reports Philippe Bohstrom at Haaretz. Near their legs were jars that likely held wine, food or oil. Many were buried with weapons or jewelry like necklaces, earrings, bracelets and toe rings.

“This is how Philistines treated their dead, and it's the code book to decoding everything,” Adam Aja assistant director of the dig says.

Researchers hope that DNA from the bodies will help them figure out the origins of the Philistines, who many researchers believe migrated to Palestine from an area in the Aegean Sea. There is also speculation that the Philistines are part of or related to the “Sea Peoples” of antiquity a group of raiders that attacked Egypt and other parts of the Mediterranean, Kristin Romey at National Geographic reports.

“I was once asked, if someone gave me a million dollars, what I would do,” Eric Cline, an archaeologist at George Washington University, tells Romey. “I said, I’d go out and look for a Sea Peoples' site that explains where they came from, or where they ended up. It sounds to me like [the Ashkelon team] may have just hit the jackpot.”

Despite its importance, the site was kept secret for the last three years to prevent ultra-Orthodox Jewish protestors from picketing the area, something that has happened at other Leon Levy dig sites where ancient remains were excavated, the press release says.

Now that the 30-year-long project has concluded, the researchers will begin detailed analysis of the materials found in and around Ashkelon. “From our standpoint, [the excavation] is just the first chapter of the story,” Master tells Romey. “I’ve been at Ashkelon for 25 years, and I guess it’s just the beginning.”

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