Human remains buried almost 3,000 years ago in southern Israel may help researchers finally solve the mystery of the Philistines' origins.
An unrivaled discovery on the southern coast of Israel may enable archaeologists to finally unravel the origins of one of the most notorious and enigmatic peoples of the Hebrew Bible: the Philistines.
The discovery in 2016 of a large cemetery outside the walls of ancient Ashkelon, a major city of the Philistines between the 12th and 7th centuries B.C., is the first of its kind in the history of archaeological investigation in the region.
While more than a century of scholarship has identified the five major cities of the Philistines and artifacts distinctive to their culture, only a handful of burials have been tentatively identified.
Simply put, archaeologists have found plenty of pots, but very few people.
Now, the discovery of a cemetery containing more than 211 individuals and dated from the 11th to 8th centuries B.C. will give archaeologists the opportunity to answer critical questions regarding the origin of the Philistines and how they eventually assimilated into the local culture.
Until this discovery, the absence of such cemeteries in major Philistine centers has made researchers' understanding of their burial practices—and by turn, their origins—"about as accurate as the mythology about George Washington chopping down the cherry tree," says Lawrence Stager, an emeritus professor of archaeology at Harvard University, who has led the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon since 1985.
"The search [for a cemetery] became so desperate that archaeologists who study the Philistines began to joke that they were buried at sea like the Vikings—that's why you couldn't find them," explains Assaf Yasur-Landau, an archaeologist at Haifa University and co-director of the Tel Kabri project.
Biblical villains and pig-eaters
The Philistines are among the most notorious villains of the Hebrew Bible. This "uncircumcised" group controlled the coastal region of modern-day southern Israel and the Gaza Strip and warred with their Israelite neighbors—even seizing the Ark of the Covenant for a time. Among their ranks were the devious Delilah, who robbed Samson of his strength by cutting his hair, and the giant Goliath, who made King Saul's troops tremble in their tents until a young man named David took him down with a slingshot. (Learn how the tomb of Christ is at risk of catastrophic collapse.)
In the archaeological record, the Philistines first appear in the early 12th century B.C. Their arrival is signaled by artifacts that belong to what Stager calls "an extraordinarily different culture" from other local populations at the time. These include pottery with close parallels to the ancient Greek world, the use of an Aegean—instead of a Semitic—script, and the consumption of pork (as well as the occasional dog). Several passages in the Hebrew Bible describe the interlopers as coming from the "Land of Caphtor," or modern-day Crete.
A connection to maritime marauders?
Many researchers also tie the presence of the Philistines to the exploits of the Sea Peoples, a mysterious confederation of tribes that appears to have wreaked havoc across the eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Late Bronze Age, in the 13th and 12th centuries B.C. A relief in the mortuary temple of pharaoh Ramses III depicts his battle against the Sea Peoples around 1180 B.C. and records the names of several of the tribes, among them the Peleset, who are featured with distinctive headgear and kilts.
Around this time, the Peleset may have settled in or around Ashkelon, which had already been a major Canaanite port on the Mediterranean Sea for centuries. They also set up rule in four other major cities—Ashdod, Ekron, Gath, and Gaza—and the region became known in the Hebrew Bible as the land of the Palestu, the origin of the modern term "Palestine."
The homelands of the Sea Peoples are also elusive, and researchers who associate the plundering Peleset with the Philistines think the cemetery finds may help provide answers to that archaeological mystery as well.
"I was once asked, if someone gave me a million dollars, what I would do," says Eric Cline, an archaeologist at George Washington University, National Geographic Society grantee, and author of a recent book on the Sea Peoples and the end of the Bronze Age. "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," he adds.
Other experts believe the origin of the Philistines is more complicated. Aren Maeir, an archaeologist at Bar-Ilan University who has directed excavations at the major Philistine city of Gath for two decades, sees them as more of an "entangled" culture, with various groups of people from different regions in the Mediterranean—including pirate-like groups—settling down over a period of time with the local Canaanite population.
"Finding the Philistine cemetery is fantastic because there are so many questions regarding their genetic origins and their interconnections with other cultures," says Assaf Yasur-Landau.
A very unexpected discovery
The majority of archaeological and textual evidence has pointed to a Philistine homeland somewhere in the Aegean, but until the discovery of the cemetery in Ashkelon there were no human remains from indisputably Philistine sites for researchers to study.
While the Leon Levy Expedition has been excavating Ashkelon since 1985, it wasn't until a few years ago that a retired employee of the Israel Antiquities Authority told the expedition team that he recalled uncovering Philistine burials outside of the city's north wall during a construction survey in the early 1980s.
In the 2013 excavation season, archaeologists decided to dig some test pits in the area around the wall and kept coming up with nothing. By the end of the final day of digging, with 30 minutes left until the backhoe operator announced he would drive off, Adam Aja, assistant curator at Harvard's Semitic Museum and the excavation's assistant director, found himself staring into an empty pit roughly 10 feet (three meters) deep. Frustrated, he insisted that the digging continue until they hit bedrock.
Instead, they hit what looked like fragments of bone. Aja was lowered into the pit in the bucket of the backhoe to investigate, and picked up a human tooth. "When I saw the tooth, I knew that was the moment when it was all going to change for us here," he recalls.
The investigation of the cemetery continued up through the project's final excavation season, which ended on July 8 of this year with the recovery of the remains of more than 211 individuals.
A very different method of burial
The excavations revealed a burial practice that is very different from that of the earlier Canaanites or the neighboring Judeans. Instead of laying a body in a chamber, then collecting the bones a year later and moving them elsewhere (a "secondary" burial), the individuals buried in the Ashkelon cemetery were buried individually in pits or collectively in tombs and never moved again. A few cremation burials were also identified.
Unlike the Egyptians, the Philistines deposited very few grave goods with each individual. Some were adorned with a few pieces of jewelry, while others were buried with a small set of ceramics or a tiny juglet that may have once contained perfume.
The remains of the very few children found in the cemetery were deliberately buried under a "blanket" of broken pottery pieces. The archaeologists say that it is too early to determine whether these burial practices have concrete ties to cultures in the Aegean.
An international team of researchers is currently conducting DNA research, isotopic analysis, and biological distance studies to determine the origin of the population of the Ashkelon cemetery, as well as their relation to other groups in the area. Since the majority of the burials date to at least two centuries after the initial arrival of the Philistines—which may have involved generations of cultural exchange and intermarriage—direct insights into their original origins may be complicated.
"From our standpoint, [the excavation] is just the first chapter of the story," says Daniel Master, an archaeology professor at Wheaton College and the Leon Levy Expedition's co-director. "I've been at Ashkelon for 25 years, and I guess it's just the beginning."
Decades of research ahead
While some other Philistine cities were destroyed in the late ninth to eighth centuries B.C., Ashkelon thrived until its destruction at the hands of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar in 604 B.C. The city was ultimately reoccupied by the Phoenicians, followed by the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and Crusaders, and was ultimately wiped out by the Mamluks, Egypt's Islamic rulers, in 1270 A.D.
The archaeologists are capping off three decades of excavation this year with an Ashkelon retrospective at the Israel Museum that opens on July 11. "There couldn't be a better way to end this excavation," says Stager, referring to the fortuitous cemetery discovery. "It's marvelous."
But there are still likely decades—of research ahead on the artifacts from the recently discovered and completely unanticipated Philistine cemetery at Ashkelon.
"So much of what we know about the Philistines is told by their enemies, by the people who were fighting them or killing them," says Master. "Now, for the first time at a site like Ashkelon, we'll really be able to tell their story by the things they left behind for us."
Archaeologists study a colossal Olmec stone head in La Venta, Mexico in this 1947 National Geographic photo. The Olmec civilization, the first in Mesoamerica, offers valuable clues into the development of the rest of the region.