Four thousand years later, an ancient people is revealed
When Adam Aja, the assistant curator of collections at Harvard University’s Semitic Museum was growing up, in Bridgton, Maine, a town boasting a single traffic light, the Philistine people were a distant concept indeed. “It was quiet, outdoorsy,” he said, conversing with The Media Line. “very different from Boston.”
He remained an outdoorsy guy, but switched from playing in the snow to playing, armed with a Ph.d., in the sand—to be precise, the sands of Ashkelon.
The Philistines, a mysterious nation mentioned in the Bible, that ruled a five-town state some 3700 years ago and were known to be among the seafaring peoples who attacked the Egyptian pharaohs and were perceived to be among the greatest enemies of the ancient Israelites, vanished as a culture, leaving behind mysterious traces and not much more.
Aja has been digging in Ashkelon for some twenty years, part of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon that started 30 years ago. Over time, the expedition, that teaches field archaeology to Harvard students and continues a task started some 200 years ago, has discovered such treasures such as a breathtaking silver-plated statue of a bull calf, the earliest genuinely arched city gates in human history and exceptional marble statues.
But years of sifting produced nothing that seemed to change history.
Towards the end of the summer of 2012, a man dropped by the dig. He identified himself as a former surveyor for the Israel Antiquities Authority and criticized the diggers for skipping over a section in which he claimed to have found bones twenty years earlier. “Look up my report,” he said.
Aja and Daniel Master, a Wheaton College professor and the director of the excavation, poked around in the archives and found the man’s name but no report.
The next summer, they decided to devote a day to the man’s claim, taking him, a group of volunteers and a backhoe to the site. They dug a dozen trenches in rows, 150 centimeters down. Nothing. The man seemed “confused, but was also so sure,” Aja recalls. “We were all disappointed.”
“I thought, ‘what’s one more day?’”
Master was willing to part with a backhoe for a day, but had no manpower to spare. “It was me and the backhoe operator,” Aja recounts. “We found a lot of empty earth. On the 6th probe we found some Roman jars on top of the layer of sand.” At this point, Aja was about 4 yards underground, gently lowered down by the same scoop that was lifting mounds of earth up. “We had 45 minutes till the backhoe operator left for the day,” he said. “I figure, one more scoop in the last pit. I’m scraping around with my trowel—and I knew it was a human bone. Human remains.”
And with that, our concept of human history changed.
“Everything we thought we knew about the Philistines will now be measured against the Ashkelon findings,” Master, who has been working in Ashkelon for 25 years, told The Media Line, underscoring the fact that DNA analysis and studies of the Philistine understanding of death have barely begun. “It all changes from here.”
“We’re just scratching the surface of what death meant.”
“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.
Philistine burial practice appears to be unique, unlike both that of the Bronze Age Canaanites and that of the later Iron Age in Judah.
“This cemetery is first of its kind,” Master said. “There’s nothing like this. It’s a systematic example of what they thought about death and no sample of Philistines that can compare to this. People have always wondered where the Philistines are. We needed to find a large cemetery directly connected to a large Philistine city. This is a cemetery probably containing thousands of people, of which we have recovered over 200. With this quantity we can start talking about these people, what’s typical, what the Philistines as a group were like, what anomalies exist in their skeletal remains.”
Ashkelon, today a medium-sized beach town that is often the target of rockets launched by Hamas in Gaza, was a major Mediterranean port and hub for maritime trade from the Bronze Age to the Crusades – when it was destroyed and abandoned until modern times.
Archaeological finds that began in the 19th century exposed a civilized settlement that was established in the late Chalcolithic period, about 5000 years before Christ, with growing importance as a stopover for sailors on the route from Egypt to Mesopotamia starting in the Bronze Age.
Archaeologists have long noted significant cultural transformations in the Ashkelon region in the early 12th century BCE, roughly at the time Egyptian texts begin to mention “Sea Peoples” moving into the Eastern Mediterranean. Scholars have long argued that the Philistines emigrated from the Aegean in the early Iron Age, bringing cultural customs from their homeland, a position Master said the current find sustains.
The graves uncovered in the Levy dig, which began in 1985, contain decorated juglets filled with what is assumed to be perfumed oil, storage jars and small bowls. A few buried individuals were found wearing bracelets and earrings, and bear weapons, but the majority of the individuals were not buried with personal items.
The new discovery will be displayed at the at the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum in Jerusalem until February 17, 2017, in an exhibit curated by Fawzi Ibrahim, the museum’s chief curator, and Nurith Goshen of the Israel Museum.