The first Philistine cemetery after thirty years of excavation

July 11, 2016 by  
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The Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon  announces the groundbreaking discovery of the first Philistine cemetery to be found, a crowning achievement of more than thirty years of excavation at the site.

Archaeologists and scholars have long searched for the origin of the Philistines, and the discovery of the cemetery is poised to offer the key to this mystery. Findings from the cemetery, dated to the 11th–8th centuries BCE, may well support the claim – long inferred and recorded in the Bible – that the Philistines were migrants to the shores of ancient Israel who arrived from lands to the West around the 12th century BCE.

Cemetery excavation supervisor Adam Aja examines a 10th-9th century BC burial during the excavation of the Philistine cemetery by the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon ©Tsafrir Abayov/Leon Levy Expedition

Cemetery excavation supervisor Adam Aja examines a 10th-9th century BC burial during the excavation of the Philistine cemetery by the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon
©Tsafrir Abayov/Leon Levy Expedition

The Philistines are most famously known as the archenemy of ancient Israel from the Hebrew Bible, and excavations at the sites of Ashdod, Ekron, Ashkelon, and Gath (Tell es-Safi) have demonstrated just how culturally distinct they were from the Israelites of that period. Artifacts uncovered at the site, including ceramics, jewelry and weapons, as well as the bones themselves, hold the promise of being able to connect the Philistines to related populations across the Mediterranean. To this end, bone samples taken from the site are currently undergoing three types of testing – DNA, radiocarbon and biological distance studies – in order to help ascertain the Philistines’ origin.

The incredible find of this cemetery brings to a close thirty years of work in the Ashkelon National Park by the Leon Levy Expedition, which is organized and sponsored by the Leon Levy Foundation, the Semitic Museum at Harvard University, Boston College, Wheaton College and Troy University, under license from the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.

“After decades of studying what Philistines left behind, we have finally come face to face with the people themselves,” said Daniel M. Master, Professor of Archaeology at Wheaton College. “With this discovery we are close to unlocking the secrets of their origins.”

“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.

Previous findings that were thought to have related to Philistine burial customs include the anthropoid coffins of the Egyptian fortresses (until they were found all over the Egyptian empire) and the rock-cut tombs on the Philistine periphery and beyond, in which pieces of Philistine pottery were found. However, this turned out to be false, given that tombs are frequently the site of imported pottery that has no connection with the ethnicity of the people themselves.

Senior Staff Adam Aja, Sherry Fox, and Daniel Master discuss a 10th-9th century BC burial in the excavation of the Philistine cemetery by the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon ©Tsafrir Abayov/Leon Levy Expedition

Senior Staff Adam Aja, Sherry Fox, and Daniel Master discuss a 10th-9th century BC burial in the excavation of the Philistine cemetery by the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon
©Tsafrir Abayov/Leon Levy Expedition

Excavation at the site of the newly discovered Philistine cemetery, particularly in areas where the burials were undisturbed (not reused or looted in antiquity), allows archaeologists and scholars to begin constructing a picture of the typical grave goods buried with the Philistines. Decorated juglets filled with what is assumed to have been perfumed oil, storage jars and small bowls make up the bulk of the grave goods. A few individuals were found wearing bracelets and earrings, and some were accompanied by their weapons, but the majority of the individuals were not buried with personal items.

Philistine burial practice was not like that of the Bronze Age Canaanites, nor was it similar to burial practices in later Iron Age Judah, in which burials took place in two steps. First the body was laid out in a central chamber. Then, a year later, the dry bones were gathered up into niches at the edges of the chamber. The Philistines buried their dead primarily in pits that were excavated for each individual: male or female, adult or child. Later, additional individuals were sometimes placed in the same pit, which was dug again along roughly the same lines, but the new individuals were interred with their own grave goods. Cremations, pit interments and multi-chambered tombs were also found in the cemetery.

Ashkelon was a key Mediterranean port and center for maritime trade from the Bronze Age to the Crusades – when it was destroyed and left uninhabited until modern times. Sporadic excavation began in the 19th century, but the bulk of Ashkelon’s history was only revealed beginning in 1985 with the work of the Leon Levy Expedition. Archaeological finds show civilized settlement at the site beginning in the late Chalcolithic period, with increased importance as a wayfaring station on the route from Egypt to Mesopotamia starting in the Bronze Age. Several Biblical passages link the Philistines to ancient Crete. At the same time, archaeologists have long noted dramatic cultural changes in the Ashkelon region in the early 12th century BCE, roughly at the time when ancient Egyptian texts mention “Sea Peoples” moving into the Eastern Mediterranean. Using these clues, scholars have argued that the Philistines emigrated from the Aegean in the early Iron Age, bringing the cultural practices of their homeland, which appear to have been pointedly different from those prevailing at the time in the area.

New finds from the cemetery and highlights from thirty years of excavation in Ashkelon are on display in the Israel Museum exhibition, Ashkelon: A Retrospective, 30 Years of the Leon Levy Expedition, (July 10, 2016-February 17, 2017) at the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum in Jerusalem. Curated by Nurith Goshen and Fawzi Ibrahim, this retrospective exhibition showcases the new finds alongside iconic artifacts from Ashkelon’s history, such as a Canaanite silver calf (16th century BCE), Egyptian artifacts from the time of the destruction of the city by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in 604 BCE, coin hoards, jewelry and a collection of exceptional marbles.

The Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon

The Leon Levy Expedition, led by Lawrence E. Stager of Harvard University, has been conducting large-scale excavations on the tell of ancient Ashkelon since 1985, thanks to the support of Leon Levy and Shelby White of New York. In the summer of 2007, a second phase of large-scale excavations at Ashkelon commenced under the directorship of Daniel Master of Wheaton College, Illinois. The Leon Levy Expedition has had, over the years, a large and capable staff of professional archaeologists, as well as hundreds of enthusiastic dig volunteers from all over the world. The Expedition is actively publishing a series of final reports on the finds and history of Ashkelon published by the Semitic Museum at Harvard University. The summer of 2016 is the final excavation season of the Leon Levy Expedition.

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