An archaeological discovery announced on Sunday in Israel may help solve an enduring biblical mystery: where did the ancient Philistines come from?
The Philistines left behind plenty of pottery. But part of the mystery surrounding the ancient people was that very little biological trace of them had been found â€” until 2013.
That’s when archaeologists excavating the site of the biblical city of Ashkelon found what they say is the first Philistine cemetery ever discovered. They say they have uncovered the remains of more than 200 people there.
The discovery was finally unveiled Sunday at the close of a 30-year excavation by the Leon Levy Expedition, a team of archaeologists from Harvard University, Boston College, Wheaton College in Illinois and Troy University in Alabama.
The team is now performing DNA, radiocarbon and other tests on bone samples uncovered at the cemetery, dating back to between the 11th and the 8th centuries B.C., to help resolve a debate about the Philistines’ geographical origins. The archaeologists have not announced any conclusions, saying they are taking advantage of recent advances in DNA testing to get the most accurate results.
The discovery of a sizable cemetery, with over 210 individuals, at a site conclusively linked to the Philistines, was a â€œcritical missing linkâ€ that allows scholars â€œto fill out the story of the Philistines,â€ said Master, a professor of archaeology at Wheaton College.
The cemetery, discovered just outside the ancient city walls and dated to between the 11th and 8th centuries BCE â€” a period associated with the rise of the Israelites â€” may contain thousands of individuals, providing an abundance of material to study, he said.
With that broad a population, â€œweâ€™re going to be able to reconstruct what the Philistines as a group were like,â€ Master said.
The announcement was timed to coincide with the opening of an Israel Museum exhibit showcasing finds spanning 6,000 years from Ashkelon at the Rockefeller. Among the items on display are 3,800-year-old city gates, gold and silver jewelry demonstrating its commercial prominence, and a Roman marble slab etched with Crusader and Fatimid inscriptions.
Throughout much of its 22 layers of settlement, Ashkelon was a â€œgreat seaport,â€ situated on the Mediterranean and on the main coastal trade route,â€ Harvard Universityâ€™s Larry Stager, co-director of the dig, said. It was significantly larger than cities inland during the Bronze and Iron Age, with 10-12,000 people, because it could sustain greater population through commerce.
Ashkelon was one of the five main Philistine cities for six centuries â€” , along with Gaza, Ashdod, Gath and Ekron â€” from the 1100s BCE down to Ashkelonâ€™s destruction by Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzarâ€™s army in 604 BCE.
â€œWeâ€™ve uncovered their houses, weâ€™ve uncovered their trading networks, weâ€™ve uncovered all aspects of their culture,â€ Master said. With the discovery of the cemetery, â€œweâ€™re finally going to see the people themselves.â€
â€œThere have been other random finds of people caught in Philistine destruction on occasion,â€ he explained, â€œbut nothing like this. No systematic example of what they thought about death and how they treated people in that process.â€
Isolated graves containing Philistine style pottery were thought to be possible examples of their practices, but the few cases were not enough to convince most scholars.
â€œWhat we needed for a Philistine cemetery was to find a large one that was directly connected to one of the cities we know as a Philistine city,â€ Master said. â€œAnd Ashkelon is exactly that.â€
Scholars believe the Philistines were among a number of tribes of non-Semitic peoples who migrated across the Mediterranean â€” possibly from modern Greece and Turkey â€” and settled the Canaanite coast in the early Iron Age.