Archaeologists have uncovered the first Philistine cemetery, and it supports the biblical account of a people besides the Canaanites in the lands near ancient Israel. Ironically, the discovery seems to contradict the common meaning of the word “philistine,” as someone who is “smugly indifferent to cultural values.”
“The Philistines have had some bad press, and this will dispel a lot of myths,” Harvard professor Lawrence E. Stager, who led the archaeological dig, told Britain’s The Daily Mail. Stager has led the Leon Levy Expedition to the Philistine site of Ashkelon since 1985. The dig site is located in the Israeli port city of Ashkelon. This is the first major discovery of Philistine bodies, revealing new information that supports the general biblical narrative.
“This forms a baseline for what ‘Philistine’ is,” Daniel M. Master, professor of archaeology at Wheaton College and a leader of the excavation, told Haaretz, Israel’s oldest daily newspaper. “We can already say that the cultural practices we see here are substantially different from the Canaanites and the highlanders in the east.”
The cemetery consists of more than 150 burials, some of which follow Aegean funerary practices, rather than the Near Eastern ones associated with the Canaanites or other peoples in the lands around ancient Israel.
“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,” Stager declared.
The cemetery was found just outside the city walls of Tel Ashkelon, one of the Philistine’s five primary cities in ancient Israel. The other cities were Gaza, Ashdod, Ekron, and Gath, where the giant Goliath came from.
The ceramics, architecture, burial customs, and pottery remains all provide evidence that the Philistines were not indigenous to ancient Israel, Haaretz reported.
This supports the biblical explanation that the Philistines were “the remnant from the coasts of Caphtor” (Jeremiah 47:4 and Amos 9:7), which has been taken to mean the island of Crete, in the south of the Aegean Sea. The Bible does not necessarily suggest that Crete was their original home, but the place through which they migrated to move into ancient Israel.
It is not entirely outside the realm of possibility that these people came from the carnage of wars around the ancient city of Troy, which itself has at least 12 different layers suggesting a long tumultuous history. It is also possible that they fled the Aegean after the eruption of Thera, a cataclysmic volcanic eruption that created the modern island of Santorini.
Next Page: What history, archaeology, and the Bible reveal about the Philistines, and why this discovery was kept secret for three years.
One of the earliest references to the Philistines is Ramesses III’s mortuary relief at Medinet Habu, which portrays the Battle of the Delta, a great struggle between the Egyptians and the Sea Peoples that took place at the mouth of the Nile around 1176 B.C.
The Bible tells of the Philistines stealing the Ark of the Covenant, and of their gods bowing before it. The book of Judges tells of Samson, the Jew who married a Philistine woman and fought the Philistines throughout his life.
Most famously, the book of Samuel tells the story of the shepherd boy (later to be king) David felling the mighty giant Goliath. No remains of gigantic warriors have been discovered at the Ashkelon cemetery, but that does not cast doubt on Goliath’s existence.
In 604 B.C., the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar conquered Philistia, destroying the cities and exiling the inhabitants. A great deal of art and architecture remained, however, giving archaeologists a view into Philistine life. The burial ground was kept secret and undisturbed beneath a Roman vineyard, the Daily Mail reported.
The city of Ashkelon became a flourishing trade hub in the Bronze Age, and even after the conquest of Nebuchadnezzar it remained a gateway between East and West. In Crusader times, it was finally destroyed by the Mamluk sultan Baibars, a blow from which it never recovered. Interestingly, this is the same Baibars who caused the greatest massacre of the period, far worse than the Crusader conquest of Jerusalem.
“The victors write history,” Master told The New York Times. “We found these Philistines, and finally we get to hear their story told by them rather than by their enemies.”
The team has finished its archaeological work, but they still intend to perform DNA, radiocarbon, and genetic testing on the bone samples. They kept the discovery a secret for three years until the end of their dig this month, in order to avoid attracting ultra-Orthodox Jewish protesters. “We had to bite our tongues for a long time,” Master told the Daily Mail.