Discovery of Philistine Cemetery Could Shed Light on Israel’s Ancient Enemy

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For the first time a Philistine cemetery has been discovered at excavations of the ancient city of Ashkelon on Israel’s Southern Mediterranean coast. At a press conference at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem, Daniel Master – one of the heads of the Leon Levy Expedition at the site – elaborated that the discovery, “could help shed light on the origins and customs of the Philistines.”

Although the Philistines are much revered as the infamous historic enemy of the nation of Israel in the Bible, and as a people which have become emblematic of a lack of cultural or artistic aspiration, surprisingly little detail is offered in the Tanakh concerning the society or culture of this ancient people group. As such, this discovery may offer an understanding which had previously been almost entirely obscured. Master optimistically stated, “we’re going to be able to reconstruct what the Philistines as a group were like.”

The cemetery was located in the immediate vicinity of the ancient city walls and its use has been dated to a period of around 300 years from the 11th-8th centuries BC. The area is approximated to contain as many as a thousand individual burials.

One of the great mysteries concerning the Philistines which it may be possible to unravel from the discovery concerns their origins.

Ancient Egyptian texts describe an aggressive invasion of “sea peoples” arriving on the Eastern Mediterranean shore in the late 13th and early 12th centuries BC, in the time of Ramesses III. The Egyptian term ‘peleset’ has been associated with these groups and also with the Philistines. Many scholars believe that the Philistines emerged out of the Aegean, bringing many cultural and artistic practices from those regions, and Master has stated that DNA analysis of the human material from the cemetery at Ashkelon may be able to shed light on the accuracy of these views in relation to the group’s ethnic associations.

The burials at Ashkelon were evidently not disturbed after interment, already showing some difference with other local people groups (the Canaanites and Israelites) which had a custom of interment in caves followed by the collection of the bones of the deceased after decomposition of the flesh. The individuals at Ashkelon were buried in pits or multi-chambered tombs along with personal items which may shed further light on their cultural and artistic history. Occasional cremations are also evident at the site.

Ashkelon was one of the five major cities associated with the Philistines in the Bible – alongside Gaza, Ashdod, Gath and Ekron. The city was destroyed during the Babylonian invasion under king Nebuchadnezzar in 604 BC. 22 layers of settlement have been uncovered in extensive excavations at the site, and it is considered by the site’s directors to have operated as a “great seaport” in the region. Finds include the 3,800-year-old city gates as well as gold and silver jewelry exemplifying the commercial influence of the centre. Master said, “we’ve uncovered their houses, we’ve uncovered their trading networks, we’ve uncovered all aspects of their culture. We’re finally going to see the people themselves.”

The announcement of the highly significant find coincides with the opening of a new exhibition at the Rockefeller displaying the finds from Ashkelon spanning its 6000-year history.