First discovery of Philistine cemetery to rewrite history

Experts say history would have to be rewritten in light of the latest discovery which debunks some myths about the Philistines

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Skeletons have been found for the first time after a century of excavation in the Philistine valley.

The people of Philistia, referred to in biblical language as the Philistines, have long been known as the historic arch rivals of the ancient Israelites. History has portrayed them as a wild, uncouth and uncultured lot. Even the term "Philistines" has come to be associated as something derogatory.

But a recent archaeological discovery suggests they might have led sophisticated and modern lives.Archaeologists have unearthed a 3,000-year-old cemetery in which members of this biblical nation were buried along with jewelry and perfumed oil.

The cemetery was found on the outskirts of Israel's port city of Ashkelon - one of five cities where the Philistines lived in ancient times.

It is the first discovery of a Philistine burial place in excavations that go back a century. Little was known about the Philistines prior to this recent find.

The Hebrew Bible talks about them as "uncircumcised" people. Children have grown up hearing stories about how the giant Goliath was killed from a slingshot by a young David and Delilah's deception of Samson. Both were Philistines.  

The Philistines flourished in the the Mediterranean, starting in the 12th century BC, but their way of life and origin have remained a mystery.

Now the discovery, which contains remains of about 150 people in numerous burial chambers, will help archaeologists to learn about their way of life.

DNA found on parts of the skeletons allows archaeologists to determine the origins of the Philistines – a major point of argument among historians.

"We may need to rethink today's derogatory use of the word philistine, which refers to someone averse to culture and the arts," said archaeologist Lawrence Stager, who has led the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon since 1985.

"The Philistines have had some bad press, and this will dispel a lot of myths," Stager said.

Stager's team dug down about 3 metres to uncover the cemetery, which they found to have been used centuries later as a Roman vineyard.

On their hands and knees, workers brushed away layers of dust to reveal the brittle white bones of entire Philistine skeletons reposed as they were three millennia ago.

Decorated juglets believed to have contained perfumed oil were found in graves. Some bodies were still wearing bracelets and earrings. Others had weapons.

The archeologists also discovered some cremations, which the team say were rare and expensive for the period, and some larger jugs contained the bones of infants.

"The cosmopolitan life here is so much more elegant and worldly and connected with other parts of the eastern Mediterranean," Stager said, adding that this was in contrast to the more modest village lifestyle of the Israelites who lived in the hills to the east.

Final reports on the finds are being published by the Semitic Museum at Harvard University.

“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 told Haaretz.  

Daniel Master, an archaeology professor, who is part of the archeological team, told National Geographic: "So much of what we know about the Philistines is told by their enemies, by the people who were fighting them or killing them. Now, for the first time at a site like Ashkelon, we'll really be able to tell their story by the things they left behind for us." 

TRTWorld, Reuters