JERUSALEM — American archaeologists leading dig teams in Israel have announced the discovery of a Philistine cemetery in the seaport city of Ashkelon, providing researchers a glimpse into the lives and deaths of a people group known in the Scriptures as the foe of the nation of Israel.
“So much of what we know about the Philistines is told by their enemies. Now we’ll really be able to tell their story by the things they left behind for us,” Daniel Master, a professor at Wheaton College and co-director of the Leon Levy expedition in Ashkelon, told National Geographic this week.
Both Master and co-director Larry Stager, a professor at Harvard University, announced the find this Sunday at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem. Master said that while excavation has been underway in Ashkelon for 30 years, it was only recently that approximately 150 graves dating back 3,000 years were discovered.
“We’ve uncovered their houses. We’ve uncovered their trading networks. We’ve uncovered all aspects of their culture,” he explained. “[Now], we’re finally going to see the people themselves.”
Researchers believe that there are possibly thousands of Philistine bodies buried at the site, which has provided a number of interesting clues about the burial practices of the people. Adults were commonly buried in pits or in collective tombs, and children were seemingly purposefully covered with chards of pottery.
Stager says that the find shows that much of what has been written about Philistine burials is inaccurate.
“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,” he said.
Some pottery artifacts were found buried next to the dead, including what are believed to have been perfume bottles. Jewelry was also found with a few of the bodies.
The Philistines, who worshiped dagon, are mentioned numerous times throughout the Old Testament or Tenakh. One of the most noted accounts of the Philistines is found in the Book of Judges, when a mighty man named Samson, who was to be set apart for God as as Nazarite, fixed his heart upon a Philistine woman named Delilah.
“And the lords of the Philistines came up unto her, and said unto her, ‘Entice him, and see wherein his great strength lieth, and by what means we may prevail against him, that we may bind him to afflict him; and we will give thee every one of us eleven hundred pieces of silver,'” Judges 16:5 reads.
Delilah therefore tricked Samson into telling her his secret of his strength, and Samson was then taken captive and blinded. But Samson avenged the wrongdoing by using his might to topple the pillars that held up the building where the Philistines were gathered.
Goliath of Gath, a giant of a man who was killed by the then-shepherd boy David, was also a Philistine.
“And David spake to the men that stood by him, saying, ‘What shall be done to the man that killeth this Philistine, and taketh away the reproach from Israel? For who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?'” 1 Samuel 17:26 reads.
“From our standpoint, [the excavation] is just the first chapter of the story,” Master told reporters. “I’ve been at Ashkelon for 25 years, and I guess it’s just the beginning.”
“There have been other random finds of people caught in Philistine destruction on occasion, but nothing like this,” he said. “No systematic example of what they thought about death and how they treated people in that process.”