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Philistine Pottery Sherd

Philistine Pottery Sherd


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Ancient DNA Sheds New Light on the Biblical Philistines

Sometime in the 12th century B.C., a family in the ancient port city of Ashkelon, in what is today Israel, mourned the loss of a child. But they didn’t go to the city’s cemetery. Instead, they dug a small pit in the dirt floor of their home and buried the infant right in the place where they lived.

That child’s DNA is now helping scholars trace the origins of the Philistines, a long-standing, somewhat contentious mystery. In accounts from the Hebrew Bible, the Philistines appear mostly as villainous enemies of the Israelites. They sent Delilah to cut the hair of the Israelite leader Samson and thus stripped him of his power. Goliath, the giant slain by David, was a Philistine. The Philistines’ reputation as a hostile, war-mongering, hedonistic tribe became so pervasive that “philistine” is still sometimes lobbed as an insult for an uncultured or crass person.

But who were the Philistines, exactly? In the Bible, ancient cities like Ashkelon, Ashdod and Ekron were mentioned as Philistine strongholds. In the 19th and 20th centuries, scholars finally started to piece together a distinct archaeological record of Philistine culture. Excavations revealed that these cities saw the emergence of new architecture and artifacts at the beginning of the Iron Age, around 1200 B.C., signaling the arrival of the Philistines. Pottery found at Philistine archaeological sites, for example, appeared to have been made locally, but looked strikingly like wares created by Aegean cultures such as the Mycenaeans, who built their civilization in what is now mainland Greece. And the Bible mentions “Caphtor,” or Crete, as the origin place of the Philistines.

Historians also know that, around the time these changes occur in the archaeological record, civilizations in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean were collapsing. The Philistines are written about in Egyptian hieroglyphs, where they are referred to as the Peleset, among the tribes of “Sea Peoples” said to have battled against Pharaoh Ramses III around 1180 B.C. Meanwhile, other scholars have suggested that the Philistines were in fact a local tribe, or one that came from present-day Turkey or Syria.

Reconstruction of a Philistine house from the 12th Century B.C. (Artist Balage Balogh / Courtesy Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon)

Now, researchers have extracted DNA from the remains of 10 individuals, including four infants, who were buried at Ashkelon during the Bronze Age and Iron Age. The results, which were published today in the journal Science Advances, suggest the Philistines indeed migrated to the Middle East from southern Europe.

“This is an excellent example of a case where advances in science have helped us answer a question that has been long debated by archaeologists and ancient historians,” says Eric Cline, a professor at George Washington University and director of the Capitol Archaeology Institute, who was not involved in the study.

The new study stems from a discovery in 2013 of a cemetery with more than 200 burials contemporary with the Philistine settlement at Ashkelon just outside the ancient city walls. The cemetery, which was used during the late Iron Age, between the 11th and 8th centuries B.C., was the first Philistine burial ground ever found. The archaeologists documented burial practices that were distinct from the Philistines' Canaanite predecessors and their Egyptian neighbors. For example, in several cases, little jugs of perfume were tucked near the head of the deceased. Finding Philistine human remains also meant there might be potential to find Philistine DNA.

“We knew of the revolution in paleogenetics, and the way people were able to gather from a single individual hundreds of thousands of data points,” says Daniel Master, the director of the excavations and a professor of archaeology at Wheaton College in Illinois.

Getting DNA from the newly discovered human remains at Ashkelon, however, proved tricky. The southern Levant does not have a favorable climate for the preservation of DNA, which can break down when it’s too warm or humid, says Michal Feldman, who studies archaeogenetics at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, and is the lead author of the new report. Nonetheless, the researchers were able to sequence the whole genome of three individuals from the cemetery.

An infant burial at the Philistine cemetery at Ashkelon. (Ilan Sztulman / Courtesy Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon)

To establish a baseline for the local genetic profile, the researchers also sequenced genomes from the remains of three Canaanites who had been buried in Ashkelon during the Bronze Age, before the alleged arrival of the Philistines. The team was also able to extract DNA from the remains of four infants who had previously been found in Philistine houses during excavations between 1997 and 2013. These children were buried in the Iron Age, in the 12th or 11th century, shortly after the Philistines supposed arrival in the region.

The results showed that the four Iron Age infants all had some genetic signatures matching those seen in Iron Age populations from Greece, Spain and Sardinia. “There was some gene flow coming in that was not there before,” Feldman says.

The researchers interpreted these results as evidence that migration indeed occurred at the end of the Bronze Age or during the early Iron Age. If that’s true, the infants may have been the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of the first Philistines to arrive in Canaan.

Intriguingly, their DNA already had a mixture of southern European and local signatures, suggesting that within a few generations the Philistines were marrying into the local population. In fact, the European signatures were not detectable at all in the individuals buried a few centuries later in the Philistine cemetery. Genetically, by then the Philistines looked like Canaanites. That fact in itself offers additional information about Philistine culture. “When they came, they did not have any kind of taboo or prohibition against marrying into other groups around them,” Master says. Nor, it would seem, did other groups categorically have that taboo about them, either. "One of the things that I think it shows is that the world was really complicated, whether we’re talking about genetics or identity or language or culture, and things are changing all the time," he adds.

Excavation of the Philistine cemetery at Ashkelon. (Melissa Aja / Courtesy Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon)

Cline cautions that it’s always best to be careful about connecting new genetic data to cultures and historic events, and the researchers recognize that if they had only looked at the DNA from the Philistine cemetery, they might have come up with a totally different story about the identity of the Philistines.

“Our history appears to be full of these transient pulses of genetic mixing that disappear without a trace,” says Marc Haber, a geneticist at the U.K.’s Wellcome Sanger Institute, who was not involved in the study. Haber has previously found evidence of “pulses” of gene flows from Europe to the Near East during the Middle Ages, which disappeared centuries later. “Ancient DNA has the power to look deep into the past and give us information on events that we knew little or nothing about.”

The findings are a good reminder, Feldman says, that a person’s culture or ethnicity is not the same as their DNA. “In this situation, you have foreign people coming in with a slightly different genetic makeup, and their influence, genetically, is very short. It doesn’t leave a long-lasting impact, but culturally they made an impact that lasted for many years.”


Were the Philistines Really Uncultured 'Philistines'?

In the Hebrew Bible (known to Christians as the Old Testament), the Philistines are the consummate enemy of the Israelites — an uncircumcised barbaric tribe intent on destroying God's chosen people. The giant Goliath was a Philistine and so was the evil temptress Delilah who cut mighty Samson's hair.

For centuries, the word "philistine" has even been shorthand for people who are uncouth and uncultured, as in, "The school board members who want to cut funding for art and music programs are a bunch of philistines." The term was first coined by a 17th-century German university chaplain who defended a brawl between his Christian students and the townspeople by branding the uneducated locals as no better than "Philistines."

But do the Philistines deserve their bad biblical reputation? Who were these people who ruled the coastal plain near the Gaza Strip in modern-day Israel for six centuries, and for whom the land of Palestine derives its name?

We spoke with Aren Maeir, an archaeologist at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and director of the decades-long excavations at the ancient Philistine city of Gath. As Maeir explains, the biblical accounts are heavily biased against the Philistines, whom the authors of the Hebrew Bible needed to cast as Israel's arch enemy and the "ultimate other" in order to contrast with the chosen status of the Israelites.

The archaeological record, however, tells a very different story about the Philistines, a highly cultured people who were frequent adversaries of the Israelites, but who also freely intermingled with them over centuries of cultural exchange.

The Mysterious Origins of the Philistines

The Bible says that the Philistines originated in either Egypt or Crete (referred to as "Mizraim" and "Caphtor" respectively in Genesis 10:13-14), and it's clear throughout the biblical accounts that the Philistines were foreigners who worshipped foreign-sounding pagan gods and often waged war on the Israelites. (Their reputation as being "uncouth" is not really mentioned in the Bible, unless through extrapolation from such characters as the lumbering Philistine giant Goliath.)

Historians agree that the Philistines arrived in the biblical land known as Canaan (roughly modern-day Israel) around the 13th and 12th centuries B.C.E., which corresponds to the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age, but where exactly they came from is up for debate.

As recently as 30 years ago, the consensus was that the Philistines were one of the mysterious Sea Peoples who wreaked havoc in the Mediterranean around 1200 B.C.E. That theory identified the Philistines as originating in Mycenaean Greece and invading the Canaanite coast around 1177 B.C.E. as a cohesive and destructive military force, and it fit very well with the biblical descriptions of the Philistines as foreign barbarians.

But Maeir says that excavations in Philistia, the ancient name for the coastal region where the Philistines settled, show no record of destroyed Canaanite towns dating from that time period. Instead, Maeir and others argue that the Philistines weren't one cohesive culture that invaded Canaan "D-Day style," but rather a mélange of different peoples — Mycenaean Greeks, certainly, as well as Egyptians and pirates — who arrived in Philistia at a moment when civilizations around the Mediterranean were collapsing.

"The result was an 'entangled culture' [in Philistia], what you might call a 'Mediterranean salad,'" says Maeir.

These assorted peoples quickly absorbed aspects of the local cultures and Semitic languages of the region, which is known broadly as the Levant. And very soon, the mixed cultural bag known as the Philistines coalesced into a distinct people set apart from their Israelite neighbors.

DNA evidence recovered from ancient Philistine cemeteries shows that while Iron Age inhabitants of Philistia had 14 percent more European ancestry than earlier inhabitants of the region — which supports the idea that at least some Philistines came from the Aegean — those genetic differences disappeared in just 200 years. This DNA evidence goes against the biblical account that Hebrew intermarriage with the Philistines was avoided at all cost. There was clearly a lot of intermingling between the Philistines and their neighbors.

Philistine Culture and Religion

Archaeological excavations like those done by Maeir in the Philistine city of Gath paint a picture of an Iron Age culture that was in many ways superior to that of the Israelites. Philistine settlements were more urban, they made more refined pottery and conducted more international trade compared with the pre-monarchy Israelites.

"In the earlier part of the Iron Age at least, the Philistines were more sophisticated and the Israelites were the hillbillies," says Maeir.

The Philistines may have spoken a distinct language when they first arrived in Canaan, but there are scant written fragments that offer clues to what it sounded like. More likely, says Maeir, many languages were originally spoken in Philistia, but the various groups comprising the original Philistines eventually settled into the existing Semitic languages like Phoenician and biblical Hebrew.

"I've dreamed for years of discovering a Philistine 'Rosetta Stone' with the original non-Semitic language, a Semitic language and a bilingual inscription," says Maeir, laughing, "but it hasn't appeared yet and I have a feeling it's never going to."

The religion of the Philistines is equally shrouded in mystery. According to remnants of Philistine temples and religious figurines, the chief Philistine goddess appears to have been named Dagon. In the Bible, Dagon is mistaken as being a male deity.

As for the Philistine diet, it wasn't as wildly different and "unclean" as the Bible would have you believe. Yes, the Philistines ate pigs and dogs, but so did some Israelites according to Maeir. After the death of King Solomon in 930 B.C.E., the kingdom split into Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Maeir says that while the Judahites were much less likely to eat pork, the Israelites weren't as strict.

"The biblical narratives about the Philistines are ideologically tainted," says Maeir. "The idea of the Philistines as this strong and fierce group is not strongly indicated from the archeological remains. And that's because the biblical text is trying to portray the enemies of Israel as these horrendous, ferocious people that could only be overcome through the help of God."

Yet there are even clues from the Bible that the Philistines and the Israelites commingled. The biblical character Samson battles and kills great numbers of Philistines, but he also falls in love with one, Delilah, who ultimately betrays him. Maeir says that archaeological excavations support the story of two peoples, Philistine and Israelite, with a lot of cultural commonalities and crossover.

"This image of a wall or fence separating the cultures with barbed wire on top of it is highly questionable," says Maeir, who compares it to the relationship between modern Israelis and Palestinians. From the outside, they're cast as enemies, but they often work together, live together and share much in common culturally.

After the Babylonian conquest, the Philistines were sent into exile and never recovered their homeland. Over the ensuing centuries, their distinct culture dwindled and disappeared, absorbed into other groups they intermarried with.


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Excavations of the city of Gath tells a tale not of bitter enemies locked in sweaty combat, but of intimate relations.

Gath was one of the five cities in what is today Israel that had been ruled by a Philistine "axis lord": the city's ruler was allied with the Philistine lords ruling the other four cities – Gaza, Ekron, Ashdod and Ashkelon.

Situated on the fertile inland plain of Philistia, Gath figured prominently in descriptions of the Israelite-Philistine seesaw domination of the area. But how reliable are these ancient descriptions?

Map showing best-understood rough boundaries of Philistia and the "pentopolis" - five cities that had been under Philistine control: Gath, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron and Gaza. Haaretz

'Warrior giants' and Judahites

Gath and its residents, the Gittites, make several appearances in the scriptures. The best known representatives of the city are the infamous Philistine giant Goliath, whom David vanquished using only a sling, the Philistine king Achish, with whom David sheltered after fleeing from King Saul, and Obed-Edom, a Levite in whose home the Ark of the Covenant temporarily rested.

Another group of Gittites were the Rephaim, other “warrior giants”, a remnant of the earlier Canaanite population, with whom the Israelites also had problems on more than one occasion. While fighting the Philistines, David and his soldiers killed four men “born to the Rephaim”. Scholars have suggested that the Rephaim of Gath and Philistia may actually have been a multi-generational family of great importance that spanned both the Philistine and Judahite areas of Philistia and the Shephelah during the Iron Age. And, Gath evidently also housed Judahites, based mainly on the biblical record, though the archaeological evidence for their presence in the city is scanty.

Whoever lived in Gath, the biblical mentions of Philistines consistently dismiss them as polytheistic barbarians who superstitiously consult priests and diviners before making decisions.

In the book of Judges, the Philistines are portrayed as ruthless and weak in moral fiber: witness Delilah's use of deceitful charms to rob Samson of his power. Later they killed King Saul and his sons in battle, then viciously hung the king’s headless body from the walls of Beit She'an. And to this day, the story of David’s victory over the brutal giant Goliath is retold to each new generation, perpetuating the Philistines' negative image. To this very day, their bad name has survived in the disparaging term “philistine”, which Oxford defines as “a person who is hostile or indifferent to culture and the arts”.

But arguably, this depiction of the nasty Philistines is a misrepresentation for political purposes that go back thousands of years.

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D-Day, or intimate relations

A Philistine altar from the late Canaanite era. Leonid Padrol, courtesy of Israel Antiquities Authorit

The bible depicts Judea as a small but powerful kingdom that controlled the mountains and plains, with Gath passing back and forth between Philistine to Judean control. But the archaeological evidence does not support this description. If anything, it seems that the Philistines controlled the Judean plain – and that during the Iron Age, Gath was a large, powerful metropolis on the border with Judea. The city remains feature an iron production area and massive fortifications, which are unmarked by the signs of destruction that one would expect if there was incessant warfare with Judea.

“To say that they were archenemies is a distortion," claims Gunnar Lehmann of Ben Gurion University, an expert on the pottery of the Philistines and the so-called Sea Peoples. "They may not have been the closest friends throughout history, but clear conflict is only mentioned in the time of King Saul, in the books of Samuel. As soon as you come to the narratives of King David and King Solomon, there is some sort of coexistence.”

Recent excavations at Tell el-Safi, the site of the ancient city of Gath, by Prof. Aren Maeir of Bar Ilan University confirm that the Gittites - and consequently the Philistines - lived together with the local people. The seeming arch-foes described in the scriptures maintained intimate cultural ties.

“Philistine cooking vessels appear in Judah. We see Philistine words in Hebrew biblical texts and vice versa, Hebrew letters in proto-Philistine writing," Maeir told Haaretz. "We found an altar at Gath that is reminiscent of the descriptions of the Jewish altars in the scriptures, and right next to this altar, we found a jar dedicated to the Philistine temple, with a Judahite name on it.”

Relations between the ancient Hebrews and the Philistines are rather like the relationship between the Israelis and Palestinians today, he suggests. They may have been enemies on the surface, but below that, "The relationship goes on many levels. We work together, we eat together, we wear the same type of clothes. It's more than just us and them."

A Philistine altar uncovered at Gath, which had been a Philistine stronghold on this side of the Mediterranean. PR

Infiltration, not invasion

Previously, historians assumed the Philistines arrived on the Levantine coast as powerful invaders, just as the other civilizations around the region were collapsing, in about 1177 BCE.

“The image had been of a sort of D-Day invasion, where they landed on the Canaanite coast, and captured and supplanted the population," says Maeir, who has been digging at Gath for over two decades. But it seems the Philistines moved in, rather than conquered. They brought Mycenaean culture with them, but gradually became more Levantine over the years, he says.

Further supporting the theory of infiltration rather than disastrous invasion, Maier adds: “There is almost no evidence that the Philistine culture appeared following massive destruction. Few of the Canaanite cities that existed in the southern coastal plain of Israel prior to the appearance of the Philistines show evidence of major destruction.”

On the contrary, the material dating to the Iron Age in the Levant indicate a continuing cultural exchange with the Aegean. “The conception that the Sea People phenomenon was a single event in the early 13th century BCE, is wrong. I think the Sea People phenomenon was a very long process that started with various groups at the late 15th century BCE and went all the way through to the 11th century BCE,” Lehmann told Haaretz.

The origin of the Philistines has been the subject of much heated debate. The Hebrew Scriptures mention "Caphtor" (Jeremiah 47:4 Am 9:7) as the Philistines' origin before their migration to Canaan. But where Caphtor might be is anybody's guess. Suggestions include Egypt itself, the southeastern coast of Cilicia, Turkey and Crete. Wherever they were from, evidently the Philistines had their issues with the Egyptians as well: Some of the earliest references to Philistines can be traced back to Egyptian records from the late 13th and early 12th century BCE, mentioning a confederation of Sea Peoples that fought against Egypt. Among these peoples were the "Peleset" (whom Ramesses III reportedly defeated at the Battle of the Delta).

The remains of fortifications at Gath, which shows no signs of periodic destruction as would be expected if control over it swung between Israelites and Philistines. Aren Maeir

Another Egyptian inscription calls the Philistines "thr warriors" - which is the term the Egyptians used for all kinds of troops fighting on the Hittite side in the great charioteer battle of Kadesh. Egyptologist Shirly Ben Dor Evian from Tel Aviv University sees that as attesting to the origin of the Philistines: “As far as the Egyptians was concerned they were thr warriors and that would place them in Anatolia, Cilicia even Syria,” she explains to Haaretz.

Ultimately, it seems the Philistines, as a definable ethnic and cultural entity, emerged from a variety of western peoples that wound up settling in Canaan, and lived peacefully side-by-side with each other and with the locals. “I think there was an immigration of a variety of groups: pirates, mercenaries, and merchants,” Lehmann says – qualifying that all is highly speculative.

Pirates of the Mediterranean?

The so-called Peleset, who were apparently Philistine captives of the Egyptian armed forces, from a graphic wall relief at Medinet Habu (

1185-52 BCE) Wikimedia Commons

Maeir too thinks at least some of the Philistines may have originated as pirate groups around 1177 BCE.

“The 13th century BCE is a period of collapse. The Hittite kingdom collapsed, the Egyptian kingdom gets weaker and the Mycenaean Palatial kingdoms fell apart. Historically, we know that pirate groups flourish in a period when there is less centralized government. Also, pirate groups are often multi-ethnic cultural groups led by a charismatic leader," Maeir says.

“I don’t believe they had eye patches or wooden legs but I think that might help us explain how they became what we know as the Philistine culture," he elaborates. "Once they settled down, they created the identity we know as Philistines, which in the beginning had many of these western attributes. But with time, the Philistines become more Levantine in culture.”

The many cultural similarities between the two peoples might explain why it was so important for both the Philistines and Israelites to differentiate themselves from each other, a tradition that was transferred into the biblical record, Maeir believes.

And thus the Bible is full of anecdotes about the Gittites and Philistines, and even if they aren't necessarily true, they have proven to be more long-lived then the historical truths of science. For now the origin of the Philistines continues to be part of selective historiography and political mythology – the people whose very name has survived in the disparaging term “philistine”. But, as the late Prof. Trude Dothan once asked, "Is this image deserved?" It may well not be.


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“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,” says Lawrence E. Stager, Dorot Professor of the Archaeology of Israel, Emeritus, at Harvard University.

The cemetery was found just outside the city walls of Tel Ashkelon, one of the Philistines' five primary cities in ancient Israel.

The cemetery was found to have more then 150 individual burials dating from the 11th to 8th century BCE. The undisturbed graves have shed fresh light on a mystery bedeviling archaeologists for decades: the Philistines' real origins.

US anthropologist and pathologist, Sherry Fox shows a skull discovered at the excavation site of the first Philistine cemetery ever found in Ashkelon, on June 28, 2016. Menahem Kahana, AFP

“The basic question we want to know is where this people are from," said Dr. Sherry Fox, a physical anthropologist who is sampling the bones for analysis, including for DNA studies, and radiocarbon and biological distance studies.

How the Philistines lived: Not like Canaanites

The unprecedented discovery of the Philistine cemetery allows the archaeologists not only to study Philistine burial practices for the first time, but also to gain insights on Philistine characteristics and lifestyle. With this discovery, the archaeologists finally have a data set not on one or two individuals but a whole population, explains Daniel M. Master, professor of Wheaton College and co-director of the Leon Levy Expedition. That in turn will enable them to talk about what’s typical and what’s not typical, he explains.

“This forms a baseline for what 'Philistine' is. We can already say that the cultural practices we see here are substantially different from the Canaanites and the highlanders in the east," Master says.

Archaeologists investigating the first unmistakably Philistine burial ground found in Israel, in Ashkelon. Philippe Bohstrom

The bodies can also provide information about Philistine dietary habits, lifestyle and morbidity.

One conclusion the archaeologists have already reached is that these particular individuals seemed to have been spared from strife.

“There is no evidence of any kind of trauma on the bones, from war on inter-personal violence,” Fox told Haaretz.

Unlike the typical burial practice in the region - family burials or multiple burials, where the deceased were laid on raised platforms or benches - the practice in Ashkelon was markedly different.

The deceased were, for the most part, buried in oval pits. Four out of the 150 were cremated and some other bodies were deposited in ashlar burial chamber tombs. These are burial practices well known from the Aegean cultural sphere - but certainly not from the Canaanite one.

Artifacts found with the skeletons in the Philistine graveyard in Ashkelon are indicative of Philistine culture, not Canaanite. Philippe Bohstrom

A peaceful lot

Other finds that accompanied the deceased typically included storage jars, bowls and juglets, and in some rare cases fine jewelry - as well as arrowheads and spear points.

A hoard of iron arrowheads was discovered by the pelvis of one man, the amount one would expect to find in a quiver.

“The same arrow was not repeated, but a variety of forms and sizes, which is interesting," Dr. Adam Aja, assistant director of the excavation, told Haaretz, and added, “Perhaps the archer could choose the arrows he needed to penetrate flesh, armor or wood.”

Spear-points and some jewelry were also found next to the Philistine bowman.

Pottery artifacts found in the Philistine graveyard in Ashkelon, dating back c. 3000 years. Philippe Bohstrom

In other instances, small vials that had contained perfume were found next to the deceased (probably an olive oil based with different fragrances) . In two cases the bottle was found at the nostril, pointing to the nose, presumably so that the deceased could smell perfume throughout eternity.

In addition to the 150 individual pit graves found at the cemetery, six burial chambers with multiple bodies were found (when the bodies were found at all). A magnificent rectangular burial chamber was discovered inside the cemetery, built with perfectly hewn sandstones. But the large stone door that once stood at its entrance evidently could not hinder grave robbers from looting the tomb of its treasure and its occupants' skeletal remains.

When the chamber was built and used is anybody’s guess. “The latest pottery is trash from the 7th century BCE, but the chamber might have been built and used somewhat earlier,” Master told Haaretz.

The roughly 3000-year old skeletons found in the Philistine graveyard in Ashkelon have clear hallmarks of Aegean customs, not Canaanite. Philippe Bohstrom

Linen, papyrus and slaves

Ashkelon became a flourishing trading hub during the Bronze Age because of its location on the Mediterranean Sea and its proximity to Egypt. It was through Ashkelon, which was situated just north of Gaza, that Egypt sold linen and papyrus – and also slaves – to the rest of the ancient world.

Other goods distributed through Ashkelon during the Iron Age (ca. 1185-604 BCE) included wine and textile. There is also evidence of grain imports from Judah, again attesting to the Philistine city as an important gateway between the East and the West.

Ashkelon would remain a key trading center up to Crusader times. But it was destroyed by the Mamluk sultan Baibars in 1270 CE, a blow from which it never recovered.

The Philistines execute a pincer maneuver

According to the Bible, the island of Crete (usually held to be identical with Caphtor Jeremiah 47:4 Amos 9:7), though not necessarily the original home of the Philistines, was the place from which they migrated to the Canaan coast.

That the Philistines were not indigenous to Canaan is indicated by ceramics, architecture, burial customs, and pottery remains with writing – in non-Semitic languages (several inscribed stamp handles, as well as a pottery sherd with a Cypro-Minoan script, all dating to around 1150-1000 BCE).

Pottery sherd with Cypro-Minoan writing, found on the floor of a house in Philistine Ashkelon, dated to the 11th century BCE. Zev Radovan, courtesy of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon

The ancient DNA-analysis may be the final nail in the coffin that settles the debate of the Philistines origins.

Meanwhile, Lawrence E. Stager of Harvard has long been convinced that the Philistines came by ship, sailing from the Aegean area, perhaps Cyprus, to the South Canaan coast, and established themselves there before their great assault on Egypt.

One of the earliest references to the Philistines is Ramesses IIIs mortuary relief at Medinet Habu. The relief portrays the Battle of the Delta, the grand struggle between the Egyptians and the Sea Peoples that took place at the mouth of the Nile during the early 12th century BCE (1176-75 BCE).

Since the relief depicts oxcarts, chariots and ships, some scholars assume the Philistines came overland from Anatolia to Egypt. Stager is skeptical. “There is no way you can come with oxcarts from Anatolia, down through all the hills," he explains. "It makes much more sense if they came with ships, loading and offloading these vehicles."

He also points out that the Battle of the Delta was the one known epic battle between the Egyptians and Philistines or Sea Peoples. There weren't two. If the Philistines attacked the Egyptians, they would likely have sent a navy down the Mediterranean - and an army of land troops, effectively creating a pincer maneuver against Ramesses III, Stager speculates.

Stager suspects the Philistines had to have been well entrenched in south Canaan before the Battle of the Delta. Ashkelon would have been one of the first strategic points the Philistines would have settled, securing as sort of “bridgehead”, before they launched their armada and infantry against the Egyptians in the Nile Delta.

The Sea People invade: Emmanuel de Rougé's drawing, from a mural in Ramesses III's mortuary temple at Medinet Habu, Egypt. Seebeer, Wikimedia Commons

“Ramesses III tried to contain them in their five Philistine cities, but obviously he could not control them or drive them out," says Stager.


The Use of Sherds in Ancient Times

One interesting use of broken pottery by people of antiquity was to recycle sherds as construction components. People of the ancient Middle and Near East would often bake their bread in ovens that were constructed of clay and sometimes lined with broken sherds. The sherds would provide some stability especially as the clay component was packed around it. The photo below shows part of this construction technique in an oven that was discovered at Beth-Shemesh.

The remains of an ancient oven lined with broken sherds from Beth-Shemesh. (© Dale Manor)

Broken pottery was sometimes used as writing material. Usually this would not be for more formal composition, but for mundane uses that might not need archiving—sort of a “Post-It-Note” of antiquity. These are referred to as “ostraca” (plural singular is “ostracon”). The ancient writer would locate a suitable piece of broken ceramic and compose the necessary data on it. These ostraca might serve as receipts for goods received (a collection of these was found from Ahab’s Samaria cf. Avigad 1304 for photo of two ostraca see Suriano for translations of several of them), names or lists of names (cf. the “lots” at Masada cf. Yadin 811-12), or occasional messages to be delivered to some person or destination (see photo below). (See the receipts written on sherds that helped identify Naboth’s vineyard.)

This sherd preserves a message to a local ruler petitioning him to intervene to help secure his misappropriated cloak. (see Pardee for translation). (credit: Dale Manor, courtesy of the Israel Museum)

Pottery Sherds Help Establish a Historical Timeline

One of the first practical implications archaeologists came to recognize that sherds could provide was to help establish some framework of chronology. Ceramic pieces morph through time just like general fashion. These changes can help identify the time periods to which to assign the vessel. (See the smashed jars that helped pinpoint Jerusalem’s destruction.)

As one learns the differences in the visual changes of the vessels, it is possible to place the nuanced changes into a relative sequence (a “relative” date determines that something precedes or follows another but cannot necessarily determine the specific span that separated them). During his excavations in Egypt in the late 1800s, Sir William Matthews Flinders Petrie was a pioneer to identify and articulate such relative sequences. He eventually established the principle with stratified sites when he excavated Tell el-Hesi in Palestine in 1890 (Drower 39-40).

These typological differences along with other evidence—ideally some inscriptional statement—permit one to associate the style of pottery with a specific date, thus yielding an “absolute” date. With an absolute date, the archaeologist can infer that the styles of pottery in the strata above the “absolute” level are later and those that are in the strata below it are earlier. Until more refined information comes to light, these other date determinations will often be relative dates in relation to the absolute dates.

Other features than simply design, however, factor into the evaluation. These features of the pottery would include the degree of technical execution (i.e., clay composition and degree of firing, etc.), since these tend to fluctuate somewhat through time as well (see survey by London).

Because of the brittle nature of ceramics, they tend to break relatively easily. Some forms, however, are prone to more frequent breakage than others. Large storage jars tend to have longer useful lives than cooking pots or smaller vessels designed for mobility. The larger items will usually not be moved as often, whereas a cooking pot will be subject to the physical stresses of heat expansion and contraction (i.e., thermal shock) and vessels designed for mobility (i.e., lamps, jugs, juglets, and jars) will be liable to the hazards of frequent movement. With more frequent breakage, the smaller, more transportable vessels will reflect more rapid design changes than larger, more permanent type vessels (cf. London 450).

Different styles of ceramics found in different layers (or stratum) of an occupied hill (or tel) can help determine the relative dates of the layer and the ceramic style. (© Dale Manor)

The stylistic development of the ceramics for ancient Canaan/Israel/Palestine 2 can permit a fairly refined, albeit limited, chronological scheme. William Dever (460) has said: “For most periods, the common pottery of ancient Palestine can now be dated to the century, and often to one half or the other.” The accompanying chart attempts to summarize the chronological implications of ceramic typology.

Determining the Original Use of Broken Pottery

The determination of how people used the vessels is not always immediately apparent and sometimes cannot be determined. Some, such as lamps will indicate their use by the presence of soot stains at the spout of the vessel (photo below). One may infer other uses from depictions in ancient artwork as well as ethnoarchaeological comparisons.

Ancient oil lamps can indicate their use by the presence of soot stains at the spout of the vessel. (© Dale Manor)

Fortunately, refined chemical residue analysis is beginning to help identify the use of some vessels. One type of vessel, often referred to as a “pilgrim flask” (photo below), has often been identified as a water jar (Kelso and Albright 30). While such use is possible, the fragile and brittle character of ceramics would seem not to be well-suited for a general use as a water canteen. 3 (See the messages written on potsherds that impact the debate over when the Bible was written.)

Alternatively, recent residue tests on some pilgrim flasks indicate that some were used to store flavored wines—particularly wines flavored with cinnamon (see Jarus Serpico “Traces”).

A “pilgrim flask” that may have held flavored wine. (© Dale Manor)

Pottery Gives Clues about Long-Distance Trade

These science-based studies also permit inferences of long-distance trade connections. Clays, like fingerprints, have unique characteristics. Beds of clay have unique chemical compositions that may permit the investigator to identify the geographic location from which the clays have come and by inference where the vessels were made. Such studies have revealed that the large storage jars (i.e., “pithoi”) at the northern Negeb site of Kuntillet ‘Ajrud were actually transported over several hundred miles from the general region of Jerusalem (see Gunneweg, Perlman, and Meshel 280-84 Table 8.1, Reg. No. 16/1 and 144/3).

The presence of these imported vessels, of course, raises questions of why? Were the vessels’ presence incidental to trade or deliberately carried there for other reasons?

One of the Kuntillet ‘Ajrud vessels interestingly preserves an inscription in which a person decreed: “I have [b]lessed you to YHWH of Shômrôn (Samaria) and to His asherah” (Ahituv, Eshel, and Meshel 87). This declaration of allegiance to Samaria, along with the area of Jerusalem as the clay source for the jar, implies some kind of international intersection at the site.

Pottery Styles Can Imply Ethnic Associations

There are times when the kind of pottery may imply an ethnic association. 4 A ceramic surface decoration that tends to appear in the early Iron Age, especially along the southeastern Mediterranean coast, is often associated with the Sea Peoples and in particular the Philistines. The percentages of ceramic sherds with such multi-colored, elegant designs (see sherds in photo at top of article) tend to correlate with the geographic area that the Philistines settled in the early Iron Age.

This does not mean that every presence of such sherds implies Philistine occupation, nor does it imply that Philistines would not have had other ceramic designs. However, when a convergence of such designs emerge especially with corroborating data, such as the presence or lack of pig bones, designs of loom weights, figurine designs, ritual objects (Manor 133-34), ancient artistic depictions (e.g., from the Egyptians), as well as literary descriptions (e.g., Egyptian sources and the Hebrew Bible), one may infer an ethnic association.

Statistically, there is a distinct break of such “Philistine” ware as one moves from the coastal plain into the interior of ancient Canaan, which also correlates with what we know of the settlements of the Israelites and Philistines respectively. The Bible notes that part of the “border” separating the Philistine territory associated with Ekron was near Beth-Shemesh (1 Samuel 5:6-6:12 only about 7.5 miles separates the two sites).

One of several rooms in a 14th century BC “palace” that were full of storage vessels. (© Dale Manor)

Pottery Can Indicate the Function of Buildings

The kind of pottery that appears in a location can also provide insight into how the room and/or building was used. At Tel Beth-Shemesh, we discovered several rooms in a 14th century “palace” that were chocked full of storage vessels (photo above)—some of the vessels preserved burnt grains! These storage rooms surrounded a more central room that appeared to be the focal point of social gathering.

A remnant of the junction of a chalice stem to bowl discovered at Beth-Shemesh. (© Dale Manor)

Another, later building at Beth-Shemesh was very sturdily built. All of the sherds found in its ruins were from “high end” vessels designed for liquids of various kinds (the example, in photo above, is the remnant of the junction of a chalice stem to bowl). Given the orientation of the building, its more sturdy construction, the character of some of the stones in the interior of the building (designed clearly for some kind of liquid ritual see photo below), and in view of the exclusive presence of vessels designed for liquids, we inferred that it was some kind of temple. 5

Stones found in the interior of the sturdy building were clearly designed for some kind of liquid ritual. (© Dale Manor)

As is often the case, the most mundane items can yield tremendously important information if approached with appropriate questions and methods of analysis. This article has only surveyed aspects of information that the study of sherds can yield in our study of ancient civilizations. It is unconscionable now to imagine any excavation casually disregarding the wealth of information that one can derive from these otherwise seemingly worthless remains. Keep on Thinking!

1 One of my archaeological colleagues at Tel Beth-Shemesh—Rachel Lindemann—calculated the data for our sherd collection over the span of four years (2014-2017). During a typical excavation, we collect soil into buckets, place the sherds in another bucket, and then, after having washed the sherds, examine and evaluate them. We divide the sherds into categories as body sherds, rims, bases, handles, and decorated/distinctive sherds. Over the span of those four seasons (usually excavating only about six squares a season) we collected 40,461 buckets of soil weighing a total of about 535,200 pounds (= 267.6 tons!) and 1090 buckets of pottery, which yielded 178,991 sherds (Lindemann).

2 I use these terms only according to their ancient designations I am not appropriating them in any modern political sense. The term “Canaan” harks back to at least the early second millennium BC, while “Israel” applies to the area after the Exodus until roughly the time of Israel and Judah’s exile (ca. 586 BC). Herodotus, writing during the fifth century BC, provides our earliest record on hand to refer to the area as Palestine (Herodotus, Histories 1.105 et al.).

3 Animal skins (i.e., goat skins) would be much better suited as water containers for easy transport (see for instance, Genesis 21:14-15, 19).

4 This is not to argue that a pottery design always implies a certain ethnicity, but there are times that it may. For at least a cautionary discussion of such equations, see Parr.

5 Every archaeologist who visited the site also concluded that the building was a temple.

Bibliography:

Ahituv, Shmuel Esther Eshel and Ze’ev Meshel. “The Inscriptions.” Pp. 73-142 in Kuntillet ‘Ajrud (Horvat Teman): An Iron Age II Religious Site on the Judah-Sinai Border. Ed. Z. Meshel. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 2012.
Avigad, Nahman. “Samaria (City).” Pp. 1300-10 in New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, vol. 4. Ed. E. Stern. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.
Dever, William G. “Ceramics: Syro-Palestinian Ceramics of the Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron Ages.” Pp. 459-65 in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, vol. 1. Ed. E. M. Meyers. New York: Oxford University, 1997.
Drower, Margaret S. “Petrie, William Matthews Flinders.” Pp. 39-40 in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, vol. 3. Ed. D. B. Redford. Oxford: Oxford University, 2001.
Gunneweg, Jan Isadore Perlman, and Ze’ev Meshel. “The Origin of the Pottery.” Pp. 279-87 in Kuntillet ‘Ajrud (Horvat Teman): An Iron Age II Religious Site on the Judah-Sinai Border. Ed. Z. Meshel. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 2012.
Jarus, Owen, “Evidence of 3,000-Year-Old Cinnamon Trade Found in Israel.” Live Science (20 August 2013). https://www.livescience.com/39011-cinnamon-trade-found-in-israel.html
Kelso, James L., and W. F. Albright. “The Ceramic Vocabulary of the Old Testament.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research. Supplementary Studies, no. 5/6 (1948): 1–48.
Lindemann, Rachel. President of Atlatl Archaeology Ltd. Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. Private communication on 9 December 2020.
London, Gloria Anne. “Ceramics: Typology and Technology.” Pp. 450-53 in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, vol. 1. Ed. E. M. Meyers. New York: Oxford University, 1997.
Manor, Dale W. “Beth-Shemesh.” Pp. 129-39 in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Archaeology, vol. 1. Ed. D. M. Master. New York: Oxford University, 2013.
Pardee, Dennis. “The Mesad Hashavyahu (Yavneh Yam) Ostracon (3.41).” Pp. 77-78 in The Context of Scripture, vol. 3. Eds. W. W. Hallo and K. L. Younger, Jr. Leiden: Brill, 2003.
Parr, P. J. “Pottery, People and Politics.” Pp. 202-09 in Archaeology in the Levant: Essays for Kathleen Kenyon. Eds. R. Moorey and P. Parr. Warminster, England: Aris & Phillips, 1978.
Serpico, Margaret, “The Canaanite Amphorae Project.” Amarna Project (https://www.amarnaproject.com/pages/recent_projects/material_culture/canaanite.shtml)
Suriano, Matthew. “Samaria Ostraca (4.18).” Pp. 81-85 in The Context of Scripture, vol. 4. Ed. K. L. Lawson, Jr. Leiden: Brill, 2017.
“Traces of Cinnamon Found in 3,000-Year-Old Vessels.” Archaeology on-line (22 August 2013). https://www.archaeology.org/news/1237-130822-israel-cinnamon-spice-trade
Yadin, Yigael. “Masada.” Pp. 793-816 in Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, vol. 2. Eds. M. Avi-Yonah and E. Stern. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1977.

TOP PHOTO: Ceramic sherds with multi-colored and elegant designs, which correlate with the area settled by the Philistines in the early Iron Age. (© Dale Manor)


The Use of Sherds in Ancient Times

One interesting use of broken pottery by people of antiquity was to recycle sherds as construction components. People of the ancient Middle and Near East would often bake their bread in ovens that were constructed of clay and sometimes lined with broken sherds. The sherds would provide some stability especially as the clay component was packed around it. The photo below shows part of this construction technique in an oven that was discovered at Beth-Shemesh.

The remains of an ancient oven lined with broken sherds from Beth-Shemesh. (© Dale Manor)

Broken pottery was sometimes used as writing material. Usually this would not be for more formal composition, but for mundane uses that might not need archiving—sort of a “Post-It-Note” of antiquity. These are referred to as “ostraca” (plural singular is “ostracon”). The ancient writer would locate a suitable piece of broken ceramic and compose the necessary data on it. These ostraca might serve as receipts for goods received (a collection of these was found from Ahab’s Samaria cf. Avigad 1304 for photo of two ostraca see Suriano for translations of several of them), names or lists of names (cf. the “lots” at Masada cf. Yadin 811-12), or occasional messages to be delivered to some person or destination (see photo below). (See the receipts written on sherds that helped identify Naboth’s vineyard.)

This sherd preserves a message to a local ruler petitioning him to intervene to help secure his misappropriated cloak. (see Pardee for translation). (credit: Dale Manor, courtesy of the Israel Museum)

Pottery Sherds Help Establish a Historical Timeline

One of the first practical implications archaeologists came to recognize that sherds could provide was to help establish some framework of chronology. Ceramic pieces morph through time just like general fashion. These changes can help identify the time periods to which to assign the vessel. (See the smashed jars that helped pinpoint Jerusalem’s destruction.)

As one learns the differences in the visual changes of the vessels, it is possible to place the nuanced changes into a relative sequence (a “relative” date determines that something precedes or follows another but cannot necessarily determine the specific span that separated them). During his excavations in Egypt in the late 1800s, Sir William Matthews Flinders Petrie was a pioneer to identify and articulate such relative sequences. He eventually established the principle with stratified sites when he excavated Tell el-Hesi in Palestine in 1890 (Drower 39-40).

These typological differences along with other evidence—ideally some inscriptional statement—permit one to associate the style of pottery with a specific date, thus yielding an “absolute” date. With an absolute date, the archaeologist can infer that the styles of pottery in the strata above the “absolute” level are later and those that are in the strata below it are earlier. Until more refined information comes to light, these other date determinations will often be relative dates in relation to the absolute dates.

Other features than simply design, however, factor into the evaluation. These features of the pottery would include the degree of technical execution (i.e., clay composition and degree of firing, etc.), since these tend to fluctuate somewhat through time as well (see survey by London).

Because of the brittle nature of ceramics, they tend to break relatively easily. Some forms, however, are prone to more frequent breakage than others. Large storage jars tend to have longer useful lives than cooking pots or smaller vessels designed for mobility. The larger items will usually not be moved as often, whereas a cooking pot will be subject to the physical stresses of heat expansion and contraction (i.e., thermal shock) and vessels designed for mobility (i.e., lamps, jugs, juglets, and jars) will be liable to the hazards of frequent movement. With more frequent breakage, the smaller, more transportable vessels will reflect more rapid design changes than larger, more permanent type vessels (cf. London 450).

Different styles of ceramics found in different layers (or stratum) of an occupied hill (or tel) can help determine the relative dates of the layer and the ceramic style. (© Dale Manor)

The stylistic development of the ceramics for ancient Canaan/Israel/Palestine 2 can permit a fairly refined, albeit limited, chronological scheme. William Dever (460) has said: “For most periods, the common pottery of ancient Palestine can now be dated to the century, and often to one half or the other.” The accompanying chart attempts to summarize the chronological implications of ceramic typology.

Determining the Original Use of Broken Pottery

The determination of how people used the vessels is not always immediately apparent and sometimes cannot be determined. Some, such as lamps will indicate their use by the presence of soot stains at the spout of the vessel (photo below). One may infer other uses from depictions in ancient artwork as well as ethnoarchaeological comparisons.

Ancient oil lamps can indicate their use by the presence of soot stains at the spout of the vessel. (© Dale Manor)

Fortunately, refined chemical residue analysis is beginning to help identify the use of some vessels. One type of vessel, often referred to as a “pilgrim flask” (photo below), has often been identified as a water jar (Kelso and Albright 30). While such use is possible, the fragile and brittle character of ceramics would seem not to be well-suited for a general use as a water canteen. 3 (See the messages written on potsherds that impact the debate over when the Bible was written.)

Alternatively, recent residue tests on some pilgrim flasks indicate that some were used to store flavored wines—particularly wines flavored with cinnamon (see Jarus Serpico “Traces”).

A “pilgrim flask” that may have held flavored wine. (© Dale Manor)

Pottery Gives Clues about Long-Distance Trade

These science-based studies also permit inferences of long-distance trade connections. Clays, like fingerprints, have unique characteristics. Beds of clay have unique chemical compositions that may permit the investigator to identify the geographic location from which the clays have come and by inference where the vessels were made. Such studies have revealed that the large storage jars (i.e., “pithoi”) at the northern Negeb site of Kuntillet ‘Ajrud were actually transported over several hundred miles from the general region of Jerusalem (see Gunneweg, Perlman, and Meshel 280-84 Table 8.1, Reg. No. 16/1 and 144/3).

The presence of these imported vessels, of course, raises questions of why? Were the vessels’ presence incidental to trade or deliberately carried there for other reasons?

One of the Kuntillet ‘Ajrud vessels interestingly preserves an inscription in which a person decreed: “I have [b]lessed you to YHWH of Shômrôn (Samaria) and to His asherah” (Ahituv, Eshel, and Meshel 87). This declaration of allegiance to Samaria, along with the area of Jerusalem as the clay source for the jar, implies some kind of international intersection at the site.

Pottery Styles Can Imply Ethnic Associations

There are times when the kind of pottery may imply an ethnic association. 4 A ceramic surface decoration that tends to appear in the early Iron Age, especially along the southeastern Mediterranean coast, is often associated with the Sea Peoples and in particular the Philistines. The percentages of ceramic sherds with such multi-colored, elegant designs (see sherds in photo at top of article) tend to correlate with the geographic area that the Philistines settled in the early Iron Age.

This does not mean that every presence of such sherds implies Philistine occupation, nor does it imply that Philistines would not have had other ceramic designs. However, when a convergence of such designs emerge especially with corroborating data, such as the presence or lack of pig bones, designs of loom weights, figurine designs, ritual objects (Manor 133-34), ancient artistic depictions (e.g., from the Egyptians), as well as literary descriptions (e.g., Egyptian sources and the Hebrew Bible), one may infer an ethnic association.

Statistically, there is a distinct break of such “Philistine” ware as one moves from the coastal plain into the interior of ancient Canaan, which also correlates with what we know of the settlements of the Israelites and Philistines respectively. The Bible notes that part of the “border” separating the Philistine territory associated with Ekron was near Beth-Shemesh (1 Samuel 5:6-6:12 only about 7.5 miles separates the two sites).

One of several rooms in a 14th century BC “palace” that were full of storage vessels. (© Dale Manor)

Pottery Can Indicate the Function of Buildings

The kind of pottery that appears in a location can also provide insight into how the room and/or building was used. At Tel Beth-Shemesh, we discovered several rooms in a 14th century “palace” that were chocked full of storage vessels (photo above)—some of the vessels preserved burnt grains! These storage rooms surrounded a more central room that appeared to be the focal point of social gathering.

A remnant of the junction of a chalice stem to bowl discovered at Beth-Shemesh. (© Dale Manor)

Another, later building at Beth-Shemesh was very sturdily built. All of the sherds found in its ruins were from “high end” vessels designed for liquids of various kinds (the example, in photo above, is the remnant of the junction of a chalice stem to bowl). Given the orientation of the building, its more sturdy construction, the character of some of the stones in the interior of the building (designed clearly for some kind of liquid ritual see photo below), and in view of the exclusive presence of vessels designed for liquids, we inferred that it was some kind of temple. 5

Stones found in the interior of the sturdy building were clearly designed for some kind of liquid ritual. (© Dale Manor)

As is often the case, the most mundane items can yield tremendously important information if approached with appropriate questions and methods of analysis. This article has only surveyed aspects of information that the study of sherds can yield in our study of ancient civilizations. It is unconscionable now to imagine any excavation casually disregarding the wealth of information that one can derive from these otherwise seemingly worthless remains. Keep on Thinking!

1 One of my archaeological colleagues at Tel Beth-Shemesh—Rachel Lindemann—calculated the data for our sherd collection over the span of four years (2014-2017). During a typical excavation, we collect soil into buckets, place the sherds in another bucket, and then, after having washed the sherds, examine and evaluate them. We divide the sherds into categories as body sherds, rims, bases, handles, and decorated/distinctive sherds. Over the span of those four seasons (usually excavating only about six squares a season) we collected 40,461 buckets of soil weighing a total of about 535,200 pounds (= 267.6 tons!) and 1090 buckets of pottery, which yielded 178,991 sherds (Lindemann).

2 I use these terms only according to their ancient designations I am not appropriating them in any modern political sense. The term “Canaan” harks back to at least the early second millennium BC, while “Israel” applies to the area after the Exodus until roughly the time of Israel and Judah’s exile (ca. 586 BC). Herodotus, writing during the fifth century BC, provides our earliest record on hand to refer to the area as Palestine (Herodotus, Histories 1.105 et al.).

3 Animal skins (i.e., goat skins) would be much better suited as water containers for easy transport (see for instance, Genesis 21:14-15, 19).

4 This is not to argue that a pottery design always implies a certain ethnicity, but there are times that it may. For at least a cautionary discussion of such equations, see Parr.

5 Every archaeologist who visited the site also concluded that the building was a temple.

Bibliography:

Ahituv, Shmuel Esther Eshel and Ze’ev Meshel. “The Inscriptions.” Pp. 73-142 in Kuntillet ‘Ajrud (Horvat Teman): An Iron Age II Religious Site on the Judah-Sinai Border. Ed. Z. Meshel. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 2012.
Avigad, Nahman. “Samaria (City).” Pp. 1300-10 in New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, vol. 4. Ed. E. Stern. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.
Dever, William G. “Ceramics: Syro-Palestinian Ceramics of the Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron Ages.” Pp. 459-65 in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, vol. 1. Ed. E. M. Meyers. New York: Oxford University, 1997.
Drower, Margaret S. “Petrie, William Matthews Flinders.” Pp. 39-40 in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, vol. 3. Ed. D. B. Redford. Oxford: Oxford University, 2001.
Gunneweg, Jan Isadore Perlman, and Ze’ev Meshel. “The Origin of the Pottery.” Pp. 279-87 in Kuntillet ‘Ajrud (Horvat Teman): An Iron Age II Religious Site on the Judah-Sinai Border. Ed. Z. Meshel. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 2012.
Jarus, Owen, “Evidence of 3,000-Year-Old Cinnamon Trade Found in Israel.” Live Science (20 August 2013). https://www.livescience.com/39011-cinnamon-trade-found-in-israel.html
Kelso, James L., and W. F. Albright. “The Ceramic Vocabulary of the Old Testament.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research. Supplementary Studies, no. 5/6 (1948): 1–48.
Lindemann, Rachel. President of Atlatl Archaeology Ltd. Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. Private communication on 9 December 2020.
London, Gloria Anne. “Ceramics: Typology and Technology.” Pp. 450-53 in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, vol. 1. Ed. E. M. Meyers. New York: Oxford University, 1997.
Manor, Dale W. “Beth-Shemesh.” Pp. 129-39 in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Archaeology, vol. 1. Ed. D. M. Master. New York: Oxford University, 2013.
Pardee, Dennis. “The Mesad Hashavyahu (Yavneh Yam) Ostracon (3.41).” Pp. 77-78 in The Context of Scripture, vol. 3. Eds. W. W. Hallo and K. L. Younger, Jr. Leiden: Brill, 2003.
Parr, P. J. “Pottery, People and Politics.” Pp. 202-09 in Archaeology in the Levant: Essays for Kathleen Kenyon. Eds. R. Moorey and P. Parr. Warminster, England: Aris & Phillips, 1978.
Serpico, Margaret, “The Canaanite Amphorae Project.” Amarna Project (https://www.amarnaproject.com/pages/recent_projects/material_culture/canaanite.shtml)
Suriano, Matthew. “Samaria Ostraca (4.18).” Pp. 81-85 in The Context of Scripture, vol. 4. Ed. K. L. Lawson, Jr. Leiden: Brill, 2017.
“Traces of Cinnamon Found in 3,000-Year-Old Vessels.” Archaeology on-line (22 August 2013). https://www.archaeology.org/news/1237-130822-israel-cinnamon-spice-trade
Yadin, Yigael. “Masada.” Pp. 793-816 in Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, vol. 2. Eds. M. Avi-Yonah and E. Stern. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1977.

TOP PHOTO: Ceramic sherds with multi-colored and elegant designs, which correlate with the area settled by the Philistines in the early Iron Age. (© Dale Manor)


Behold, I Come Quickly

A huge Philistine cemetery some 3000-years-old has been found in the Mediterranean seaport of Ashkelon. The manner of the burials proves, for the first time, that the Philistines had to have come from the Aegean Sea region, and that they had very close ties with the Phoenician world.

“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,” says Lawrence E. Stager, Dorot Professor of the Archaeology of Israel, Emeritus, at Harvard University.

The cemetery was found just outside the city walls of Tel Ashkelon, one of the Philistines' five primary cities in ancient Israel.

The cemetery was found to have more then 150 individual burials dating from the 11th to 8th century BCE. The undisturbed graves have shed fresh light on a mystery bedeviling archaeologists for decades: the Philistines' real origins.
US anthropologist and pathologist, Sherry Fox shows a skull discovered at the excavation site of the first Philistine cemetery ever found in Ashkelon, on June 28, 2016. Menahem Kahana, AFP

“The basic question we want to know is where this people are from," said Dr. Sherry Fox, a physical anthropologist who is sampling the bones for analysis, including for DNA studies, and radiocarbon and biological distance studies.

How the Philistines lived: Not like Canaanites

The unprecedented discovery of the Philistine cemetery allows the archaeologists not only to study Philistine burial practices for the first time, but also to gain insights on Philistine characteristics and lifestyle. With this discovery, the archaeologists finally have a data set not on one or two individuals but a whole population, explains Daniel M. Master, professor of Wheaton College and co-director of the Leon Levy Expedition. That in turn will enable them to talk about what’s typical and what’s not typical, he explains.

“This forms a baseline for what 'Philistine' is. We can already say that the cultural practices we see here are substantially different from the Canaanites and the highlanders in the east," Master says.
Archaeologists investigating the first unmistakably Philistine burial ground found in Israel, in Ashkelon. Philippe Bohstrom

The bodies can also provide information about Philistine dietary habits, lifestyle and morbidity.

One conclusion the archaeologists have already reached is that these particular individuals seemed to have been spared from strife.

“There is no evidence of any kind of trauma on the bones, from war on inter-personal violence,” Fox told Haaretz.

Unlike the typical burial practice in the region - family burials or multiple burials, where the deceased were laid on raised platforms or benches - the practice in Ashkelon was markedly different.

The deceased were, for the most part, buried in oval pits. Four out of the 150 were cremated and some other bodies were deposited in ashlar burial chamber tombs. These are burial practices well known from the Aegean cultural sphere - but certainly not from the Canaanite one.
Artifacts found with the skeletons in the Philistine graveyard in Ashkelon are indicative of Philistine culture, not Canaanite. Philippe Bohstrom

Other finds that accompanied the deceased typically included storage jars, bowls and juglets, and in some rare cases fine jewelry - as well as arrowheads and spear points.

A hoard of iron arrowheads was discovered by the pelvis of one man, the amount one would expect to find in a quiver.

“The same arrow was not repeated, but a variety of forms and sizes, which is interesting," Dr. Adam Aja, assistant director of the excavation, told Haaretz, and added, “Perhaps the archer could choose the arrows he needed to penetrate flesh, armor or wood.”

Spear-points and some jewelry were also found next to the Philistine bowman.
Pottery artifacts found in the Philistine graveyard in Ashkelon, dating back c. 3000 years. Philippe Bohstrom

In other instances, small vials that had contained perfume were found next to the deceased (probably an olive oil based with different fragrances) . In two cases the bottle was found at the nostril, pointing to the nose, presumably so that the deceased could smell perfume throughout eternity.

In addition to the 150 individual pit graves found at the cemetery, six burial chambers with multiple bodies were found (when the bodies were found at all). A magnificent rectangular burial chamber was discovered inside the cemetery, built with perfectly hewn sandstones. But the large stone door that once stood at its entrance evidently could not hinder grave robbers from looting the tomb of its treasure and its occupants' skeletal remains.

When the chamber was built and used is anybody’s guess. “The latest pottery is trash from the 7th century BCE, but the chamber might have been built and used somewhat earlier,” Master told Haaretz.
The roughly 3000-year old skeletons found in the Philistine graveyard in Ashkelon have clear hallmarks of Aegean customs, not Canaanite. Philippe Bohstrom

Ashkelon became a flourishing trading hub during the Bronze Age because of its location on the Mediterranean Sea and its proximity to Egypt. It was through Ashkelon, which was situated just north of Gaza, that Egypt sold linen and papyrus – and also slaves – to the rest of the ancient world.

Other goods distributed through Ashkelon during the Iron Age (ca. 1185-604 BCE) included wine and textile. There is also evidence of grain imports from Judah, again attesting to the Philistine city as an important gateway between the East and the West.

Ashkelon would remain a key trading center up to Crusader times. But it was destroyed by the Mamluk sultan Baibars in 1270 CE, a blow from which it never recovered.

The Philistines execute a pincer maneuver

According to the Bible, the island of Crete (usually held to be identical with Caphtor Jeremiah 47:4 Amos 9:7), though not necessarily the original home of the Philistines, was the place from which they migrated to the Canaan coast.

That the Philistines were not indigenous to Canaan is indicated by ceramics, architecture, burial customs, and pottery remains with writing – in non-Semitic languages (several inscribed stamp handles, as well as a pottery sherd with a Cypro-Minoan script, all dating to around 1150-1000 BCE).
Pottery sherd with Cypro-Minoan writing, found on the floor of a house in Philistine Ashkelon, dated to the 11th century BCE. Zev Radovan, courtesy of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon

The ancient DNA-analysis may be the final nail in the coffin that settles the debate of the Philistines origins.

Meanwhile, Lawrence E. Stager of Harvard has long been convinced that the Philistines came by ship, sailing from the Aegean area, perhaps Cyprus, to the South Canaan coast, and established themselves there before their great assault on Egypt.

One of the earliest references to the Philistines is Ramesses III´s mortuary relief at Medinet Habu. The relief portrays the Battle of the Delta, the grand struggle between the Egyptians and the Sea Peoples that took place at the mouth of the Nile during the early 12th century BCE (1176-75 BCE).

Since the relief depicts oxcarts, chariots and ships, some scholars assume the Philistines came overland from Anatolia to Egypt. Stager is skeptical. “There is no way you can come with oxcarts from Anatolia, down through all the hills," he explains. "It makes much more sense if they came with ships, loading and offloading these vehicles."

He also points out that the Battle of the Delta was the one known epic battle between the Egyptians and Philistines or Sea Peoples. There weren't two. If the Philistines attacked the Egyptians, they would likely have sent a navy down the Mediterranean - and an army of land troops, effectively creating a pincer maneuver against Ramesses III, Stager speculates.

Stager suspects the Philistines had to have been well entrenched in south Canaan before the Battle of the Delta. Ashkelon would have been one of the first strategic points the Philistines would have settled, securing as sort of “bridgehead”, before they launched their armada and infantry against the Egyptians in the Nile Delta.

“Ramesses III tried to contain them in their five Philistine cities, but obviously he could not control them or drive them out," says Stager.

Daniel Master differs: “I think Egypt was still in control of the region, even Philistia, and that the Philistines settled with Egyptian acquiescence. This is become a broader consensus over the last few years due to work at Megiddo, Jaffa, and Ashkelon itself, where we find many Egyptian objects from this period,” he told Haaretz.

At this point, we do not know if the Egyptians managed to subdue the Philistines. But we do know that the Philistines did eventually have their comeuppance.

In early December 604 BCE, the Babylonians swept through Philistia, destroying the cities and exiling its inhabitants. The Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar torched Philistia in early December 604 BCE, yet within the massive destruction, architecture, ceramics and even foods remained, providing the archaeologists with a snapshot of life in a Philistine city during the 7th century BCE. Haaretz


From Shards to Sherds: An Archaeologist’s First Dig

Just a typical day at pottery washing! And we can’t forget the most important brush for small crevices- the toothbrush!


A ceramic bowl slips out of your hands and crashes to the ground. You pick up a piece of the broken pottery, but the real question is what you call this broken piece. Is it a shard or a sherd? Your answer to this question likely depends on your exposure to archaeology in literature or spoken word.

I study archaeological science at Penn State University, so before coming to Tel Akko I had some exposure to the term ‘sherd’. Yet, I have never personally used the alternative to shard until I came to dig at the tel. Whenever I saw the term sherd being used, I always questioned why archaeologists chose or came to prefer this more jargonized spelling.

So after days of uncovering countless sherds, placing them into buckets, carrying said sherds in buckets down to wash, and then hours of brushing them to varying degrees of cleanliness, I finally decided to investigate my question of:

Why sherds and not shards?

A definition of sherd, according to Merriam Webster’s online dictionary, is “a fragment of a pottery vessel found on sites and in refuse deposits where pottery-making peoples have lived.” However, shard is a more generic term for “a piece or fragment of a brittle substance.” In short, sherd (short for potsherd) goes specifically with historic/ancient pottery pieces, while shards can be anything literal or figurative that is broken into pieces.

Here you can see how large the sherds can be! This handle was as thick as my wrist–the whole complete pottery must have been a large vessel!

Even today, after weeks of saying sherd instead of shard, I sometimes do a double take when I see sherd written out somewhere, and I wonder how pottery ‘shreds’ something. My brain still thinks of a more typical word, shreds, over the archaeological variation that is sherds.

Since I’ve been converted to use the term sherd by the lingo here at the Tel Akko dig, I’ve learned so much more about pottery than I thought I ever would. Though I’m sure not all sites are chock full of sherds, the sheer amount of these broken pottery pieces uncovered and collected daily in the square in which I excavate is beyond any prior expectations I had about archaeology. My first day collecting pottery, I was extremely excited by every single piece I tossed into my pottery bucket. It was a thrilling experience to be touching literal pieces of history with my fingertips. Now, at the end of my third week here, I still very much enjoy finding pottery, but not every piece of pottery lends me that same excitement as before.

What do we do with the sherds?

In the late afternoons, we students and staff spend about two hours brushing clean all the pottery we collected the day(s) before. Us newbies quickly learned that washing a bucket full of the small pieces that lack any sort of identifiable ornamentation like a rim or design (and are around the size of an American half-dollar) is time consuming and not as much fun to do.

Nonetheless, I very much enjoy digging up pottery sherds, and then spending a relaxing fun time with my friends talking, listening to music, and of course, scrubbing the dirt off numerous potsherds!

To end, no matter how many years I handle pottery in the field, I hope I can keep a little spark of that excitement I had those first few days. What looks like a typical sherd in the field can end up being a beautifully decorated piece when washed clean.


In the Aggadah

Most Midrashim are concerned with the alliance made of Abraham and Isaac with Abimelech, king of the Philistines (Gen. 21 and 26). Abraham is criticized for concluding an alliance with him. The Midrash tells that as a punishment for the seven sheep he sacrificed in making this covenant, the Philistines would one day slay seven righteous men – Samson, Hophni, Phinehas, and Saul with his three sons they would destroy seven holy places they would retain the holy Ark in their country as spoils of war for a period of seven months and, furthermore, only the seventh generation of Abraham's descendants would be able to rejoice in the possession of the land (Gen. R. 54:4). Jacob did not stay in Philistia lest he too be compelled to make an alliance with the Philistines, thus delaying the conquest of the Holy Land (ibid. 68:7). David was not bound by his forefathers' covenant with Abimelech, since the Philistines' stopping of the wells which Abraham had dug constituted a breach of this agreement (Mid. Hag. to Gen. 26:28). However, they came to him with the bridle of a mule, which Isaac had given to Abimelech as a pledge of this covenant (pdre 36). David commanded the Sanhedrin to investigate the claim carefully, but it was declared unfounded. Moreover, the Philistines of his day were not the descendants of the Philistines who had concluded the treaty they had immigrated from Caphtor at a much later date (Mid. Ps. 60, 1).

After the capture of Samson the Philistines brought their wives to him in the Gaza prison in the hope that he might sire children who would be as strong as he (Sot. 10a). When they took the Ark, they said contemptuously: "The God of the Israelites had only ten plagues which he expended upon the Egyptians, and he no longer has it in his power to do us harm." As a result they were afflicted with a new plague consisting of mice crawling forth out of the earth and gnawing their entrails (Sif. Num. 88).