Archaeology Casts New Light on the Philistines

An ancient cemetery brings us face to face with the Philistines.

A member of the physical anthropology team, Rachel Kalisher, documents a 10th-9th century BC skeleton
A member of the physical anthropology team, Rachel Kalisher, documents a 10th-9th century BC skeleton (photo: Photo copyright Leon Levy Expedition)

The ancient enemies of Israel have revealed themselves at last.

For the first time in history, archaeologists have come face to face with the Philistines during an excavation of an ancient cemetery in Ashkelon, and long unanswered questions are finally being answered. Who were the Philistines? How did they bury their dead? Where did they come from? Discoveries announced this week are changing our understanding of all these things. It’s the kind of information that leads to textbooks being rewritten.

This year marks the culmination of the Leon Levy Expedition, which has been digging at the seaport city of Ashkelon since 1985, with the focus on the cemetery for the past three years. The announcement of the team’s discoveries coincides with the opening of the exhibit Ashkelon: A Retrospective, 30 Years of the Leon Levy Expedition at the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum in Jerusalem. Many of the finds at Ashkelon and other sites are on display, including a 16th century BC silver calf found in a shrine.

The 3,000-year-old cemetery was located just outside the wall of Ashkelon, one of the five primary Philistine cities, and represents the first indisputably Philistine cemetery ever discovered. The only other candidates were a cemetery in Azor, at the frontier of Philistine territory, and tombs at tels Farah and Eitun. But these were at the limits of Philistine influence, rather than deep in the heartland, and told a very different story.

Up until now, people suggested either cremation or ceramic Egyptian anthropoid coffins were the standard for Philistine burial. In Ashkelon, more than 210 bodies found in 150 burials dating from the 11th to 8th century BC were almost all in oval pit burials with grave goods. There were only four cremations. In addition, six ashlar burial chambers—those made with carefully tooled and squared masonry rather than rubble or rough stones—were found at the location. The finest tomb, made of sandstone blocks, was found with its stone door wrenched off and both bodies and goods stolen long ago by tomb robbers.

What The Graves Say

This tells us something very specific: the Philistines were not culturally Canaanite. In fact, they were unlike any of the people from the surrounding region, and the method of burial and other factors suggests that they may well have originated in the Aegean. Iron Age Canaanites and Israelites practiced multi-stage burials. The body would be laid out, often in a rock cut tomb, until reduced to bones. About a year after death, the bones would then be removed to niches in the tomb or ossuaries, or in some cases just swept under the tomb bench to make way for a new body.

The Philistines didn’t do this at all, and this one-stage burial is an unusual discovery for the region. Even when a tomb was re-opened to add another body, the remains already in there were not disturbed. This shows a distinctly different understanding of the relationship between the living and the dead and the attitudes towards human remains.

Another peculiarity was the absences of children’s graves, leaving open the question of what they did with the bodies of the young. Notably, deaths appear to have been natural, without the trauma that would suggest violent death.

Although most people were buried without grave goods, enough items were found at the site to flesh out our understanding of the Philistines. The grave goods tell the story of Philistia’s close trade ties with Phoenicia and its trade ports in Tyre and Sidon. (“The day is coming to destroy all the Philistines, to cut off from Tyre and Sidon every helper that remains,” Jeremiah 47:4) The most common items are small decorated Phoenician jugs, along with bowls and storage jars. A careful layout of a storage jar with a small jug inside and a bowl on top was found in many graves.

Weapons and jewelry also were in the graves, with rings, earrings, bracelets, and necklaces made of bronze. Carnelian—a reddish-brown stone that was considered semi-precious—was used for beads, and cowrie shells were interwoven in some items. There was also some fine silverwork. Weapons were less common, although one man was buried with a quiver of bronze arrows. Scarabs and amulets were also present in some graves.

The greatest discoveries, however, may be still to come. Since the archeologists now have remains that are indisputably Philistine, they can perform DNA testing to determine just where these peoples came from, what they ate, what diseases they had, and maybe why they died. Amos 9:7 tells us "Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?” Caphtor is believed to be Crete, and now the discoveries to Ashkelon seem to confirm that they did indeed come from the Aegean, bring their own style of craft and construction with them and blending it with what they found in 12th century BC Israel. The DNA testing may also unlock how the bodies were related to each other and to the population in which they settled.

Further Reading: I've written a series of posts on ancient burial customs of the Israelites.