It’s fair to say that the ancient Philistines have enjoyed a thoroughly bad press over the centuries. In fact, according to the Collins Dictionary, the very word “philistine” means “smugly conventional and lacking in culture” – hardly a description that anyone would welcome. But take a closer look back at history, and you’ll soon discover that the Philistines’ bad reputation is somewhat unfair.
The lousy name that the Philistines have is partly down to the Old Testament. You see, this section of the Bible was written by Jews, for whom the Philistines were arch enemies. It follows, then, that many of the biblical stories about the Philistines paint them in a less than favorable light. For instance, there’s the story of David and Goliath, in which the diminutive Israelite David took on the blustering bully and Philistine, Goliath. Despite the odds, David fells the giant with a slingshot and then decapitates him. There’s little doubt, then, who’s the hero and who’s the baddie in that story.
Then there’s the tale of Samson and Delilah. Treacherous Delilah convinces Samson to reveal the source of his strength – strength that has prevented the Philistines from capturing the Israelite hero. And once Delilah learns that Samson’s power is in his hair, she promptly cuts off his locks. With their craftily obtained advantage, the Philistines subsequently capture and blind Samson before taking him into slavery.
But what do we know of the Philistines from sources other than the Bible? Well, we know that they lived in cities around the Mediterranean, many of which were in modern-day Israel and Palestine. And one such settlement, Ashkelon – which still exists in a more contemporary form to this day – is situated on what is now the Israeli coast.
There’s archaeological evidence of the Philistines, too, the earliest of which comes from the beginning of the 12th century B.C. What’s more, among the excavated Artifacts there are examples of Philistinian pottery with clear ancient Greek influences. And further evidence shows that the Philistines ate pork, a clear distinction between them and their Jewish neighbors. Indeed, as Harvard University archaeologist Lawrence Stager told National Geographic, the Philistines had “an extraordinarily different culture” from the other people who lived around them in the Middle East.
What’s more, the Philistines’ true origins are still a matter of debate for historians and archaeologists. And while the Hebrew Bible says that the Philistines originated from the Land of Caphtor, what is now believed to be Crete, many think that they may have had far more dubious roots. In fact, some academics have asserted that the Philistines may have had connections with the Sea Peoples – a loose alliance of piratical raiders who roamed the Mediterranean in the 12th and 13th centuries B.C.
You see, in around 1180 B.C. the forces of Pharaoh Ramses III went to war with the Sea Peoples. And, importantly, the Egyptians recorded the names of the tribes that they fought. One such people were the Peleset, depicted by the Egyptians as sporting kilts and unusual headwear. Perhaps, then, these Peleset were the forerunners of the Philistines.
What’s more, at around the same time as the Peleset’s battle with the Egyptians, experts believe that the Peleset may have settled in the area around Ashkelon. Indeed, in addition to seizing Ashkelon, the Peleset established control of four other cities in the region: Gath, Gaza, Ekron and Ashdod. And as this area is also the homeland of the Philistines, many believe that the two peoples are one and the same.
There are, however, other theories about the origins of the Philistines. Among these ideas is that of archaeologist Aren Maeir of Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, who has spent 20 years investigating the site of the Philistine settlement of Gath. He believes the Philistines originated when a range of peoples came together and gradually integrated with the people of Canaan.
However, it may be that a spectacular archaeological find in 2013 could hold the key to understanding the precise origins of the Philistines. Indeed, under the auspices of the Leon Levy Expedition, excavations have been ongoing at a site in Ashkelon since 1985. And almost three decades after the first dig at the site, the team finally struck gold.
You see, archaeologists had never previously found a Philistine burial site. And such a site would likely yield crucial evidence about the murky origins of these mysterious people. In fact, Haifa University archaeologist Assaf Yasur-Landau told National Geographic, “The search [for a cemetery] became so desperate that archaeologists who study the Philistines began to joke that they were buried at sea like the Vikings – that’s why you couldn’t find them.”
Meanwhile, another archaeologist, Eric Cline of George Washington University, said, “I was once asked, if someone gave me a million dollars, what I would do. I said, I’d go out and look for a Sea Peoples’ site that explains where they came from, or where they ended up.” Adding that, “It sounds to me like [the Ashkelon team] may have just hit the jackpot.”
You see, after years of digging, a Philistine cemetery had finally been discovered – but only just. It was the 2013 digging season at Ashkelon when the breakthrough finally came. And it took until the last day of digging to make the groundbreaking discovery. What’s more, the backhoe operator had just said he’d be going home in half an hour.
The site that the team were working on was just to the north of the Ashkelon city fortifications. And they’d only started work at the location after a tip off from someone who’d formerly worked for the Israel Antiquities Authority. You see, the tipster had told the team that he remembered seeing some graves at the site when he’d been conducting a building survey some years previously.
But with just minutes left before the scheduled end of the dig, the tip seemed to have come to nothing. Indeed, Adam Aja of Harvard’s Semitic Museum was looking at a 10-foot deep hole with apparently nothing in it. But then Aja asked the backhoe driver to lower him down with the bucket. And once at the bottom, the archaeologist found a human tooth.
“When I saw the tooth, I knew that was the moment when it was all going to change for us here,” Aja told National Geographic. The team of archaeologists then continued excavating the site each season up until 2016. Eventually, they disinterred the remains of no fewer than 211 of the elusive Philistines.
And the team’s amazing discovery has provided a wealth of new information. Among the findings were revelations about the burial customs of the Philistines, which were quite different to those of the Canaanites and the Jews.
Yes, it seems that the Philistines didn’t share the common funerary practice of the area: secondary burial. This custom sees the deceased’s body placed in a chamber before then being reburied elsewhere about a year later. But while the Israelites and the Canaanites practiced this method of interment, the Philistines did not. Indeed, the bodies at Ashkelon – which had been buried either individually in single graves or in mass tombs – hadn’t been moved after their initial interment. What’s more, the team even discovered that some bodies had been cremated.
And the Philistines’ burial habits also differed from those of the Egyptians, who are well known for the lavish provision of grave goods that accompanied their burials. The Philistines, though, left a much more modest amount of worldly possessions with their dead. In fact, they limited themselves to small ceramic objects and the occasional item of jewelry.
But while this new evidence will almost certainly help to unlock further secrets of the Philistines, this won’t happen overnight. In fact, it seems that this is only the start of something truly remarkable. “From our standpoint, [the excavation] is just the first chapter of the story,” says Daniel Master, a Wheaton College archaeologist. “I’ve been at Ashkelon for 25 years, and I guess it’s just the beginning.”