When it comes to bones, the wetter the better.

"We really have to take them out while they are still wet or they fall to powder," said Daniel Master, lead archaeologist at a Philistine cemetery discovered on the edge of the Israeli city Ashkelon.

The bones have been buried here for close to 3,000 years. Now, as the US archaeologist extracts skeletons with brushes and wooden sticks, time is of the essence.

"After decades of studying what Philistines left behind, we have finally come face to face with the people themselves," said Master.

"With this discovery we are close to unlocking the secrets of their origins."

The Philistines, as described in the Bible, are the Israelites' sworn enemy. In the 12th century BC, the Philistines settled in an area south of modern-day Tel Aviv. Where they came from is still unclear. One theory suggests they came from Cyprus and spoke a version of Greek.

Archaeologists have been looking near Ashkelon for remains of a Philistine settlement since 1985. During this time they found several temples and a city gate.

In 2013, they hit the graveyard, a discovery that was just recently made public.

"It is truly an exceptional find," said Seymour Gitin, former director of the Albright Institute for Archaeological Research in Jerusalem.

"That is a wonderful opportunity to check the DNA and to compare it to bones from the Canaanites cemeteries, Israelites and from the Greek world," the Philistine expert said.

Aren Maeir, archaeology professor at Bar-Ilan University, referred to other potential Philistine cemeteries found in smaller settlements, but according to Master, the cemetary in Ashkelon is "the first we are sure of."

Near the heads of the skeletons are bowls, jugs and jewellery. Lawrence Stager, former head of the expedition and a former Harvard professor of Israeli archaeology, believes the containers once held oil or wine.

"The Philistines got a very bad press" as "uncivilized, beer-drinking people," Stager said. In actuality, they were very cultured and experts in viticulture and the production of oil.

The giant Goliath, is arguably the most famous Philistine. According to a story in the Bible, Goliath was killed by David, the future king of Israel.

"We don't have too many giants here," Stager said smiling. The biggest Philistine buried here is thought to have been 1.8 metres tall. The scientists have unearthed 145 skeletons. They will be studied in detail to determine age, gender and cause of death.

Approximately 50 volunteers are assisting the researchers. Lisa Delymayr, a 30-year-old theologian who studied in Marburg, Germany, will be there for six weeks.

Despite getting up at 5 am everyday, she is enthusiastic about the work. "You touch Philistines," she said. Instead of just theory, finally practice, she said.

Excavations at cemeteries are a sensitive issue in the region due to religious practices. In 2010 ultra-orthodox Jews protested against the exhumation of ancient graves. The Jewish faith mandates the dead remain undisturbed even centuries after burial.

"We haven't faced any difficulties in our research," Master said.

Now that the excavation is completed, the graves are closed again.

And while the bones are carefully looked at, the ancient relics of the Ashkelon site, like the jugs, bowls and jewellery, will be on display at the Rockefeller Archaeology Museum in East Jerusalem.

Related stories

Latest news

Syrian opposition rules out future role for President al-Assad

The Syrian opposition said Friday it would not accept any role for President Bashar al-Assad in the future of the war-torn country, reacting to a recent US shift saying that removing al-Assad is no longer a priority for Washington.

Russian Army integrates breakaway forces of Georgian province

Parts of the small fighting forces of the Georgian breakaway province of South Ossetia have been placed under Russian military control, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Friday.

Czech Republic's Pilsner Urquell beer is now Japanese

Japanese brewing company Asahi completed its takeover of the Czech brewery Pilsner Urquell on Friday, Asahi said in a statement.

Judge approves 25-million-dollar settlement of Trump University case

A US district judge on Friday approved a 25-million-dollar settlement of lawsuits and state fraud allegations against Trump University, the US president's now-defunct business venture.

Former Thai premier Thaksin to junta on reconciliation: 'Cut me out'

Former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra on Friday announced that he is not interested in the junta-led reconciliation process, three days after the junta handed him a half-a-billion-dollar tax bill for his past business deal.

Dalic: We welcome possible deal between Agrokor and banks

The government welcomes the possibility of an agreement being concluded between the Agrokor food company and creditor banks, and the bill on vitally important companies is not a fallback plan but the result of the government's care for the overall economic and financial stability of Croatia, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy Martina Dalic told a press conference in Zagreb on Friday.

Croatia, China sign action plan for cooperation in agriculture

The Croatian and Chinese ministries of agriculture on Friday signed an action plan for cooperation in the field of agriculture for the period 2017-2018, the Croatian ministry said in a statement.

ZSE indices up, Agrokor shares in focus of investor interest

The Zagreb Stock Exchange (ZSE) indices on Friday rose by more than 1.8%, with stocks of the Agrokor food and retail concern being in the focus of investor interest again.

Berlin police defend handling of Berlin market attacker

Berlin police defended themselves on Friday against accusations that they stopped surveillance on Berlin Christmas market attacker despite knowing in June 2016 he was dangerous.

Croatia, creditors tailor emergency measures to save tottering giant

Croatia's tottering retail and food giant Agrokor reached an agreement with its creditors, putting its debts standby and allowing it to continue working during emergency restructuring, the Croatian branch of Austria's Erste Bank said Friday.

Agrokor's creditors say standstill agreement to go into force today

A standstill agreement regarding the Agrokor concern's existing financial obligations to banks will take effect on Friday, additional capital will be injected into the concern in the coming days and the concern will be actively restructured, which includes a change of its management, it was said on Friday after a meeting between Agrokor's suppliers and creditor banks.

Palestinians, UN slam Israel's new settlement plan

Palestinians, Israeli activists and the UN lambasted the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday, a day after it gave the go-ahead for the first new West Bank settlement in a quarter of a century.

South Sudan rebels release three abducted foreign oil workers

South Sudanese rebels have released three foreign engineers they abducted in early March in the oil-rich Upper Nile region, Foreign Affairs Ministry official Mawein Makol Arik said on Friday.

Turkish opposition: Imprisoned party chief has gone on hunger strike

The head of Turkey's pro-Kurdish opposition party has launched a hunger strike from prison.

European leagues threaten Champions League schedule clashes

The European Professional Football Leagues (EPFL) on Friday threatened schedule clashes on Champions League matchdays in an ongoing dispute with the governing body UEFA.

Danish court revokes citizenship of IS volunteer

A Danish appellate court on Friday stripped a man of his Danish citizenship for volunteering to fight for the extremist Islamic State in Syria.

Banks and Agrokor agree on key elements of standstill agreement

Member banks of the coordinating committee of financial creditors and representatives of the Agrokor food company have in principle agreed on key elements of a standstill agreement, which is expected to be signed later today, announcing changes in the company's management team, Erste Bank said in a statement on Friday afternoon.

Syrian man on trial in Sweden; mosque attack labelled terrorism

A Syrian man went on trial Friday in the southern Swedish city of Malmo, charged with terrorism and arson after an attack last year on a building used as an assembly hall by Shiite Muslims.