archaeology, archaeological dig, documenting.jpg
Photograph: Photo by JamesDeMers, used under CC0

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

Avar cemetery fund in east Croatia

3,000-year-old coffins unearthed in China

Latest news

Trump administration reverses transgender bathroom protections

The Trump administration on Wednesday withdrew Obama-era guidance about the use of school and university bathrooms by transgender students, local media reported.

Several Dakota Access Pipeline protesters arrested as deadline passes

Several people at a camp protesting against a controversial oil pipeline in the US state of North Dakota were arrested Wednesday after a deadline to vacate the land passed, local media reported.

Germany deports 18 rejected asylum seekers to Afghanistan

A Kabul-bound plane with 18 Afghan migrants on board took off from Munich Airport late Wednesday, its passengers becoming the third group of rejected asylum seekers to be deported by German authorities back to Afghanistan.

New Romanian justice minister named after anti-corruption protests

Romanian Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu has named a former judge to be the country's next justice minister, after the previous office holder resigned under pressure from mass anti-corruption protests.

Le Pen's chief of staff indicted in European Parliament jobs probe

The chief of staff of Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate for president in upcoming French elections, was indicted Wednesday over allegations of irregular reimbursements from the European Parliament, a judicial source told dpa.

Montenegrin police extradites Miodrag Jovic to Croatia

Montenegrin police reported on Wednesday that they extradited to Croatia Miodrag Jovic (48) from Glina, after whom Interpol Zagreb issued an arrest warrant.

Croatian minister attends CoMoCoSEE conference in Albania

Culture Minister Nina Obuljen Korzinek participated in a third conference of the Council of Ministers of Culture of South-Eastern Europe (CoMoCoSEE) that took place in Tirana on February 21-22.

New Somali president asks al-Shabaab to surrender to 'help' country

Somalia's newly elected President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo asked Islamist terrorist group al-Shabaab to surrender in order "to help rebuild" the conflict-ridden East African nation.

Serbia's EU negotiator says minority rights neglected

The head of the Serbia's European Union accession negotiation team, Tanja Miscevic, said in Novi Sad on Wednesday that minority rights had been neglected for many years and added that positive results in that regard cannot be achieved over night, the Beta news agency has reported. 

Scientists: Nearby star's 7 rocky planets are "best bet" for life

New analysis of telescope data shows a dwarf star just 40 light years from Earth has at least seven apparently rocky planets with potential to harbour water, an international team of scientists announced Wednesday.

Croatian PM receives EIB Vice-President

Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic met on Wednesday with European Investment Bank (EIB) Vice-President Dario Scannapieco for talks on the bank's contribution to a new investment cycle in Croatia and its support to the Croatian government to implement key projects, a press release from the government's office said.

Bomb explodes outside police officer's home in Northern Ireland

A bomb exploded outside a police officer's home in Northern Ireland on Wednesday but there were no immediate reports of casualties.