Archaeologists closer to discovering origin of ancient Philistines

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.

Last update: Sun, 10/07/2016 - 12:33
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