We recently investigated the Sea Peoples’ invasion in posts 92, 100, 102, and 103, stimulated by Eric Cline’s book, 1177 BC, the Year Civilization Collapsed. You will recall that one of the invading people groups took root as a dominant culture along the seacoast of the Levant: The Philistines. However, we did not investigate how things went for this new culture, but I have encountered a 2014 video on precisely this subject—for which we can all thank the Oriental Institute. The lecturer is Aren Maeir, PhD, and the title: New Light on the Biblical Philistines: Recent Study on the Frenemies of Ancient Israel.
Below, I summarize the highlights of Dr. Maeir’s presentation, and at the end give the link to the video, which is 1 hour and 13 minutes in length. I highly recommend you invest 10 minutes reading this summary so that when you view the video, you know what it’s about and take advantage of the details.
Maeir’s initial question is, “Who are the Philistines?” He answers this with, “The accepted paradigm (monolithic invasion and simplistic cultural processes and relations with neighbors) has been around for a long time…” The Philistines are well known from the Biblical accounts of the Early Iron Age kingdoms of Saul and David. In sum, the Philistines came, lived in Canaan about 600 years, and disappeared.
He says it is a time for a paradigm shift, based upon new finds, analyses, and interpretive directions—a reassessment of long held assumptions. Over the last 10 to 15 years, there have been a lot of new finds, especially at Tell es-Safi, which is Philistine Gath. This new research is the subject of his presentation.
He starts by discussing the fall of the Late Bronze Age, the 150 to 200-year period when it collapsed. At Medinet Habu, Rameses III commissioned reliefs of the Sea Peoples (see above picture) and, among them, the Philistines ca. 1180 BC. Where were these Sea Peoples coming from? Differing folks suggested: Mycenaean Greece, Anatolia (Luwians and others as we discussed earlier in post 100), Crete, Sicily, and Sardinia. Maeir says they probably came from all these places.
This period produced easily distinguished changes in the material culture in the coastal plain i.e. in pottery, cooking apparatus, architecture etc. This material was new to Canaan. And it fits with our biblical picture of the Philistines as a rowdy group settled along the coast, and another “new and noisy” folk (the Israelis) settling in the Shephelah foothills and central hills west of the Jordan River. There was a back and forth see-saw between the two groups throughout the Iron Age. 500 years later, the Philistines had adapted to their new environment and, with the Israelis, were sacked by the Babylonians.
Dr. Maeir is Director of the excavation at Tell es-Safi, which was for hundreds of years Philistine Gath. There were five Philistine cities of renown: Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, and Gath. Gath was the furthest east of the five cities, located in the eastern foothills, and the point of the Philistines’ spear. Consequently, it proved to be the flash-point between the Philistine and Israeli territories. Gath is mentioned in the Bible more than “all the others.”
It took a while in the last century to find Gath. Luckily, the site was covered by a Palestinian village which was abandoned in the 1947 war, so when archaeologists recognized it as important, the site had not yet been pillaged. From 1899 to 1997, the site was not excavated. Even better, much of the Gath site was within inches of the surface, and the archaeologists did not need to cut down through ages of layers from modern, through Islamic, Crusader, Byzantine, and Roman before getting to Philistine Gath. The bottom levels, below the Philistine city, go back to the Early Bronze Age circa 3000 BC. Maeir’s excavation focuses on 1200-586 BC, which is typical of Israeli excavations’ nearly exclusive interest in the Iron Age period after their people arrived, and in this case, until the destruction in 586 BC of the First Jerusalem Temple by Nebuchadnezzar. Dr. Maeir shows the Stratigraphic Chart at minute 19:41 in the video.
In other Philistine sites, there is very little evidence about how they dealt with their dead. Here, Maeir’s crew found a few tombs. The buried Philistines were very sickly, as evidence by analysis of their bones, which Maeir attributes to their diet.
Canaanites and Israelis abstained from eating pork. Philistines did not. From the pig bones, he determined that the Philistines brought with them pigs with European DNA, and these pigs came to dominate local pig populations during the Philistine period.
Likewise, the veggies eaten by Philistines reflected plants from the northwestern Mediterranean. The difference in foods eaten was matched by the way they cooked the foods. For example, Philistines cooked in closed cooking jugs, whereas Canaanites and Israelites used more shallow bowls—sort of like the difference between cooking with a slow-cooker (e.g. well-cooked stews) and cooking with a wok (for shorter periods and with less fluid). Maeir explains the Philistines wanted the traditional foods of their homelands, which required using the original cooking methods.
Maier points out that the Philistines also used hydraulic plaster, which can harden in the absence of oxygen—like concrete—and thus permit thicker applications and underwater as well. This was a major innovation, which was previously credited to the Romans, but is found here on an earlier horizon.
In the Gath excavation, Maeir staffs with personnel from a wide array of scientific backgrounds, and therefore has access to many technologies for dating, discovering provenance, analyzing flora and fauna remains etc. Indeed, this is increasingly the case in all excavations. However, wanting this variety is one thing, and being able to recruit it is another. Maeir has achieved sufficient balance to remark on it.
Maeir says he found only one metallurgical site in the excavation, and that one late in time—and thus challenges the Biblical record of 1 Samuel 13:19-20 which says Israel was prohibited iron smiths, and were forced to rely on the Philistines for smithy work. But 1st Samuel remarks upon conditions when King Saul is starting out as Israel’s first king, conventionally dated in the early 11th century B.C. This would have been a narrow window in time, when the latest high-technology (iron tools and blades) was not within Israel’s reach. Saul would have made no inroads against the Philistines until he could match weapons, and perhaps that is the reason Dr. Maeir finds that Gath dominated the coastal plain and kept the Israelites at bay in their first couple centuries of conflict.
Moreover, Dr. Maeir’s use of the term “metal working” further confuses me, for everyone had the technology to make bronze weapons, but the Philistines arrived with iron tools and weapons—a large advantage—and the knowledge of how to work iron. Iron melts at 2,800°F, while copper melts at 1,742°F. Achieving that extra 1,058°F in the furnace, and the handling of that much hotter metal required a big leap in the technology in 1,000 BC. Philistines came with it, and applied it to conquering the choicest land. Later, iron handling spread to the Israelis.
Maeir points out that the Mycenaeans and Anatolian Sea Peoples would have been speaking variants of the Indo-European language, a far cry from the Semitic languages of the Levant. He discusses some evidence that the name Goliath might well be Indo-European, using inscribed shards with Indo-European sounding names to show the existence of such names locally—but written in the “archaic, local alphabetic script.” He gives a very interesting analysis of linguistic issues in discussing what is called “the Goliath cereal bowl,” and a factoid that the name of a King of Lydia was named Goliath.
They found a destruction level at 830 BC across the entire site of Gath. Among the artifacts found at this level were incense burners. Using the latest technology, they determined that the incense burned contained cinnamon and nutmeg—which required importation from Sri Lanka. This poses a revolutionary insight into trading in this region—which somewhat counters prior assumptions that this area (and everywhere in the western Mediterranean) was experiencing something like a “dark age” in this period—sort of a hangover from the frenetic collapse of the predecessor Bronze Age civilization.
There are many other eye-opening findings regarding this site in the video, not least of which are the inconsistencies Maeir claims to find in Biblical renditions of events e.g.
- The loss of the Ark to the Philistines, the toll on the Philistines, and its return;
- The fact that Gath was at its peak in the 10th century countering the Biblical account that David had conquered the Philistines;
- The fact that Gath’s destruction in the 9th century was by King Hazael of Syria, and only after that destruction could the Judahite kingdoms expand westward. 2 Kings 12:17-18;
- Dr. Maeir seems particularly contemptuous toward the divine side of the Bible, at minute 55:50 making a point about the historicity of the Bible, he says, “the Biblical text doesn’t give a damn about God.” His personal biases should not prevent my careful consideration of the artifactual evidence he presents—but it predisposes me to wonder what evidence he might choose to suppress i.e. that which he perceives inconvenient to his personal narrative. The truth is all of us have personal narratives which shape our thoughts and actions.
Now, I highly recommend you watch the video to catch the details. It’s very well done. [A useful tip, while following YouTube video lectures, is that you can just click anywhere on the video (not limited to the start/stop icon) and it pauses (or restarts), making it very easy to examine exhibits or take notes–or take a break]. [Another useful tip is that when you stop the video to take a note, you can also record the point in the video by the elapsed time marker–allowing you or your audience to return to that spot on the video].
Thanks for visiting.
R. E. J. Burke