comscore Ancient cemetery found in Israel could reshape the story of the Philistines
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Ancient cemetery found in Israel could reshape the story of the Philistines

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After more than 30 years of excavating the remains of a Philistine city, a team of archaeologists says it believes it has found a cemetery belonging to the ancient people on the outskirts of Ashkelon in Israel.

The team has unearthed skeletons and artifacts that it suspects had rested for more than 3,000 years in the cemetery, potentially offering clues to the Philistines’ lifestyle and perhaps providing some answers to the mysteries of where the Philistines came from. Much has remained unknown about their origins.

“When we found this cemetery right next to a Philistine city, we knew we had it,” said Daniel Master, an archaeologist from Wheaton College in Illinois. “We have the first Philistine cemetery that’s ever been discovered.”

Master is a co-director of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon, which has excavated the site since 1985. Ashkelon, which archaeologists think the Philistines entered around 1150 B.C., is one of the five Philistine capitals along with Ashdod, Ekron, Gath and Gaza.

The cities and their people are mentioned in the ancient texts of the Babylonians, Egyptians and Assyrians. In the Hebrew Bible, they were the nemeses of the Israelites and sent Goliath to fight David. Many tales tell of the great battles the Philistines fought and lost until their utter destruction at the hands of King Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian army in 604 B.C.

“The victors write history,” Master said. “We found these Philistines, and finally we get to hear their story told by them rather than by their enemies.”

By using radiocarbon dating and analyzing the pottery found in the graves, the researchers dated the cemetery to between the 10th century B.C. and ninth century B.C. The period, they said, supports the prevailing theory that the Philistines landed in ancient Israel after crossing the Aegean Sea around the 12th century B.C.

But the team still has to perform DNA, radiocarbon and genetic testing on the bone samples to prove that the remains belong to the western migrants. Archaeologists call them members of the Sea People, who were described as attackers in ancient Egyptian texts.

During the excavation, the team uncovered more than 200 men, women and children in the cemetery. Absent were newborns, which led the researchers to think the Philistines might have buried babies who died at birth either in their homes or elsewhere.

For Sherry C. Fox, a bioarchaeologist at Arizona State University and member of the team, what set this cemetery apart from other ancient graveyards was the assortment of burial practices found.

“There’s so much variation in how they are positioned,” she said, “between whether they are cremated or buried; whether they are within a tomb, or a chamber, or a cist or a pit grave; whether they are placed face down or face up.”

The team plans to explore the variations for patterns that might reveal information about the individuals, such as social status or what family they belonged to.

Fox also said that unlike some of their neighbors and predecessors, such as the Canaanites, the Philistines did not practice secondary burial, which is the moving of skeletons to make room for another body in the tomb or grave. The bodies appeared to have been left alone after being laid to rest.

Another distinct aspect of the Philistine graveyard, the researchers say, is the colorful pottery found throughout the sites and chambers. Many of the skeletons were found with small jugs of perfume placed right under the neck or right next to the nostril, as if to give the deceased something to smell for eternity, the researchers said. The jugs may have also been placed in the tombs to fight the reeking smell of decomposition.

Also found in many of the chambers were two large jugs, which the researchers think may have held wine or olive oil, either to be offered or used to prepare the corpse for burial.

“While so much is known about the material culture of the Philistines, including their diet, tools, cult, weapons, pottery, and economic and commercial activities, up until now their burial practices have been a mystery,” Seymour Gitin, the emeritus Dorot director and professor of archaeology at the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem, said in an email.

“Their analysis, especially of the bones in the Ashkelon cemetery, represents a potential revolution, which should provide critical answers to the origin of the Philistines, a major controversy for decades,” Gitin, who was not involved in the excavation, said.

Lawrence Stager, the emeritus Dorot professor of the archaeology of Israel at Harvard University and a co-director of the excavation, said the findings would compel other archaeologists to revisit burial sites that had previously been labeled Philistine.

“They published these as Philistine burials or tombs or graves, but most of them are poppycock or balderdash,” he said. “We now have a whole new way of evaluating what archaeologists and historians have been claiming — usually wrongly — is a Philistine burial.”

Stager estimated that thousands of skeletons might be in the cemetery and said that from the findings at Ashkelon, his team could narrow down the origins of the Philistine people.

“When we compare the living quarters with the dead Philistines, this will give us a picture that has never been seen before,” Stager said. “The uniqueness of Ashkelon is that we now have both places where we can study the living and the dead.”

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