Who were the Philistines?

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Original article found One for Israel

They had been digging for years and found nothing. Archaeological evidence giving information about the Philistines and their civilization has been found in the past, but no one had ever found any bodies. It was a mystery. Some assumed that they must have buried their dead at sea, but there had been indication that maybe – just maybe – there might be Philistine graves in the Israeli port city of Ashkelon.

A team of archaeologists went to Ashkelon to see what they could find, but after days of digging they ended up disappointed and frustrated. National Geographic described how, just when they had given up and people had started to leave, Adam Aja, assistant curator at Harvard’s Semitic Museum, was overwhelmed with determination to continue. He wanted to keep digging until they hit bedrock, and it wasn’t long before they came across a human tooth. He knew then that they had found what they were looking for.

Clues in the ancient graveyard of the Philistines

Since then, they have found the remains of 211 Philistines in Ashkelon from some 3000 years ago, buried in a manner distinctly different to the Canaanites or the Hebrews of the time[1], whose custom it was to lay the bodies out in stone tombs until only the bones remained, then to gather the bones and add them a collective hole which contained the bones of their ancestors (hence the Biblical accounts of the Patriarchs being “gathered” to their people). Later it became Hebrew tradition to put the dry bones in individual caskets the length of the femur. The Philistines, on the other hand, buried their dead in oval ditches the ground, some with a few precious items or a flask of perfume near their nose, and left them undisturbed in the ground.

According to the Bible, the Philistines were the enemies of Israel, who battled them many times, and even stole the Ark of the Covenant at one point (until the destruction it wreaked among them proved too much, and they meekly sent it back to the Israelites). But apart from taking the role of Israel’s enemies, the origins of the Philistines are a bit enigmatic. They are thought to have come from the Aegean, based on pottery and artifacts pointing to a Hellenistic connection, but the origins and movements of people groups around the time of the Bronze Age are not always straightforward to deduce.

“Finding the Philistine cemetery is fantastic because there are so many questions regarding their genetic origins and their interconnections with other cultures.” Assaf Yasur-Landau, Associate Professor of Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Haifa.

The Bible connects the Philistines with the island of Crete (‘Caphtor’ in Jeremiah 47:4; Amos 9:7). As it has done many times in the past, archaeological evidence is now proving the Bible to be correct – that they had indeed come to Canaan’s shores from the Greek islands, although it is still unclear whether they were Cretan by origin, or had just been living there. Either way, it is clear to archaeologists that the Philistines were not native to Canaan but were from the Aegean area, as attested by ceramics, architecture, burial customs, and pottery remains with non-Semitic writing on them (including a shard of pottery with a Cypro-Minoan script, dating to around 1150-1000 BCE) [2].

There is great excitement in the world of archaeologists over this new discovery, and it’s worth taking note of the fact that they had despaired of ever finding what they were looking for. But there was just one man refused to give up, and he was well rewarded.

[1] National Geographic, Discovery of Philistine Cemetery May Solve Biblical Mystery, 10.07.2016
[2] HaAretz, Archaeologists find first-ever Philistine cemetery in Israel, 10.07.2016

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