The Philistines weren't such philistines after all, say archaeologists

Archaeologists have unearthed a 3,000-year-old cemetery in Israel, lending clues to the origins of the ancient seafaring people known as the Philistines.

Amir Cohen/Reuters
Clay items unearthed during excavations at the first-ever Philistine cemetery in Ashkelon National Park, are displayed at an exhibition in the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem last week.

Who are you calling a philistine?

The brutish, uncultured reputation of the Philistines might be upended by a discovery in the Israeli port city of Ashkelon announced Sunday. In an excavation site there, archaeologists found what is thought to be the first Philistine cemetery ever discovered, with members of the archenemy of the ancient Israelites buried with jewelry and perfume oils.

The discovery, says archaeologist Lawrence Stager, who has led the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon since 1985, could lead to a shift in how the civilization, and perhaps its most famous warrior, Goliath, is seen, as well as how we use the word "philistine," which refers to someone averse to culture and the arts, 

"The Philistines have had some bad press, and this will dispel a lot of myths," Mr. Stager told Reuters. “The cosmopolitan life here is so much more elegant and worldly and connected with other parts of the eastern Mediterranean,” he said. This was in contrast to the more modest village lifestyle of the Israelites who lived in the hills to the east, he said.

The 3,000-year-old cemetery discovered in 2013 contains the remains of at least 150 people in numerous burial chambers. Buried among the remains are sophisticated artifacts, including perfume bottles, decorated juglets suspected to have held oil and wine, and weapons. In some cases, archaeologists even found the dead were buried with toe rings. The cemetery also contained some cremations, which archaeologists said were rare and expensive for that period.

The Philistines have been “unfairly maligned” for thousands of years, as The Christian Science Monitor’s Peter Ford wrote in 1991, when he visited the excavation site of the ancient Philistine city of Ekron, now in modern-day Israel. “As archenemies of the children of Israel, the Philistines were never portrayed in the Bible as anything but unsympathetic – cruel and overbearing like Goliath, or scheming and deceitful like Delilah,” writes Mr. Ford. “Today their reputation is even worse, since a 17th-century German pedagogue branded the Philistines as the epitome of a brutish and uncultured people.”

Over the last several decades, however, archaeologists have found more and more evidence that undoes the Philistines' bad rap. Discoveries at Ekron and three other of the Philistines' five cities near the Eastern Mediterranean coast, are proving that "actually, the culture of the Philistines was far above anyone else's in the region when they settled in the 12th-century BC," Trude Dothan, co-director of the Ekron dig, told Ford.

The excavation site near Ashkelon will provide an even more accurate picture of who the Philistines were and from where they originated. In addition to the artifacts archaeologists found, the remains buried in the cemetery contain valuable samples of DNA. Archaeologists and biblical scholars have long believed the Philistines came from the Aegean region, but they couldn't agree on where. With the large sample of DNA in the cemetery, scientists might be able to pinpoint their origins. Theories include mainland Greece, the islands of Crete, or Cyprus, or even Anatolia in modern-day Turkey.

The team is now performing DNA, radiocarbon, and other tests on bone samples, but they have not announced any findings yet.

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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