Unearthing the Bible’s bad guys

Excavation of Gath helps scholars paint a portrait of the ancient Philistines

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TEL EL-SAFI, Israel — At the remains of an ancient metropolis in southern Israel, archaeologists are piecing together the history of a people remembered chiefly as the bad guys of the Hebrew Bible.

The city of Gath, where the annual digging season began this week, is helping scholars paint a more nuanced portrait of the Philistines, who appear in the biblical story as the perennial enemies of the Israelites.

Close to 3,000 years ago, Gath was on the frontier between the Philistines, who occupied the Mediterranean coastal plain, and the Israelites, who controlled the inland hills. The city’s most famous resident, according to the Book of Samuel, was Goliath - the giant warrior improbably felled by the young shepherd David and his sling.

The Philistines “are the ultimate other, almost, in the biblical story,” said Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan University, the archaeologist in charge of the excavation.

The latest summer excavation season began with 100 diggers from Canada, South Korea, the United States and elsewhere, adding to the wealth of relics found at the site since Mr. Maier’s project began in 1996.

In a square hole, several Philistine jugs nearly 3,000 years old were emerging from the soil. One painted shard just unearthed had a rust-red frame and a black spiral, a decoration common in ancient Greek art and a hint to the Philistines’ origins in the Aegean.

The Philistines arrived by sea from the area of modern-day Greece about 1200 B.C. They went on to rule major ports at Ashkelon and Ashdod, now cities in Israel, and at Gaza, now part of the Palestinian territory known as the Gaza Strip.

At Gath, they settled on a site that had been inhabited since prehistoric times. Digs like this one have shown that though they adopted aspects of local culture, the Philistines remembered their roots. Even five centuries after their arrival, for example, they were still worshipping gods with Greek names.

Archaeologists have found that the Philistine diet leaned heavily on grass pea lentils, an Aegean staple. Ancient bones discarded at the site show that they also ate pigs and dogs, unlike the neighboring Israelites, who deemed those animals unclean - restrictions that still exist in Jewish dietary law.

Diggers at Gath also have uncovered traces of the destruction of the city in the 9th century B.C., including a ditch and embankment built around the city by a besieging army - still visible as a dark line running across the surrounding hills.

The razing of Gath at that time appears to have been the work of the Aramean king, Hazael, in 830 B.C., an incident mentioned in the Bible’s Book of Kings.

Gath’s importance is that the “wonderful assemblage of material culture” uncovered there sheds light on how the Philistines lived in the 10th and 9th centuries B.C., said Seymour Gitin, director of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem and a specialist on the Philistines.

That would include the era of the kingdom ruled from Jerusalem by David and Solomon as described in the Bible. Other Philistine sites have provided archaeologists with information about earlier and later times but not much from that key period.

“Gath fills a very important gap in our understanding of Philistine history,” Mr. Gitin said.

In 604 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon invaded and put the Philistines’ cities to the sword. There is no remnant of them after that.

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