National Geographic discusses how a dig at Ashkelon, in southern Israel, might unravel who the Philistines really were – and how they might be related to the mysterious reavers known as “Sea People”:
Now, the discovery of a cemetery containing more than 211 individuals and dated from the 11th to 8th centuries B.C. will give archaeologists the opportunity to answer critical questions regarding the origin of the Philistines and how they eventually assimilated into the local culture.
Until this discovery, the absence of such cemeteries in major Philistine centers has made researchers’ understanding of their burial practices—and by turn, their origins—”about as accurate as the mythology about George Washington chopping down the cherry tree,” says Lawrence Stager, an emeritus professor of archaeology at Harvard University, who has led the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon since 1985.
“The search [for a cemetery] became so desperate that archaeologists who study the Philistines began to joke that they were buried at sea like the Vikings—that’s why you couldn’t find them,” explains Assaf Yasur-Landau, an archaeologist at Haifa University and co-director of the Tel Kabri project.
Many researchers also tie the presence of the Philistines to the exploits of the Sea Peoples, a mysterious confederation of tribes that appears to have wreaked havoc across the eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Late Bronze Age, in the 13th and 12th centuries B.C. A relief in the mortuary temple of pharaoh Ramses III depicts his battle against the Sea Peoples around 1180 B.C. and records the names of several of the tribes, among them the Peleset, who are featured with distinctive headgear and kilts.
Around this time, the Peleset may have settled in or around Ashkelon, which had already been a major Canaanite port on the Mediterranean Sea for centuries. They also set up rule in four other major cities—Ashdod, Ekron, Gath, and Gaza—and the region became known in the Hebrew Bible as the land of the Palestu, the origin of the modern term “Palestine.”
The homelands of the Sea Peoples are also elusive, and researchers who associate the plundering Peleset with the Philistines think the cemetery finds may help provide answers to that archaeological mystery as well.
“I was once asked, if someone gave me a million dollars, what I would do,” says Eric Cline, an archaeologist at George Washington University, National Geographic Society grantee, and author of a recent book on the Sea Peoples and the end of the Bronze Age. “I said, I’d go out and look for a Sea Peoples’ site that explains where they came from, or where they ended up.”
“It sounds to me like [the Ashkelon team] may have just hit the jackpot,” he adds.