The first Philistine cemetery ever excavated was uncovered in Southern Israel in 2013 and announced on July 10, 2016 as part of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon in Southern Israel.
The finding was announced by Daniel Master, professor of archaeology at Wheaton College and co-director of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon, and Lawrence Stager, Dorot professor of the archaeology of Israel at Harvard University, director of the Harvard Semitic Museum and director of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon. Archaeologists began excavating the area in 1985 as part of the expedition.
Given how little is known about the ancient people group, Master told The Record that the expedition was “always interested in the Philistines.” The discovery of the gravesite gave archaeologists even more insight into who the Philistines were, adding to what they already knew from the houses and pottery found in Ashkelon. The discovery of Philistine burials means more can be learned about who they are and where they came from.
Archaeologists received a tip in 2012 from an antiquities authority who remembered finding burials and “associated pottery” underground outside Ashkelon. A crew was sent to begin looking in this area outside the city, but after seven excavation holes there was no sign of a burial.
However, the project supervisor, determined to find Philistine burials, continued to dig deeper. More than three meters later they began to find burial remains matching the descriptions of those found in the ‘80s. Master believed the reason they had to dig so deep was that layers of dirt had shifted since the first reports of potential Philistine remains.
Master and Stager brought in a bigger crew later that summer to open up more of the site and realized that they had found “one corner of a very large cemetery.” They waited until this past July to announce the discovery. In the summers of 2014, 2015 and 2016 archaeologists continued to uncover more of the cemetery, finding over 200 individual bodies.
Ashkelon is known as one of the five Philistine cities listed in the Old Testament. Its remnants allow the Philistines to tell their own story for the first time. Until now, most of what was known about the Philistines came solely from Biblical accounts in which they were frequent antagonists to the Israelites. Their role in the Old Testament narrative makes it easy to make assumptions about the Philistines that are not necessarily true.
Pottery and art in Ashkelon have shown that the Philistines were in fact “very cultured and sophisticated.” Master postulated that although the Israelites were instructed not to “be like” the Philistines, this was not because the Philistines were uncultured — in the way that modern usage of the word would suggest. Instead, it may have been for spiritually-rooted reasons.
As Christians think about the prideful, powerful way Philistines are characterized in the Bible and about the “message the Bible is trying to communicate about the Philistines,” understanding the Philistines as archeological discoveries suggest helps Christians to think in a new light about the lessons the Bible teaches.
Wheaton College has a summer program that sends students to Ashkelon as part of an “experiential learning” requirement for Biblical archaeology majors. On this program, students work beside graduate students and archaeologists.
Senior Leah Blobaum participated in Wheaton’s summer program and worked on dig sites in Ashkelon and outside the borders of the Philistine gravesite. Blobaum explained that while she spent four of her six weeks in Ashkelon in separate locations, she spent her last two weeks excavating the Philistine gravesite because “excavators were finding so much that they needed help to get it out of the ground!”
Both Master and Blobaum agree that the discovery of the Philistine gravesite will change the way people perceive the Philistines. Blobaum told The Record that the discovery of the cemetery is important because burials shed much light on the culture of a people, helping to humanize them.
She reflected, “For a long time, I would say that the Philistines were dehumanized as a people, based on their roles in the Biblical narrative, yet now we no longer see them as obscure villains.” This new understanding “assists in giving readers of the Bible a larger cultural and historical context to the Scriptures.”