Freelance journalist Kevin Begos talks with archaeologist Aren Maeir, from Bar Ilan University in Israel, at his dig site in Gath, thought to be Goliath's hometown and a major city of the Philistine civilization.
Freelance journalist Kevin Begos talks with archaeologist Aren Maeir, from Bar Ilan University in Israel, at his dig site in Gath, thought to be Goliath's hometown and a major city of the Philistine civilization.
Steve Mirsky: Welcome to Scientific American's Science Talk posted on February 10, 2016. I'm Steve Mirsky. On this episode:
Aren Maeir: But we now understand so much more about who the Philistines were, where they came from, what their technology is, their trade patterns.
Mirsky: That's archaeologist Aren Maeir for Bar-Ilan University in Israel. Now I'll turn it over to freelance science journalist, Kevin Begos, who recently visited with Mayer at his dig site.
Kevin Begos: I'm here at the ancient city of Gath, the most logical site for Goliath's hometown with Aren Maeir. He's the lead archaeologist on the site. Aren, how do you approach working at such a well-known, famous site as opposed to if this was just the same kind of dig from the same time period?
Maeir: The fact that it's a well-known site, and it's not easy to find volunteers, and it's not easy to raise funds, but I would say perhaps it's a bit easier, enables us to have both the manpower during our excavation season and sometimes the funding both from scientific funding sources and also from donations, to expand the toolkit that we can use during the excavation.
I think the fact that there is a very good, solid argument to claim that this is, in fact, Gath of the Philistines, which according to the biblical narrative is the hometown of Goliath, makes this site a famous site, a site that if you have several hundred volunteers and students who come to Israel every summer to dig, I would say it puts our site somewhere relatively high on the list.
So, very fortunately for the last, I would say, decade at least, we've almost every season had a relatively large team. That means that we have both the archaeologists, the scientists, the students and the volunteers which enable us to excavate in several areas and each area representing a different time period, different problems that we're dealing with. So I would say that there is a lot of advantages in digging at a well-known site.
That said, there are very successful excavations that dig at a site, which is archaeologically very important, but completely unknown from any historical point of view. A good example of that is early Bronze Age ________ near the Sea of Galilee, which is a very, very important site, but from a period where there's absolutely no documentary evidence.
Begos: Aside from this reputedly being Goliath's hometown, are there any other ancient historical records that gave you clues or context of what to look for, what might have happened here, what transpired? Any other details?
Maeir: Well, we have very fortunately, sources that seem to relate to this site from the late Bronze Age, and that's the famous El-Amarna tablets from the time of Akhenaten in which there is a whole collection of letters that were sent by the kings of the very small city-states of Canaan to the Egyptian emperor, at that time, Akhenaten. There are several of these letters that come from the site of Gath. So that's one period we have sources. We have the various biblical and Assyrian sources, which talk about the Philistine Gath and also later during the later centuries of the Iron Age, it also is briefly a Judahite site.
Then we have again sources, which tell us about the site primarily in the Middle Ages during the Crusade period. Then later on in the late Medieval and early modern period. So we do have a nice coverage of historical sources at various periods. It's not as thorough and comprehensive as perhaps we would want, but it nevertheless does give us a couple of cardinal points in which we can stick the historical data into.
Begos: What are some of the highlights that you've found over the last ten years or are things that have surprised you about the Philistine society and their relations with other cultures?
Maeir: Well, I would say to a large extent, if I look back, not even ten years, but I would say even more, 20 years. And when I started the project, I came with an understanding of the Philistines and the Philistine culture, which was based on my studies way back when, which was a certain paradigm that had developed for many years. That was that the Philistines were a group of people probably coming from somewhere around modern-day Greece, probably very directly related to the Mycenaean, the Bronze Age Greek culture.
They came to Canaan and the southern coastal plain of Canaan, captured and destroyed the Canaanite cities, built cities instead of these cities, and then had this unique culture, predominantly Mycenaean in origin, which slowly became more and more local Levantine with time until eventually it assimilated and disappeared. One of the things that we started seeing is that the picture is very different.
So, for example, we can see that the Philistine culture is not a culture which comes from one place, from outside of Levant and arrives in Levant, destroying the Canaanite cities. Rather, it's amalgamation of people of Western origin, the Aegean-Cyprus-Anatolia, perhaps the Balkans and beyond who land, who arrive in this region at the transition between the late Bronze Age and the Iron Age. So that means sometimes before, during, and after the late 12th Century. When they arrive, as far as we can see, they don't destroy the Canaanite sites. In fact, they settle on the sites with the Canaanites.
So you have sort of like this, if you want, a Greek salad or a Mediterranean salad of peoples of various origins, local and foreign, who settle together and form this unique culture. Now, in addition to this, something that we've recently also put into the picture is my colleague Louise Hitchcock, and myself have been arguing that the Philistine's culture, a major component of that may have actually been piratelike groups.
This fits in very well with the gradual collapse of the eastern Mediterranean society and geopolitical structure that we know during the late Bronze Age into the Iron Age and all kinds of people that were disassociated from various states and that were— whether due to the collapse or perhaps also causing the collapse— were involved in what we would know later as pirates.
Now, I don't think they were wandering around with an eye patch or a skull and crossbones, but nevertheless I think that perhaps as a way to look at it. Now, when they arrive in— when this culture arrives in Canaan, it forms this very, very unique set of material culture, what we call the Philistine culture. This culture continues to exist throughout until the end of the Iron Age and even though they slowly become more and more Levantine in character, until the very end of the Iron Age, they still retain a clear Philistine, unique identity as opposed to, let's say, the Judahites or the Israelites or the Phoenicians. So I think we very much have changed how we understand the Philistines.
Begos: Talk a little bit about some of the relations between the Philistines and the Judean or Levant tribes. I think you've told me in the past that there was maybe more trading than we thought, more interaction than we thought. They weren't just enemies all the time.
Maeir: That's also another interesting aspect because very often I would say our image of the Philistines as the archenemies, the ultimate others of vis-à-vis the Israelites and the Judahites is perhaps not exactly the case. Now, if I can put in parenthesis, in fact, even if you look at the biblical text, look at the story of Samson. We always think of Samson as killing the Philistines and eventually being killed by the Philistines, but he also married a couple of Philistines and was going back and forth in between Judahite and Philistine territory. So I think that also mirrors the situation.
We can see also archaeologically is that on the one hand, there seems to be evidence of a very substantial cultural difference and perhaps the each group identified the other as a substantial different group. That helped them identify themselves whether as Philistines, as Israelites, or whatever. But on the other hand, we find a lot of interaction and that means that we have on the one hand, Levantine influences appearing in the Philistine culture and slowly becoming more and more dominant.
On the other hand, Philistine attributes which appear in the Levantine cultures. Just where we're standing right over here in the lower city of Gath, we excavated a temple from the 10th, 9th century BCE and very interestingly in this temple we, on the one hand, find a lot of material culture typical of the Philistine culture during the Iron Age 2A. That's the 10th and 9th century BC, but on the other hand, we find an altar, which is an interesting combination of a Levantine horned altar, but instead of having four horns it has two horns which perhaps hints to the Aegean Cypriote influences on the Philistines.
On the other hand, right next to this altar, among all the various objects that were offered to this temple, we found a jar, which was made of clay from the Jerusalem area, probably produced in the Jerusalem area. On this jar there was an inscription, a name, a Judahite name. So that means that probably someone from Judah, from the area of Jerusalem brought a jar to this Philistine temple, which means that this image of— there's a border between Philistia and Judah, and you're here and I'm there, and don't bother me; except for crazy people like Samson who crossed the border, nobody else does. That seems to be very not the case, and there's a lot of interaction.
It's to a certain extent funny. I think the parallel perhaps is the Israelis and the Palestinians today that, on the one hand, there is a conflict. They are identified as enemies very often, but on the other hand, we live together; we work together; we eat the same food; we dress the same way; we have the same humor, et cetera, et cetera. So there's a lot of parallels.
Begos: You actually share the same land, the trees, whether it's raining or a drought or a flood or a sandstorm. Both cultures had to cope with the same both bounties and adversities.
Maeir: Absolutely, and I would assume that both cultures also had claims on the same land because just to the east of us is the Judean foothills, what we call in the biblical terms Shfela. That is the transition zone between the Israelite, Judahite regions, which are in the hill country and the Philistine regions, which are on the coastal plain. The back and forth, the seesaw relationship between the Philistines and the Israelites occurred in the Shfela.
When the Philistines were stronger, they pushed east. When the Israelites were stronger, they pushed west. So I would assume that those areas were claimed by both, and just like there are cultures and people who have claims on the same tract of lands today.
Begos: Just to give listeners an idea of how far are we from the coast and how far are we from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv?
Maeir: Okay. We're about 20 kilometers from the coast, 20 to 25 kilometers from the coast and about 30 to 35 kilometers from Jerusalem. We're about half way between the modern city of Jerusalem and the modern city of Ashkelon.
Begos: One of your recent discoveries were the gates of the city.
Maeir: Okay, one of the interesting aspects that we found very early on in the project is that while the Tell, the mound of Tell es-Safi was well know, and it's about 17 hectares in size, a relatively large sized site; when we started the project, we noticed that to the north of the site there's an extensive lower city, which once we started excavating we saw was occupied during the Iron Age, primarily during the late Iron 1 and Iron Age 2A, which means as far as period and centuries, that's about from the 11th century until the end of the 9th century.
If you parallel that to the biblical history, that's the time slightly before, during the united kingdom, the time of David and Solomon and slightly afterwards. Now, this being the case, we claim that the city of Gath, during this period, was one of the largest cities in Philistia for sure and perhaps in the entire land of Israel at the time, probably reaching something like between 40 to 50 hectares, which is twice or three times the size of most medium to large sites in the region. This being the case, it was a very good argument to say that the site of Gath was perhaps the most important of the Philistine sites and perhaps the most dominant city-state in Southern Canaan at the time.
Now, this had a very important reflection, is that if Gath during the 10th and 9th century was a large city-state, what does this say about its relationship with the Kingdom of Judah, the insipient, the early kingdom of Judah at the time? I'm sure many of the listeners are familiar with the debate about A) the historicity and if we accept the existence of the kingdom of David and Solomon, how large it is. How does it relate to what's written about it in the Bible? Now, I think all would agree that the biblical description of a kingdom from the Nile to the Euphrates is a figment of an ideological imagination, but I would think that most middle of the road scholars are debating; there was a kingdom, but how large was it?
Now, if we have a large city-state situation on the border between Philistia and the Judean foothills, the Shfela, that probably indicates that the Judahite kingdom during the time of David and Solomon could not have expanded past this point. Now, this has been debated, and one of the claims that some of the people said that, "Well, it was a city, but it wasn't important. In any case, the Judahites overcame it," was that there was no fortifications. So this season I decided that I have to find out whether there are fortifications or not, and we excavated a whole series of new squares to try to determine this. We were very fortunate to find both remains of a very, very substantial fortification, but more excitingly what seems to be the remains of a very large city gate.
Now, so that answers the issue when, yes, this is not only a large city, but it's a very substantially fortified city at the time. So I think we can quite confidently say that, yes, Gath was the largest, strongest, and perhaps most dominant city-state at the time, and that would mean that would stop the Judahite kingdom from expanding westward.
A nice example to perhaps the power of Gath is there's a well-known site called Khirbet Qeiyafa, which is a site, which has been associated both by the excavator and in the popular press with King David, which seems to be a Judahite site, which is located about 10 kilometers to the east of us. This site was a fortified site, but it was abandoned and destroyed soon after it was built, somewhere in the early 10th century.
So this would seem to indicate that perhaps the kingdom of Gath is the kingdom that destroyed or caused that site to be abandoned because they said, "Hey guys, from the Judahite kingdom, that's very nice that you're trying to expand westwards, but don't come near us." That's perhaps what happened there.
Now, the very fact that we have a monumental gate here is interesting from various perspectives. First of all, going back to your first question about what is it like excavating well-known site? Well, one of the stories that the Bible tells us about Gath is that young King David, before he was a king, escaping from Saul, runs to Achish, the king of Gath, and he comes to the gate of the city, and he wants to escape from Saul. According to the biblical narrative, Achish's servants say, "Don't let him in. He's the guy who killed Goliath. He's our enemy."
David supposedly realizes he's in danger, and then he fakes that he's a crazy man, marks Xs on the gate and sort of dribbles down his beard. Now, this is the gate of Gath, so if you want to connect something that has a story behind it, maybe this is the gate the author was thinking about. Of course, people were joking that we have to start looking for spittle and going DNA analysis of it. I don't know if that will actually occur, but nevertheless, even if the story itself has no historical basis, it's a yarn that is very popular and well-known that can be connected to the excavation, which will help us have volunteers, raise funds, which will enable us to do good archaeology.
I think it's a mistake— there is very often this feeling, well, since the biblical text is an edited text, it's an ideological text, let's push it aside and not even relate to it. I think that's a mistake. You have to realize that it's not a historical text in the modern sense of the word. You can't open up the text and say, "Oh, it says David is here. So there he was," but rather it's an edited text and an ideological text. It was edited over centuries, et cetera. Nevertheless, it has meaning both in the modern sense for people who come from the Judeo-Christian culture, and there are reflections of historical kernels in the biblical text that if we're careful and we know how to do this in a very judicious manner, we may actually be able to find it.
So let's take the story of the gate of Gath and David. Maybe the story didn't occur at all, but perhaps the author was aware of the gate of Gath and perhaps he wrote that story with the gate of Gath in mind.
Begos: That story has a moral purpose and—
Maeir: It has a moral purpose, and again, but let's put aside for a second the ideology, the religion. From someone studying the past, if I would examine the stories of King Arthur, and I could say that almost with—for sure, almost none of the stories of King Arthur occurred, but nevertheless, the Knights of the Roundtable were written within a certain historical context. Perhaps I can find that historical context. I think perhaps that's the way to approach the biblical text in relation to a site such as this.
Now, another very important thing about the gate is that we know from many ancient near eastern sites that the gate of the city or the gates of the city are very often the place where a lot of the public functions go on. That means that we will have economic functions, markets. We will have judicial functions. We will have cultic functions and other public activities going on. We already have a temple over there, and what seems to be an area where there's a metallurgical production.
All around us there are these—and we can see this in the aerial photographs, there are large structures right below surface. So there is a very good possibility that in the future seasons, we will be able to uncover some very interesting finds related to the gate.
Now, just as a reminder, one of the most famous inscriptions ever found in this region was the so-called House of David inscription, which seems to be an inscription put up by Hazael, the king of Damascus when he destroyed the city of Dan in northern Israel, and which he mentions that he killed the king of Israel and the king of the house of David. This was found right in the front of the city gate at Dan. So perhaps we might even find other monumental inscriptions and other significant finds in the context of this gate.
Begos: Do you have any expectations about what the architectural style of this gate might be?
Maeir: We know of quite a few Iron Age city gates, both in the Israelite culture, the Judahite culture, the Philistine culture and many neighboring cultures. So I would assume that it's going to be something similar to that. If you're familiar with the gates of Iron Age Megiddo or the gates of Iron Age Gezer not far from here or the gate of Dan, which I mentioned. I would assume that it's going to be something in that framework. It's quite large from what we can see as far as it's—the area which it covers just from the initial surface area that we've discovered.
I doubt it's going to be something completely different, although perhaps in the Philistine culture they have their own specific traditions in building, and maybe we'll get to see that. Right now, it's made out of what seems to be a stone foundation with a mudbrick super structure, which is very common in all the region.
Begos: So now quarried stone, not cut stone?
Maeir: Well, some of the stone that you see here is quarried, cut. I would say it's all quarried, but it's the question whether worked or not. Some of it is worked, but I would say most of it seems to be field stone, which are very, very, only partially worked.
Begos: Aren, talk a little bit about how molecular bioarchaeology or you may use a different term, advances in DNA and mass spectrometry have enabled archaeologists to find out more details from the past that just weren't available before about what people ate or what kind of spices they used.
Maeir: Well, I think one of the things that archaeologists who are now working on the cutting edge of archaeology in the last decade or so, we're really two a certain extent using a whole new toolkit that much of which was not available just a few decades ago. I like the analogy, it's as if you compare 19th century medicine and 21st century medicine. You're doing the same thing, but using almost completely different tools and the ability to heal patients and to understand what's going on is so different. The same thing goes for archaeology. We're basically doing the same thing, as I was taught 30, 40 years ago, and we're basically doing the same thing as Albright, Macalister, and all the Petrie did way back when, but we've moved to a completely new set of tools.
On the one hand, still relating to many of the old methods, pottery typology, stratigraphy, et cetera, but we've moved into being able to look at, I would say, the micro view of the ancient remains. Since what we see archaeology represents only a very small amount of what actually was there in the past— and I always like using the analogy of imagine having a crossword puzzle of 10,000 pieces of which only 300 remain, and they didn't even give us the picture on the cover of the box.
So we have to utilize as many methods, perspectives, and analytic techniques to try to understand how these pieces connect to each other, and how they make a broader picture. So the fact that now we can bring in all kinds of new perspectives, all kind of new analyses that were not available before really, I would say, enhances our understanding of the past. Now, I'm not saying is that we're now, as opposed, we used to think that these people were Philistines and now we know they're aliens. It's not as crazy as that, but we now understand so much more about who the Philistines were, where they came from, what their technology is, their trade patterns, et cetera.
So you, for example, mentioned DNA. So one of the things that we have now shown is, surprise, surprise, the pigs that the Philistines used were pigs that were brought from Europe. We would have had no ability to know this unless you use ancient genetic analysis. If we want to understand what type of technology the Philistines used, so for example, doing infrared spectrometry on Philistine plaster, we understood that it's a type of plaster technology, which was not common in this region. It was brought from the Aegean.
If we want to talk about—you mentioned spices, incense. So we now know that in the Iron Age, there were spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg, which were brought to this region from the Indian subcontinent, which up to now was something that we had no ability to understand. So all kinds of things like this really add, I would say, depth and color, put some flesh on the bones of the story that we're telling.
It's not only in the past we very often would excavate with the old fashioned techniques and find something interesting and bring it back to the lab and months, years after the excavation hopefully something would be understood, very often not in context. One of the things that many cutting edge archaeologists are doing nowadays is bringing the scientists to fully participate in the field and have their perspectives and their analytic abilities input during the excavation.
This means that we can find new types of sediments and new types of objects and finds and understand them in the field and very often, change the way we excavate a specific area, locus, based on the fact that this is something that deserves specific attention, more sampling, et cetera. Or if you're dealing with, for example, skeletal remains and there's a change of DNA, ancient DNA preservation, so you have to start working in sort of like a crime-lab type of environment. These are things that unless you know that it's right there in the field, you're going to destroy the evidence before you have a chance to really analyze it.
Begos: Aren, it sounds like you have a lot of years of interesting work ahead on this. Do you think this site is going to go on for many years?
Maeir: Well, when I started the site, I thought I would excavate for a decade, and I would understand this site completely. Now, we're in our twentieth year, and every year I sort of understand on one hand, I understand more. But then it's like one step forward, two steps backwards. I, for many years, was planning sort of to go on for maybe until somewhere between 20 and 25 years. Just this season, we have so many new finds that I'm sort of wondering how much more I'm going to be going.
I think I would like to do a couple of things. One, I'll continue as long as I have fun because there's no reason to do archaeology if you're not having fun. I'll continue if the questions are interesting and provocative and there's a chance of finding new, and I would say, paradigm-changing things. Of course, if the volunteers and the funding keeps coming, yeah.
Begos: Sounds great. Aren, thank you for your time.
Maeir: Oh, my pleasure. Thanks for coming.
Mirsky: That's it for this episode. Get your science news at our website www.scientificamerican.com where you can check out our ongoing coverage of gravitational waves. Sounds like some big news on that front is coming out way. Follow us on Twitter where you'll get a Tweet whenever a new item hits the website. Our Twitter name is @sciam. For Scientific American Science Talk, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.