Who were the Philistines? New Evidence from Ashkelon Dig

You may have read in the press about recent discoveries regarding a Philistine graveyard which has been found at Ashkelon in Israel. The graveyard is somewhere between 2,700 and 3,000 years old. Why is it a key discovery? Well:
“Ninety-nine percent of the chapters and articles written about Philistine burial customs should be revised or ignored now that we have the first and only Philistine cemetery,” says Lawrence E. Stager, Dorot Professor of the Archaeology of Israel, Emeritus, at Harvard University.
There have been many different theories regarding the Philistines. Generally associated with being uncivilised, cruel and indeed evil (David and Goliath in the Hebrew Bible), the origins of their civilisation has been subject to much debate.
The first real evidence comes from the funerary temple of the last great warrior Pharaoh, Rameses III, at Medinet Habu on the West Bank near Luxor. It tells, and shows, in exquisite detail, the naval battle fought by the Egyptians against a major sea borne invasion by a confederation of disparate tribes. At Medinet Habu, there are seven mentioned: Denyen, Peleset, Shekelesh, Sherden, Teresh, Tjekker, Weshesh. It has long been conjectured that the Peleset were the Philistines. The carvings are the key when combined with the temple inscriptions.
The Medinet Habu inscription of Ramesses III’s 8th year, lines 16–17, (trans. by John A. Wilson in Pritchard, J.B. (ed.) Ancient Near Eastern Texts relating to the Old Testament, 3rd edition, Princeton 1969., p.262) state:
‘The foreign countries (ie. Sea Peoples) made a conspiracy in their islands, All at once the lands were removed and scattered in the fray. No land could stand before their arms: from Hatti, Qode, Carchemish, Arzawa and Alashiya on, being cut off [ie. destroyed] at one time. A camp was set up in Amurru. They desolated its people, and its land was like that which has never come into being. They were coming forward toward Egypt, while the flame was prepared before them. Their confederation was the Peleset, Tjeker, Shekelesh, Denyen and Weshesh, lands united. They laid their hands upon the land as far as the circuit of the earth, their hearts confident and trusting: “Our plans will succeed!” ‘
This shows a variety of things, which are supported by further records from the Bronze Age civilisations which bordered the Mediterranean littoral. Sometime around the 1180-1170 BC decade, there were major collapses in many of these – Professor Eric Cline places it at 1177 BC in his recent work.
The invasions of the Sea Peoples are seen to be heavily to blame for this. The island origins of the people stated do seem to correspond to certain of the names (eg the Shekelesh are thought to be the Syckils of Sicily). Also, as shown on the carvings at Medinet Habu, these were not simple raiding campaigns. The Peleset and the Tjekker (possibly from Southern Anatolia?) are depicted not just as warriors, but accompanied by women and children travelling in ox drawn carts when they are on the land.
From Medinet Habu – Rameses III and his archers lead the Egyptian forces in defeating the Sea Peoples. The nations are distinguishable by their headgear. The Peleset wear the traditional headgear of a feathered crown helmet and are mainly clean shaven.
The people who do appear to have best survived the crushing defeat of their invasion of Egypt would seem to have been the Peleset. There is archaeological evidence of a high level of disruption in the indigenous Canaanite culture which dominated the Levant in the Late Bronze Age. The new evidence from the burials at Ashkelon shows strong links in burial customs with the Aegean cultures as opposed to the Semitic burial practices. Ancient times also referred to two further key aspects of Philistine culture – they ate pigs and were, unlike all Semitic peoples, uncircumcised. The avoidance of pork and circumcision of males were key aspects of Ancient Near East coastal civilisations (in modern day terms, Syrian, Lebanese, Israeli and Palestinian coast lines). Pork was consumed in Egypt, although circumcision was also practised.
Where, then, did they originate? It has long been posited that the Pelasgians (the people who, according to Homeric legend, inhabited Greece before the arrival of the Doric, Ionic and other tribes which would become the Hellenes or Greeks) were the original Peleset, – though this is a highly questionable hypothesis – possibly those who fled the collapse of the Mycenaean society. The Biblical account says that they originated in ‘The Land of Caphtor (modern day Crete) which might hint at ties with the collapse of the Minoan civilisation after the Santorini eruption of approximately 1600 BC. These are questions which will, hopefully, be answered by the isotopic analysis of teeth which have been found on the burial site at Ashkelon. The skeletons, in situ of the original burial, as opposed to skeletons gathered up after the flesh had rotted and placed in an ossuary (standard Canaanite burial practice) are revealing string links to the Aegean burial customs. Children (though very few in number), are buried under a ‘blanket of broken pottery shards’.
All of this is leading to the key difference which casts light in Ancient History – this is the first evidence that has not simply been written by the Philistines’ enemies. This is our first real, concrete contact with the Philistines’ own story, untainted by the viewpoint of others.
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