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In the land of Goliath, Digging for Facts

July 24, 2012

A digger at Gath. With 150 workers and a unique array of scientific tools, the dig has become one of the country’s leading excavations (photo credit: Courtesy of the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project)

The Times of Israel carries an intriguing account of the day-to-day excitement and drudgery of an archaeological dig.  Instead of Indiana Jones deering-do or the big reveal of Tut’s tomb, most digs are laborious and usually conducted in uncomfortable weather.  Nevertheless, the painstaking spade work ultimately leads to new insights, occasionally revelations, and every once in awhile, a revolutionary find.  In the Times story, the reporter tells of a major dig at Gath, home of the Philistines:

When biblical archaeology gets reported, it is usually the kind of dramatic individual find that grips the imagination — an important inscription, a striking piece of pottery or jewelry. But for archaeologists, those finds are marginal. Most of their work involves the meticulous sifting of soil and the cataloging of tiny details, none of which will ever reach the attention of the public, but which will slowly coalesce into a more complete picture of a lost world. For one month every summer, that is what happens here at Gath.

The Philistine metropolis on the border between Israel’s coastal plain and the inland hills is best known as the hometown of the warrior giant Goliath, who appears — until he is unexpectedly felled by the shepherd David and his sling — in the Book of Samuel. Since it began in 1996, the Gath excavation has become one of the country’s biggest digs and one known for experimentation with a unique array of scientific tools.

I joined the excavation team for a day this summer, arriving just after dawn as buses drove up from a nearby kibbutz with the workers – a largely volunteer crew of  Canadians, Israelis, Koreans, Americans, Hungarians, college professors, students, teenage Israeli soldiers and a few enthusiastic local 13-year-olds on their summer vacation.

The accumulation of small and unspectacular finds, dig leader Aren Maeir says, is actually the main thing. (photo credit: Courtesy of the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project)

Much of the work turns up nothing at all. My greatest find all morning was a shard of pottery that turned out, upon closer inspection, to be a clump of mud.

Workers at the ancient Philistine city of Gath, this month (photo credit: Courtesy of the Tel es-Safi/Gath excavation)

Pottery is the key to understanding the site, because the clay shards that litter the soil can be used to date the archaeological layers and often offer other interesting fragments of information. One delicate black jug just unearthed elsewhere at Gath, for example, had been imported from Cyprus; a similar jug found earlier was found to contain traces of opium.

The Philistines, who controlled the coastal plain three millennia ago and clashed, on occasion, with the Israelites of the hill country, are known chiefly as the bad guys of the Hebrew Bible. But the finds here are helping scholars draw a more detailed picture of who they were.

Bones unearthed at the site show they ate dogs and pigs. They also ate legumes and cultivated wheat. They enjoyed beer – clay drinking paraphernalia turns up regularly.

The Philistines originated in the Aegean and arrived here by sea around 1200 BCE, establishing city states at Gath, Ashdod, Gaza, and elsewhere. Some of their pottery shows signs of their origins around Greece, and their names and those of some of their gods retained Greek roots.

But the pottery found here, and small details like the shapes of their hearths and the kind of metals they used, increasingly show that the idea that the Philistines arrived from one place at the same time probably isn’t true. Their hearths resemble ones found in Cyprus. They used waterproof plaster of a kind found on Crete. They came from different places around the Aegean, arrived at different times, and mixed with the local Canaanites, creating a hybrid culture that combined foreign and native influences.

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