Goliath’s 23andMe results forthcoming

If you’re a fan of biblical archeology, then have I got some good news for you. Well, actually The New York Times has good news for you, but I’m bringing it your way. Unless you already saw it somewhere else. In which case I guess I can just pack it in for all the good I’m doing plugging away on this thing. What the hell am I even doing here? Thanks for your support.

Fine, whatever, here’s your damn story:

After more than 30 years of excavating the remains of a Philistine city, a team of archaeologists says it believes it has found a cemetery belonging to the ancient people on the outskirts of Ashkelon in Israel.

The team has unearthed skeletons and artifacts that it suspects had rested for more than 3,000 years in the cemetery, potentially offering clues to the Philistines’ lifestyle and perhaps providing some answers to the mysteries of where the Philistines came from. Much has remained unknown about their origins.

Biblical archeologists do fascinating work in a field that would terrify me, given how many deep feelings it can rouse up among true believers (these researchers have apparently been sitting on their find for a couple of years out of concern about potential protests). Enough has been learned about the world the Hebrew Scriptures describe to say, I think, that those texts aren’t entirely myth, but the degree to which they reflect genuine history is obviously still up for debate. Excavations that have been done at the sites of the cities identified as Philistine strongholds in the Bible have uncovered evidence that some advanced culture was living in those places around the right time period, so it seems reasonable to say that they were the biblical Philistines, but one of the big mysteries around these people involves the question of their origins.

This is a sketch of one part of one wall of the temple at Medinet Habu, in Egypt. The temple was built by Ramesses III, and this relief commemorates his victory over the Sea Peoples, including the “Peleset.” (Wikimedia)

Since the 19th century, some scholars have identified the biblical Philistines with the “Peleset,” one of the so-called “Sea Peoples” who are theorized to have migrated, often violently, from southern Europe (Greece, or maybe Italy) through the Near East around the end of the Bronze Age. These peoples, including the Peleset, are attested in Egyptian inscriptions as having swarmed over the region in the 13th-12th centuries BCE before being defeated by Ramesses III. They may have contributed to, or been the product of, the demise of the Mycenaean civilization in Greece and the Hittite civilization in Anatolia, and may also have played a role in one or more of the campaigns that formed the basis of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War myth. The theory goes that Ramesses resettled the defeated “Peleset” (the name is probably an Egyptian corruption) on the coast of Canaan, and from there they passed into history as the Philistines. The collapse of several large Mediterranean civilizations at the beginning of the 12th century BCE is a genuine historical mystery, and the Sea Peoples theory is as good an explanation as any even though it’s hard to know whether the migrations were the cause or effect (or both) of those civilizations collapsing.

What makes this gravesite discovery so interesting, apart from the fact that burial rituals tell you a lot about a culture in general, is that the bodies can now be DNA tested to offer some clue as to where the people originated. Excavations have already uncovered a culture at Philistine sites that seems awfully Mycenaean in origins or at least in influence, and radiocarbon dates are of the right time period for these people to have been resettled Sea Peoples, but only DNA testing will be able to suggest whether or not they came from Europe.


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