Local professor says he's dug up lost Israeli tribe

September 16, 1990|By Diane Winston

The Sun published an incorrect credit line with a photograph of Dr. Barry Gittlen in the Sept. 16 Maryland section. In fact, the photograph was taken by Ilan Sztulman.

The Sun regrets the error.

Myths and legends locate Israel's 10 lost tribes in the farthest outposts of the seven continents, but a Baltimore scholar says some members of the nomadic nation may have settled closer to home.

Barry Gittlen, professor of biblical and ancient Near East civilization at Baltimore Hebrew University, says recent excavations at an Israeli site suggest that in 721 B.C., when the Assyrians conquered the Israelite kingdom, not all the captives were scattered to foreign lands.


Some only went 37 miles.

"This is the first indication we have that [the lost tribes] ended up close to home in a neighboring state," said Dr. Gittlen, field archaeologist and archaeological coordinator for the Tel Miqne-Ekron excavation and publication project. "We had always thought they were exported far and wide."

Dr. Gittlen, who has worked at the site for eight seasons, says new archaeological findings suggest some exiled Israelites settled in Ekron, a Philistine city. This new hypothesis explains several mysteries that had perplexed the team for years.

"First we wondered why the city expanded so fast around the seventh and eighth centuries," said Dr. Gittlen, whose pot shards and colored maps give mute testimony to the summer's efforts.

"We wondered why we found altars that looked like Israelite altars when we knew that Israelite altars were no longer being produced," he explained. "We also wondered why we found Hebrew inscriptions on jars."

Dr. Gittlen belongs to a joint Israeli-U.S. effort at work in Tel Miqne, a site 23 miles west of Jerusalem. Digging began at Tel Miqne in 1980 under the aegis of two Israeli archaeologists: Seymour Gitin of the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research and Trudy Dothan, a professor at Hebrew University. Today, 14 universities in the United States, Canada and Israel participate in the project, whose goal is to unearth the ancient Philistine city of Ekron.

The Philistines, who may have come from Turkey or the Aegean Islands, settled on the south coast of Canaan, which is ancient Israel, around 1200 B.C. Ekron, which is in the middle of a rich agricultural area, was among their main cities. They also settled several port towns.

For 200 years, Philistine civilization bloomed.

"We know from the excavations that the Philistines had a very high level of culture," Dr. Gittlen said. "They had a high level of knowledge about artisanship. They had wonderful structures, carved ivories and seals, gold and silver ornaments and jewelry."

But the Philistines were also busy skirmishing with the Israelites -- whose biblical accounts of the battles gave their enemies a bad name.

"The Philistines were definitely not an uncultured people," Dr. Gittlen said. "They were not barbarians."

In 1000 B.C., Israel's King David conquered the Philistines, and for the next 1,000 years the Philistine cities were, at different times, controlled by Israel, Judah, Egypt, Babylonia and Syria.

Dr. Gittlen, whose field work is supported by the Herman and Rosa L. Cohen Fund, is primarily interested in the early Philistine period, but his diggings at Ekron made him curious about the later period too.

"Since the beginning of the excavation one thing that has been critical to understanding this particular site as biblical Ekron was the necessity of locating the settlement from the eighth century [B.C.]," Dr. Gittlen said. "Because it is precisely at the end of the eighth century [B.C.] that we find in the annals of Sennacherib, the King of Assyria, and in two Biblical passages, descriptions ... that would have direct impact on Ekron.

"So we were wondering if this really was Ekron."

When archaeologists uncover a site, they often find several layers of civilization built on top of each other. But until this summer, workers at Ekron had unearthed no remains from between the 11th and the seventh centuries B.C. The gap was crucial: If the site was actually biblical Ekron, archaeologists needed proof it had been inhabited in the eighth century B.C., when the Assyrian and biblical passages had been written about Ekron.

The big breakthrough occurred this summer, when Dr. Gittlen's team was removing a sixth-century B.C. building. It was no surprise to find a seventh-century B.C. building underneath. But when they began uncovering that structure's floor, they discovered a thick layer of pebbles shot through with eighth-century B.C. pottery.

The rich cache sparked Dr. Gittlen's thinking: He had believed Ekron expanded in the seventh century B.C. Perhaps, the town had grown earlier than he estimated. He recalled the Assyrian kings who conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and exiled some of the population in 732 B.C. and 721 B.C. Maybe some of those people -- members of the 10 lost tribes -- had settled in Ekron.

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