Historical Philistines were not philistines, archaeologists say

September 29, 1992|By John Noble Wilford | John Noble Wilford,New York Times News Service

After all these centuries of calumny, the Philistines are finally having some good things said about them. They were not, it seems, deserving of that withering epithet: Philistine.

Archaeologists are uncovering increasing evidence that the Philistines, arch foes of the Israelites in biblical times whose name became synonymous with barbarity and boorishness, were actually creators of fine pottery and grand architecture, clever urban planners and cosmopolitan devotees of the grape. If anything, the Israelites, at the time mostly shepherds and farmers in the hills, were the less-sophisticated and less-cultured folk.

In excavations this summer among the ruins of Ashkelon on Israel's Mediterranean coast, archaeologists from Harvard University came upon the revealing remains of the Philistine city as it was on the day of its destruction by King Nebuchadnezzar's Babylonian army in 604 B.C. They found inscribed pottery, stone altars, buildings and rooms of handsome design and advanced construction techniques, and a wine press that belies the lingering image of the Philistines as a loutish, beer-drinking people.

The wine press is said to be similar to the work of Roman artisans.

"One could not imagine a finer craftsmanship than what we see in these last stages of Philistine life," said Lawrence E. Stager, a Harvard archaeologist and leader of the Leon Levy Expedition at Ashkelon.

Other excavations reinforce this new assessment of Philistine culture and extend it back to their first appearance in the Middle East, around 1175 B.C.

Evidence of copper smelting in Philistine cities in Cyprus indicates a technology that anticipated Rome in this field by more than 1,000 years.

At Ekron, the ruins of another Philistine city in the south of present-day Israel, archaeologists have discovered that the Philistines were making pottery with imaginative red and black motifs, when the early Israelites were using crude, unpainted pottery.

Two Israeli archaeologists, Trude Dothan and Moshe Dothan of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, say that, from their 30 years of investigations, a picture has emerged indicating that the Philistines were great traders, master builders and among the most civilized peoples of their time. The Philistines' influence in bringing culture to the region was probably considerable.

In their book "People of the Sea," to be published next month by Macmillan, the Dothans write: "As the complexity of Philistine culture has become evident, so has the vital role that the Philistines played in the cultural and political development of

the region throughout the biblical period."

Indeed, scholars think the new findings may have solved the mystery of the Philistines' origins. They were among the enigmatic Sea People who arrived in the Levant in the 12th

century B.C. But where had they come from?

Excavations at several of these Philistine cities have revealed that their red-and-black ceramics bear a striking resemblance to the styles of the Mycenaean Greeks. This was not imported pottery, because recent analysis shows that it was made with local clays.

Also, loom weights found at Philistine cities are similar to those dug up at Mycenae and other Greek sites by the great 19th century archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann.

Based on the archaeological evidence, mainly the Greek-style pottery, Mr. Stager concluded last year in an article in the Biblical Archaeology Review: "Throwing caution to the wind, I am willing to state flatly that the Sea Peoples, including the Philistines, were Mycenaean Greeks."

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