The Philistines; an Aegean population

It has been a few years since the discovery of a Philistine cemetery in Ashkelon, Israel, that would hopefully give more answers about their origins. This post summarizes information from the latest official announcements. 


Before proceeding with the newer info, we suggest a read of our older article on the Aegean (Mycenean) origin of the Philistines:


Abstract From 2013 to 2016, the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon excavated an Iron Age IIA cemetery immediately adjacent to the ancient city. This research uncovered over 200 individuals buried in simple pits, built tombs, and cremation jars. The discovery represents a fundamental contribution to the history of the Philistines, as it demonstrates, for the first time, a typical burial practice for Philistine adults in the Iron Age. As such, it becomes a type-site against which other southern Levantine discoveries can be compared and provides new information about Iron Age death and burial in the eastern Mediterranean.

(Source: “The Philistine Cemetery of Ashkelon”, by Daniel M. Master, Adam J. Aja)


Abstract The paper surveys and discusses the updated archaeological evidence for Philistine cult and religion, and cult and religion in Philistia during the Iron Age. The evidence can be related to public or official cult, represented in temple and shrine structures, and to that coming from households, representing possibly more popular religion. The evidence of public cult, so far mostly from peripheral sites, includes largely cultural elements linked with the local Canaanite cult and religion. Yet, within households at the Philistine cities there is more evidence for cultic elements of Aegean affinity during Iron Age I. In particular, figurines and ceramic figurative vessels and objects will be discussed. It seems that the Philistine religion may have retained certain distinctive elements also during Iron Age II. Nevertheless, it is still difficult to reconstruct the details of the nature of the Philistine religion due to the limited amount of evidence and lack of textual records.


Introduction The evidence regarding Philistine cult and religion includes several biblical and extra-biblical references, but mainly archaeological evidence from excavation in sites of Iron Age Philistia.

The Philistine material culture can be considered to be one of the most typical examples where a distinct material culture appears in a limited geographical and chronological context (Dothan 1982). This culture reflects the arrival of new population from the West to the southern coast of Israel as it includes components which are not found in the Late Bronze Age and early Iron Age local cultures of the southern Levant, showing links to the Aegean region and Cyprus; thus, probably indicating the arrival of immigrant population during the beginning of the 12th century BCE (e.g., Dothan1982; Yasur-Landau 2010; Ben-Shlomo 2010, 2014). During the subsequent stages of the Iron Age, late Iron Age I, and Iron Age II, the material culture of Philistia changes and many of the elements attesting to links with the West disappear. Yet, Philistia maintains a degree of political and cultural independence and distinction (see, e.g., Ehrlich 1996; Shai 2006) and, thus, it seems justified to continue and treat the material culture of Philistia throughout the Iron Age as a well-defined cultural unit.


Iron Age II temples or shrines in Philistia In a recent publication (Dagan et al. 2018), two temples dated to late Iron Age I and Iron Age II A were reported from Gath. While most cultic objects belong to Stratum D3 (Iron Age II A, destroyed by Hazael, ca. 830 BCE), the area was used for cultic activities also during Stratum D4 (late Iron Age I) and may be even Stratum D5 (Iron Age I B). The complete plan of the Stratum D4 temple is not known, yet it is comprised of two elongated rooms lined by three pillars oriented north to south, and a third elongated room on its eastern side (Dagan et al. 2018); the entrance was on the south and led to an open courtyard. Among the finds of note from the building is the assemblage of seventeen votive ceramic vessels and a “Tonna Galea” conch shell (Dagan et al. 2018), the latter well known as a cultic object from the Aegean Bronze Age cultures (Hitchcock et al. 2016).

The Yavneh favissa included at least 120 figurative house models or cultic stands depicting arich iconographic world (Kletter et al. 2010). Other finds included over 1000 chalices, shovels, and few other stands and figurative vessels and hardly any figurines. This favissa reflects the furnishing of a nearby temple, probably at Tel Yavneh. The main themes appearing include naked females sometimes standing on lions, bulls, lions as architectural supporters, and the palm tree flanked by two ibexes. Also appearing are musicians in groups and individuals. All these are very distinctive and important Canaanite and Levantine iconographic and religious motifs (Keel and Uehlinger 1998; Ziffer and Kletter 2007). Moreover, the bird motif which is a popular Philistine motif (Dothan 1982; Yasur-Landau 2008), appearing in various media (pottery decoration, figurative pottery, ivories), is absent from the Yavneh assemblage. However, the style of the depictions, especially the human ones, recalls Philistine iconography, as appearing in Aegean-style figurines, Iron Age II figurines and the musicians stand from Ashdod, which also shares the theme (Ziffer and Kletter 2007; Ben-Shlomo and Press 2009, pp. 41, 58).

The most important temple in Iron Age Philistia so far is the monumental temple-palace structure of Stratum IC dated to the 7th century BCE at Ekron.

The most important find in this structure is the royal inscription found on its cela (Gitin
and Naveh 1997; Gitin 2003, pp. 284–86, Figure 3). It reads: “The house (which) Akhayush (Ikausu/Achish), son of Padi, son of Ysd, son of Ada, son of Ya’ir, ruler (sar) of Ekron, built for Pythogaia (Ptgyh), his lady. May she bless him, and protect him, and prolong his days, and bless his land.” This inscription mentioning explicitly a goddess of Ekron which is clearly non-Semitic and probably with Aegean affinities*°.


*°[NovoScriptorium: The name ‘Pythogaia’ is certainly a greek name. The other names could be equally of greek origin but unrecognisably corrupted, which makes it difficult to identify. Only the name Akhayush (Ikausu/Achish) seems to be recognisable, even in a bit of disguise; Achaeos or Achaeus (Αχαιός in greek)]

The Iron Age I: Aegean-style figurines One of the most important pieces of evidence for Philistine domestic cult practices is the Aegean-style figurines appearing in Ekron, Ashdod, and Ashkelon during Iron Age I (Ben-Shlomo and Press 2009). While these finds are not very common, they are important both because of their links to Aegean and Mycenaean culture, and as they seem to be the only type of human figurines appearing in Iron Age I Philistine households. These depictions of clothed or partly clothed females are highly schematic in comparison to the naturalistic and nude Levantine and Canaanite tradition of plaque female figurines appearing during the late 2nd and early 1st millennium BCE (which the former replace in the Philistine cities). Three major types include standing, ‘Psi-related’ female figurines, seated female figurines, and decorated bovine figurines. Psi figurines (Ben-Shlomo and Press 2009) depict a schematic standing female with its hands uplifted (for the Mycenaean prototype, see Furumark 1941; French 1971). This type of figurine appears at Tel Ashdod (Dothan and Ben-Shlomo 2005), Ekron (Ben-Shlomo and Press 2009) and Ashkelon (Ben-Shlomo and Press 2009, Stager et al. 2008; Press 2012) (Schmitt 1999), and a surface find from Tell Qasile (Mazar 1986). Various narrow heads with bird-shaped faces may also belong to this type (Ben-Shlomo and Press 2009), while shorter heads with a concave ‘polos ’hat (or hair-dress) may belong to seated female figurines or other unknown types of figurines. Several examples preserve the painted decoration depicting the dress and including horizontal lines and an X-shaped strap on the back or a hatched pattern appearing on the front of a figurine, as seen in an example from Ashdod (Ben-Shlomo and Press 2009). This decoration recalls similar Late Helladic (LH) IIIC figurines (Ben-Shlomo and Press 2009; Ben-Shlomo 2014), and indicates that the Philistines had a knowledge of the details of the LHIIIC figurines.

The Ashdoda figurine shows in its form a mixture of Aegean and Canaanite features (Brug 1985), yet its concept originates from Mycenaean seated female figurines (French 1971; Dothan 1982). According to the evidence from Ekron, Ashdod, and Ashkelon, this type of  figurine does not appear before the latter part of the 12th century BCE, nor does it appear in the typical Philistine Monochrome decoration or fabric (the figurines are either decorated in Philistine Bichrome style or undecorated).


Other Iron Age I zoomorphic figurines The Aegean-style figurines from Philistia probably represent domestic cultic activities of Philistine immigrants, who retained elements of the religion of their motherland; the argument is based both on the contexts of these finds in Philistia, and on those of similar finds in the LHIIIC Aegean (Ben-Shlomo and Press 2009). This evidence does not seem to indicate the presence or activities of an elite or priesthood class originating from a palatial Mycenaean society (related to the ‘wanax-hearth’ ideology), but rather indicates non public activities of a non elite population. Analysis of numerous immigrant societies has shown that usually migrants do not belong either to the highest strata of society, neither to the lowest (see Berry 1997; Burmeister 2000); they often are constituted from various groups of medium socioeconomic strength in their origin society. Thus, it may not be surprising that the Aegean elite affiliated palatial cultural elements are not evident so far in the Philistine culture. Burmeister has indicated that, when dealing with reflection of immigrants on material culture, more emphasis should be given to domestic daily practices and assemblages rather than to public, or burial ones (Burmeister 2000). It should be noted, however, that no clear public temple context was yet excavated from the Philistine main cities.


Discussion As noted, the royal inscription from 7th century Ekron also mentions a goddess of a probable Aegean name: Ptgyh, king Ikausu’s ‘lady’ (note, Potnia in the Mycenaean world = lady). Ptgyh has been associated with the sanctuary at Delphi known as Pytho, the shrine of Gaia, the Mycenean Mother Goddess. This goddess is mentioned as the local king’s ‘lady’ in the royal inscription found in the very cela of the large temple complex of Iron Age IIC Ekron. This is indeed the ‘smoking gun’ indicated in regards to evidence of late Iron Age Philistine religion, probably linking it with the western origin of the immigrants, arriving at the Levantine coast some 600 years earlier.

Both the evidence from Ekron and the Assyrian depiction may indicate a late Philistine cult combining Aegean and Canaanite gods.

(Source: “Philistine Cult and Religion According to Archaeological Evidence”, by David Ben-Shlomo)


Geographical and chronological setting The region of Philistia is defined here as the coastal strip and inner coastal plains lying between Nahal Gerar (or the modern Egyptian border) in the southwest and the Yarkon River in the north. This region is about 70km long and 27km wide in the south, narrowing to 15km in the north; its eastern boundary can be defined topographically as the area west of the foothills of the Judean Shephelah. The chronological transition between the Iron I and Iron II in southern Palestine is not always sharply defined, and it is therefore constructive to add another short horizon, which could be defined as the transitional Iron I–Iron IIA. The Iron IIA is seen as a relatively long period of 150–200 years; the latter Iron Age (Iron IIB–C) is also about 200 years long, and can be divided into an earlier, Iron IIB and later Iron IIC phase, ending in the Babylonian destructions around 600 BCE.


Historical Sources Only few external sources refer to Philistia during the Iron IIA, while the historicity of the abundant biblical reports on collisions between kings Saul and David and the Philistines during this period is debatable. In Adad-Nirari III ‘Calah Slab’ of the end of the 9th century BCE Philistia is mentioned among several states sending him tribute (Shai 2006 : 355), and thus is treated as an integral political entity. Most other external texts dealing directly with the Philistine city states are dated to the 8th–7th centuries, and relate to the Assyrian rule in Philistia, which started afer Tiglath-pileser III’s campaign in 734 BCE (Tadmor 1966). The absence of Philistia from Iron II Egyptian sources stands in contrast to the Iron I. It seems that the Philistines cities preserved a degree of independence under the Assyrian rule as tribute-bearing states. The trade between the Philistine cities (Gaza, Ashkelon, and Ashdod), the southern Egyptian delta, and the northern Phoenician ports (as Byblos, Arvad, Tyre, and Sidon) probably benefited the Assyrian interest (Tadmor 1966; Master 2003). The participation of the Philistine cities in campaigns, either against Judah or in revolts against Assyria, is minimal during the initial years of the Assyrian rule. It is also mentioned that Uzziah, king of Judah (785–733 BCE ), made war against the Philistines, destroyed the walls of Gath and Ashdod, and built cities in the territories of Ashdod (2 Chr. 26:6); this passage shows the strength of Ashdod during the 8th century. During the reign of Sargon II there were several rebellions against Assyria, probably with some Egyptian support. In 722/721 King Hanun of Gaza joined such a rebellion with other cities, and was suppressed by Sargon in 720 BCE . The siege of Ekron by Sargon II is depicted on his palace walls at Dur-Sharukkin. In 712 BCE Yamani replaced the king of Ashdod and revolted against the Assyrians. Yamani is mentioned as a ‘Greek’, as his name is reminiscent of the term ‘Greek’ in Semitic languages. As retaliation Sargon II attacked the city in 712, leaving a basalt victory stele (Dothan 1971 : 192–7).

(Source: “Philistia during the Iron Age II Period”, by David Ben-Shlomo)


Introduction It is agreed upon today by almost all scholars that the Philistine material culture reflects the arrival of a new population from the west on the southern coast of Israel. The Philistine material culture can be considered one of the best examples of historical records (both biblical and extra-biblical) combining with the appearance of a distinct material culture in a limited geographical and chronological context in the archaeology and history of the Levant (Dothan 1982). In addition to the decorated Philistine pottery and various small finds such as terracottas, metals, and other items, the Philistine material culture is also characterized by distinct dietary and cooking traditions (e.g., Ben-Shlomo et al. 2008). The latter include the use of special cooking facilities (the hearths), special cooking vessels (the cooking jug), and an increase in the use of pigs as well as other specific foods (see Ben-Shlomo et al. 2008 for further references). Therefore, the appearance of the Philistines may indeed be considered as a good example of the “pots and people” connection. All these components are not found in the Late Bronze Age and early Iron Age local cultures of the southern Levant and are links to the Aegean region and Cyprus, thus marking the arrival of an immigrant population during the beginning of the 12th century BCE. During the subsequent stages of the Iron Age—the late Iron Age I and the Iron Age II—Philistia maintained a degree of political and cultural independence (see, e.g., Ehr lich 1996; Stern 2001; Gitin 2003; Ben-Shlomo et al. 2004; Shai 2006) and it thus seems justified to continue to treat the material culture of Philistia throughout the Iron Age as a well-defined cultural unit.

Aegean-Style Figurines Some of the most important evidence for Philistine domestic cult practices is the Aegean-style figurines appearing in Ekron, Ashdod, and Ashkelon during the Iron I (Ben-Shlomo and Press 2009). Although these finds are not very common, they are important both because of their links to Aegean and Mycenaean culture and because they seem to be the only type of human figurines appearing in Iron Age I Philistine households. These depictions of clothed or partly clothed females are highly schematic in comparison to the naturalistic and nude Levantine and Canaanite tradition of plaque female figurines appearing during the late 2nd and early 1st millennium BCE. (which the former replace in the Philistine cities). Three major types have been described: standing, “Psi-related” female figurines, seated female figurines (“Ashdoda”), and decorated bovine figurines.

Another type of Aegean-style figurine, appearing so far only in the earliest Iron I levels at Ekron, is the decorated bovine figurine (Ben-Shlomo and Press 2009). Decorated zoomorphic figurines are not known otherwise in the early Iron Age southern Levant. The most complete example was found on the east slope of the acropolis in Stratum VIIA. Parallels come from Tiryns (Weber-Hiden 1990), Phylakopi (French 1985), and LC IIIA Enkomi (Dikaios 1971). Other decorated bovine figurines of similar style were found on Cyprus, probably locally made, and include examples from Maa-Palaeokastro (Karageorghis and Demas 1988), Enkomi (Dikaios 1971), and Sinda (Furumark and Adelman 2003). Although there are similarities between Aegean-style bovine figurines from Philistia and Cyprus, it should be noted that the origin of this type is in Mycenaean culture, and it appears in both these areas only during the 12th century BCE. The fact that Aegean-style bovine figurines have been found so far only at the earliest levels at Ekron may indicate that the practices that related to these figurines (probably cultic) were less widespread among the Philistines than those related to the female figurines (see Ben-Shlomo and Press 2009).

(Source: “Philistine Cult and Household Religion according to the Archaeological Record”, by David Ben-Shlomo)

Excavation of the Philistine Cemetery at Ashkelon

Abstract The ancient Mediterranean port city of Ashkelon, identified as “Philistine” during the Iron Age, underwent a marked cultural change between the Late Bronze and the early Iron Age. It has been long debated whether this change was driven by a substantial movement of people, possibly linked to a larger migration of the so-called “Sea Peoples.” Here, we report genome-wide data of 10 Bronze and Iron Age individuals from Ashkelon. We find that the early Iron Age population was genetically distinct due to a European-related admixture. This genetic signal is no longer detectible in the later Iron Age population. Our results support that a migration event occurred during the Bronze to Iron Age transition in Ashkelon but did not leave a long-lasting genetic signature.


Introduction Within the history of the Eastern Mediterranean, the end of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age were marked by exceptional cultural disarray that followed the demise of prosperous economies and cultures in Greece, Egypt, the Levant, and Anatolia. During the 12th century BCE, coincident with these events, substantive cultural changes appeared in the archeological record of Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Ekron, three of the five core cities mentioned as “Philistine” in the Hebrew bible. These settlements were distinct from neighboring sites in architectural traditions and material culture. Resemblances between the new cultural traits and 13th century patterns found in the Aegean have led some scholars to explain this so-called “Philistine phenomenon” by a migration from an Aegean-related source, potentially associated with the “Sea Peoples,” a population that is thought to have settled in other parts of the coastal Eastern Mediterranean. This hypothesis has been challenged by those arguing that this cultural change was driven by a diffusion of knowledge or internal development of ideas rather than by a large-scale movement of people. Even for those who do accept the idea of large-scale mobility, the homeland of the new arrivals is disputed with suggested alternatives including Cyprus or Cilicia, a mixture of non-Aegean east Mediterranean peoples, and mixed heterogeneous maritime groups, akin to pirates. Proposed links go as far as northern Italy where depopulation events have been suggested to trigger population movements throughout the Mediterranean.

Recent ancient DNA (aDNA) studies have reported a high degree of genetic continuity in the Levant during the late Pleistocene and early Holocene that was followed by increasing population admixtures with Anatolian- and Iranian-related populations at least up to the Middle Bronze Age. Genome-wide data from Late Bronze and Iron Age populations have, so far, not been available for this region.

Here, we report genome-wide data from human remains excavated at the ancient seaport of Ashkelon, forming a genetic time series encompassing the Bronze to Iron Age transition. We find that all three Ashkelon populations derive most of their ancestry from the local Levantine gene pool. The early Iron Age population was distinct in its high genetic affinity to European-derived populations and in the high variation of that affinity, suggesting that a gene flow from a European-related gene pool entered Ashkelon either at the end of the Bronze Age or at the beginning of the Iron Age. Of the available contemporaneous populations, we model the southern European gene pool as the best proxy for this incoming gene flow. Last, we observe that the excess European affinity of the early Iron Age individuals does not persist in the later Iron Age population, suggesting that it had a limited genetic impact on the long-term population structure of the people in Ashkelon.


Discussion By investigating genome-wide data from Ashkelon, we address long-pending historical questions regarding the demographic developments underlying the Late Bronze Age to Iron Age cultural transformation. On a larger regional scale, these data begin to fill a temporal gap in the genetic map of the southern Levant, revealing persistence of the local Levantine gene pool throughout the Bronze Age for over a millennium. At the same time, by the “zoomed-in” comparative analysis of the Ashkelon genetic time transect, we find that the unique cultural features in the early Iron Age are mirrored by the distinct genetic composition we detect in ASH_IA1. Our analysis suggests that this genetic distinction is due to a European-related gene flow introduced in Ashkelon during either the end of the Bronze Age or the beginning of the Iron Age. This timing is in accord with estimates of the Philistines arrival to the coast of the Levant, based on archeological and textual records. We find that, within no more than two centuries, this genetic footprint introduced during the early Iron Age is no longer detectable and seems to be diluted by a local Levantine-related gene pool*¹.

(Source: “Ancient DNA sheds light on the genetic origins of early Iron Age Philistines”, by Michal Feldman et al.)


NovoScriptorium: We are of the opinion that the conclusion is more than just an exaggeration. Such an absolute point cannot be made when we are talking about examination of a few DNA samples from a given region.  Archaeology does not seem to support a total vanishing of the Philistine original population in just two centuries. The most reasonable thing to say, after weighing all the available evidence, is that:

a) the Philistines must have come from the Aegean

b) most likely they were of Mycenean background

c) they created colonies in modern-day Israel

d) they mixed with the locals

e) ongoing, a ‘new culture’ was produced, of both Aegean and Levantine backgrounds

f) eventually, the Aegean background influences vanished completely. The population of Philistines was absorbed, both culturally and genetically, by the locals who, reasonably, must have been many more in numbers.


According to the Bible, the Philistines were described as being quite powerful militarily and economically, with many -organized- cities to rule. With this in mind, we are lead to the following conclusions:

i) the Philistines were already present many years in the Levantine when the events described in the Bible took place. Otherwise, they couldn’t have possibly achieved such a status and they wouldn’t have built so many new and prosperous cities

ii) a population of immigrants is hardly ever on the ‘strong’ side when entering a foreign society. Therefore, we must either accept that the Myceneans/Aegeans already had some strong relation with the Levantine (either with locals or with some older colony of theirs) which made it easier to set a foot there more convincingly, or we must derive that when they moved to the Levantine they were very strong militarily and actually they conquered territories from the locals.

The first hypothesis seems to be supported from various archaeological finds; the Myceneans were trading heavily with the Levantine centuries before the 12th century BC. An earlier colony cannot be excluded. Of course, backed by the very strong centre in the Aegean, the Mycenean empire.

The second hypothesis would indicate that the movement to the Levantine couldn’t have possibly taken place after the collapse of the Mycenean empire. The suggested emergence of the Philistines in the Levantine in the 12th century directly proposes the theory of ‘poor and weak immigrants’ moving from their older collapsed centre. Their apparent power though has nothing to do with ‘poor and weak immigrants’. Therefore, the movement must have taken place before the collapse of the Mycenean empire.

In both cases, we are convinced that further excavations will one day prove that the Philistines/Aegeans were present in the Levantine much earlier than the 12th century BC.


Research-Selection-Comments for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides

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