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The Sea Peoples and Their Contributions to Civilization, Avner Raban and Robert R. Stieglitz, BAR 17:06, Nov-Dec 1991.

relief-showing-a-fleet-of-phoenician-vesselsThe Sea Peoples are unappreciated. This is in part because the most famous of them, the Philistines, received such bad press in the Bible. But the other Sea Peoples—among them the Shardana, Sikila, Lukka and the Danuna—have also been treated poorly, even by scholars, who often blame them for causing the widespread disorder and destruction that occurred throughout the eastern Mediterranean world at the end of the Late Bronze Age (about 1250–1200 B.C.E.a)—for undermining the social, economic and military organization of Bronze Age civilization, and for bringing it to an end.

A famous Egyptian relief has, like the Bible, contributed to the unfavorable light in which the Sea Peoples are viewed—the well-known battle scene between the Egyptians and the Sea Peoples depicted by Ramesses III (1182–1151 B.C.E.) on the walls of his mortuary temple at Medinet Habu (part of the Theban necropolis) in Upper Egypt.

New archaeological data, however, require us to reevaluate this unflattering portrait. Much recent data suggests that the Sea Peoples were a constructive element in the Levant. The fact is that the Sea Peoples brought exciting technological advances to the Canaanite world in which they settled.

That, in short, is the burden of this article.

The battle scene at Medinet Habu depicts a twin encounter—by land and by sea—dating to the eighth year of the reign of Ramesses III, that is, about 1175 B.C.E. Both battles occurred along the coast of Djaby, the ancient Egyptian name for Canaan. The battle, described in an accompanying hieroglyphic text, is also referred to in an important text found near Medinet Habu, known as Papyrus Harris I after its donor. It is now in the British Museum (see the sidebar “What Is Papyrus Harris I?”).

Both the land and the sea battles pictured at Medinet Habu were apparently Egyptian ambushes—that is, surprise attacks by Egyptian military units on a mass of wandering immigrants moving their families along the Mediterranean coast in ox-drawn carts. The immigrants were defended by a formidable fighting force of their own, comprised of both ships and horse-drawn war chariots.

Although Papyrus Harris refers to three types of ships in the Egyptian fleet, only one is shown on the reliefs. The Sea Peoples’ fleet is also represented by only one type—perhaps for the sake of balance. The opposing vessels are very different in shape and in detail, yet their rigging is identical. The wall relief shows the Egyptian fleet preparing to blockade the outlets of the riverine anchorages of the Sea Peoples along the Mediterranean coast, not to keep the invaders out but to prevent their escape into the open sea. Caught stationary and off-guard, without a chance to row away quickly, the Sea Peoples’ fleet is being attacked primarily by archers situated both on land and on the Egyptian fighting ships. According to Papyrus Harris, the Egyptians trapped the enemy “like birds in a net.”1

The Egyptians boasted of having defeated the Sea Peoples and said they allowed their vanquished foe to settle along the Mediterranean coast from Jaffa to Gaza. Most historians, including us, take this latter statement to be an indication that the battle was actually inconclusive. We part company with most historians, however, because we do not blame the Sea Peoples for the many upheavals that occurred in the ancient Near East at this time. Many other groups were also moving through the region, resulting in numerous conflicts.

Regardless of whether the Egyptians did or did not win the battle, the Sea Peoples vessel depicted at Medinet Habu served as a prototype for the well-known Phoenician ship called hippos by the Greeks. The hippos was a popular Iron Age II (1000–586 B.C.E.) coastal and riverine vessel widely used in the Levant; clay models of this type have been found on the Phoenician coast.2 (The Canaanites on the Mediterranean coast became known as Phoenicians in about 1000 B.C.E.). The hippos is also depicted in Assyrian reliefs from about 700 B.C.E. A clay model found in Cyprus dating to Iron Age I (1200–1000 B.C.E.) provides the missing link between the Sea Peoples vessel and the later Phoenician type.3 Thus, the Sea Peoples can be credited with introducing this important vessel to the eastern Mediterranean.

But the most important maritime innovation in the Medinet Habu battle scene is the rigging shown on the ships of both sides. The new rig is revolutionary because, contrary to all earlier designs, the sail is now loose-footed—free of the traditional inflexible lower yardarm. This advanced rig enables the ship to tack into the wind and navigate even in unfavorable wind conditions. Although the rigging appears on both the Egyptian and Sea Peoples vessels, it may well have been a Sea Peoples innovation. It seems clear it was not an Egyptian or a Minoan invention,4 because it is not attested in those regions before 1200 B.C.E. Some scholars believe it was a Canaanite, that is, a Phoenician innovation,5 but it is more likely attributable to the military needs of the Sea Peoples in the Amarna Age (14th–13th centuries B.C.E.) than to the commercial interests of the Phoenicians.

Another new feature in these ships is the crow’s nest. It is portrayed in identical style atop the masts of both the Egyptian and the Sea Peoples ships. The crow’s nest enables the ship to spot approaching enemy vessels or targets. Here, too, considering the military needs of the Sea Peoples, they are the likely innovators.

We believe, therefore, that this new type of ship (the hippos), the innovative rigging and the crow’s nest were all introduced by the Sea Peoples. That these innovations appear on both Sea Peoples and Egyptian ships presents no problem- As early as the 14th century B.C.E. the Sea Peoples served as mercenaries in the Egyptian army.6b It would hardly be surprising to find naval improvements in the Egyptian fleets introduced by the Sea Peoples.

The Sea Peoples were responsible not only for innovations in seafaring vessels, but also for some land-based technological improvements as well. In the 13th century B.C.E., a new architectural element appeared in Canaan—specifically at the coastal site of ancient Ugarit (Ras Shamra, in modern Syria). Claude F. A. Schaeffer, the French archaeologist who directed the excavations at Ugarit,c first identified the new type of stone building block—a squared, dressed stone called an ashlar—attributing it to a new ethnic element that he called the Ashlar Builders. Sometimes the ashlars were decorated with a marginal draft—that is, a smoother edge, or margin, from which the center boss protruded.

Recent excavations have uncovered similar ashlar blocks at Ras Ibn Hani, south of Ugarit, and on Cyprus at Enkomi, Kition and Maa-Palaikastro. These examples can be dated to the 13th century B.C.E. At these sites the ashlar blocks were part of the construction—at least in the lower courses of both religious and secular buildings. Later, in the tenth and ninth centuries B.C.E., this type of construction became the hallmark of Phoenician architecture on the Canaanite coast. Where did the Phoenicians get this style of architecture if not from the Sea Peoples, who came from the Aegean and settled in Canaan at the end of the Late Bronze Age (about 1175 B.C.E.)?7

A few years ago, ashlar buildings and seaside quays were discovered at Tel Dor in Israel.8 The associated pottery indicate a date in the 13th or 12th century B.C.E. These architectural remains were part of the settlement of a tribe of the Sea Peoples called Sikila (or Sikala), well known from several Egyptian texts.9

The Sikila quay at Dor is over 125 feet long and 30 feet wide. Two distinct building phases can be discerned, suggesting a slight rise in sea-level in the second phase.10 The new settlers at Dor apparently brought with them new ideas. They did not utilize the earlier harbor of the Middle and Late Bronze periods, but instead preferred to construct a new harbor, in their own style, with an ashlar quay connected to the city by ashlar platforms running from the shore to an opening in the city fortifications.

A rectangular well, built with ashlar blocks, is associated with this complex; The pottery sherds found in it indicate that the well went out of use about 1050 B.C.E. (a rubble wall also containing pottery sherds was later built on top of the well). The best parallels for the rectangular ashlar well are from a 13th-century B.C.E. settlement on Cyprus (at Hala Sultan Tekke) and an even earlier settlement in Crete (at Kato Zakro).

We can at least tentatively propose that these innovations—the use of ashlars in a well and the rectangular shape of the well—were brought to Dor by the Sea Peoples, via Cyprus. This style of architecture is the forerunner of the prevailing Phoenician maritime style attested in ninth-century quays at Tabbat el-Hammam in Syria, and later at Tyre (in Lebanon) and at Akko and Athlit (on the Israel coast).11

The ultimate source of this architecture can be found on Crete and the Cycladic islands in the Aegean as early as the 18th century B.C.E. A similar quay can be seen in a fresco at Akrotiri, Thera (modern Santorini, in the Mediterranean), dating to the 16th century B.C.E.d

In short, this architecture traveled to Canaan with the Sea Peoples.

Another architectural element that probably came to Canaan with the Sea Peoples is the caphtor. Although we are not sure precisely what it was, a caphtor was probably a type of capital for columns, as indicated by the context in Amos 9-1 and Zephaniah 2-14, where it is usually translated “capital.” Caphtor is also used in connection with the tabernacle menorah, or seven-branched lampstand (Exodus 25-31–36; Exodus 37-17–22), where it is an element of the branches of the menorah. In these passages, caphtor is variously translated as “knop” (King James Version), “ornamental knob” (New King James Version), “bud” (New International Version), “calyx” (New Jewish Publication Society, New English Bible and New Jerusalem Bible) and “capital” (Revised Standard Version). Whatever it is, the reason we believe the caphtor was brought to Canaan by the Sea Peoples is that Caphtor is also the name used in the Bible for the land whence the Philistines came (see Amos 9-7). The ancient Israelites identified Caphtor with the Cretans (anglicized to Cherethites in English translations; see Ezekiel 25-16; Zephaniah 2-5).

Returning to naval matters, another maritime innovation apparently introduced into Canaan by the Sea Peoples was the composite anchor. The earliest anchors were simply stone blocks, pierced to take a hawser (a heavy rope for mooring or towing). In the Late Bronze Age, however, a modified version appeared throughout the Mediterranean world. This new type was a stone pierced with additional holes, usually two, for wooden flukes with which to catch the ground. Instead of having biconical holes (in which the holes were made from both sides of the stone, with the holes becoming smaller towards the middle), as in earlier anchors, the holes of the new anchors were an even width all the way through the stone. Sometimes the holes were rectangular, not round. The exact function of the rectangular holes is still not clear. It may have been connected with a change in the design, or the material, of the flukes that were inserted into them.

The composite stone and wood anchors provided better mooring for a vessel in sandy or muddy sea bottoms than a simple stone weight or a chain of anchors. Composite anchors dated to the 13th and 12th centuries B.C.E. have been uncovered at Ugarit and its harbor, Minet el-Beida (in north Syria), and at Kition.

Several of these anchors have Cypro-Minoan signs incised on them, suggesting a Cypriot origin and not a Cretan one. Indeed, the Aegean does not offer a forerunner to this type of anchor before the Late Helladic era (1400–1150 B.C.E.). It is tempting to suggest, therefore, that this improvement in anchors was also introduced to the Levant by the Sea Peoples during the years 1400 to 1200 B.C.E.
The composite anchor enabled mariners to moor their vessels simply and safely in all types of anchorages—especially in the riverine havens favored by the Sea Peoples. The Cypro-Minoan signs on the anchors indicate that their owners were closely associated with Cypriot culture, probably because of their interest in the wealth of that island. Indeed, the raids of the Sea Peoples on the coasts of Cyprus began in the 14th century B.C.E., long before their confrontation with Ramesses III in 1175 B.C.E.

The incised signs on the composite anchors are just one indication of Sea Peoples literacy. Cypro-Minoanlike signs appear on many of the metal ingots of the Late Bronze Age, both copper and tin. The signs on tin are especially significant; since tin is not found on Cyprus, they probably indicate an active maritime metal trade, most likely connected with the movements of the Sea Peoples (and possibly other Aegean peoples).

These inscribed objects are evidence of an unfortunately neglected aspect of the civilization of the Sea Peoples—their writing system. The Sea Peoples were certainly literate, utilizing an Aegean-type syllabic linear script closely related to Cypro-Minoan systems.e Several Cypro-Minoan script subtypes are now well attested from various Late Bronze Age sites on Cyprus. Unfortunately, scholars have so far been unable to decipher them, and their language remains unknown.

At Ashdod, one of the main Philistine urban centers in Canaan, two inscribed seals were found in Philistine levels (XIII and XII, dated to about 1200 B.C.E.).12 The signs on the seals are very similar to those on the composite anchors, as well as to those on the copper and tin ingots found throughout the eastern Mediterranean.

Cyprus was probably a major source for copper, but not the only one. Tin, whose price at Ugarit in the period 1400–1200 B.C.E. was equal to that of copper,13 must have been obtained from areas close to or on the Levantine coast, as amply attested in numerous texts.14 It certainly was not acquired in such far away markets as Afghanistan or the British Isles, as some far-fetched theories would have it.

According to 1 Samuel 13-19–22, the Philistines had a monopoly on the metal industry in the land of Israel during the reign of Saul (end of the 11th century B.C.E.).f They managed this remarkable feat by preventing the Hebrews from practicing the art of the metalsmith. Even if the Biblical account is exaggerated, it reflects the dominant role played by the Sea Peoples in the metal industry during the Early Iron Age in central Canaan. The Bible portrays the Philistines as being a superior military power, not only in its weaponry, but also in the organization and leadership of its army.

Let us now turn to one other technological innovation introduced by the Philistines. Recent excavations along the Canaanite coast and in the eastern Galilee have brought to light a new type of container, one that differs from its predecessors in the Canaanite ceramic repertoires because it has handles that make it easily portable.

This new container comes in two variants- a pithos of large size, with whitish-buff slip and molded stripes around its neck and upper part; and a large jar with a collar rim in a very grittish ware. Both types are well known from sites on Cyprus; the former from strata associated with the invasion of the Sea Peoples, and the latter from Maa-Palaikastro, Lara and other Cypriot coastal sites of the late 13th century B.C.E.

Both variants sometimes have a knob base, which seems to be a functional element, possibly to stabilize the vessel in the hold of a ship. The containers have been found in the Phoenician-Israelite region at Tyre, Tel Dan, Har Adir and Yabnit in the Galilee, and at Tel Akko, Tel Keisan, Tel Dor, Tel Nami and Tel Apheq near the Phoenician-Israelite coast. They are associated with Mycenaean IIIB and IIIC-1b pottery (1300–1150 B.C.E.), most of them probably coming from Cyprus.

Following the proposals of William F. Albright and Yohanan Aharoni, it is often argued that the collared-rim jar is the first ceramic evidence for the Israelite settlement in Canaan. However, the known distribution of these two types of containers argues against their being Israelite. Nor can we accept the proposal that the handles of these vessels can be explained by the fact that the new settlers, that is, the Hebrews, because they were seminomadic, had to adapt these new containers for easy transport across the countryside.

Instead, the Levantine and Cypriot sites in which these vessels are found are exactly those to which the Sea Peoples traveled! These wanderers, as we have noted, were settlers and/or mercenaries in the eastern regions of the Egyptian empire. The Galilee sites, which would appear at first to be beyond the areas visited by the Sea Peoples, are of particular interest here, especially the finds at Tel Dan.

According to Judges 18-28, the region around Tel Dan was under Sidonian (Phoenician) hegemony, and we can speculate that the local rulers simply recruited mercenaries from elements of the Sea Peoples, who had been stationed by the Egyptians on the coast. This could account for the presence of both the Mycenaean IIIB pottery and the collared-rim jars found at this site. But even more intriguing are the Biblical stories about the peculiar history of the tribe of Dan.

The Danites were originally settled on the coast near Jappa (modern Jaffa) (Joshua 19-40–48). They were then forced inland and wandered north, where they conquered and settled the region of Tel Dan about 1200 B.C.E. (Judges 18-27–29).15 More significantly, the early narratives about this tribe indicate that the Danites were originally not members of the Israelite confederation (Genesis 49-16–17). They seem, rather, to have been connected with a group of the Sea Peoples called Danuna or Denyen in Egyptian sources, and known to the Greeks as the Danaoi.g

If the Biblical Danites in the Galilee were indeed related to the Danuna, their original occupation of the coast near the port of Jaffa and the riverine harbor at Tell Qasile cannot be divorced from the settlement of the Philistines in that part of Canaan. The maritime amphorae found at Tel Dan could thus be a vital clue linking the Danites with the Sea Peoples, hinted at by the textual traditions.
We should note here that the maritime amphorae found at Tel Akko, which are similar to those at Tel Dan, indicate that yet another group of Sea Peoples—but not the Danites—settled in that Canaanite city. It is likely that these were elements of the Shardana people, for none of the Hebrew tribes, according to Judges 1-31, were able to conquer Akio. The presence of these jars at coastal sites south of Akko also suggests a non-Israelite origin for these containers. Indeed, the Cypriot style of the jars at Akko and coastal sites to the south strongly suggests a connection with the Sea Peoples.

Another type of maritime amphora associated with the Sea Peoples is the neckless conical jar. Examples have been found at Dor, in an early 12th-century B.C.E. context, and as part of a ship’s cargo on the bottom of the nearby lagoon of Tantura. This type most likely developed from earlier forms of the Canaanite commercial amphora, with predecessors in Canaan, the Aegean and at El Amarna, in Upper Egypt. But the new variant can be easily distinguished by the complete lack of a neck, the extremely strong shoulders and heavy walls and round base. Its volume is much smaller than that suggested by its external dimensions.

The neckless conical jar would be modified until the eighth century B.C.E., becoming the standard Phoenician vessel for shipping liquids, pickled fish and other produce in the sea-borne international trade.

During Iron Age I (1200–1000 B.C.E.), the Biblical era of the Judges, the two peoples most adversely affected by the military and naval power of the Sea Peoples were the Israelites and the Phoenicians (coastal Canaanites). Paradoxically, they were also primary beneficiaries of the technological innovations introduced into the Levant by the immigrants from the Aegean.
The remarkable 12th-century B.C.E. rebirth of the Phoenician city-states of Sidon, Tyre and Arwad16 was followed by the equally spectacular rise of David’s kingdom. Both of these events should be viewed here in the context of the Sea Peoples’ impact on Canaan. The rise of Israel and Tyre17 can only be appreciated in light of both the destructive and constructive roles played by the Sea Peoples along the coast of Canaan and in its hinterland.

The era of the Judges is also the period when two more Israelite tribes—besides Dan—became involved in maritime affairs, namely, Asher (Judges 5-17) and Zebulun (Genesis 49-13—reflecting, scholars believe, the situation during the time of the Judges). It can hardly be coincidental that both of these tribes were neighbors of the Phoenicians and the Danites.

Throughout this era, the southern tribe of Judah was most directly affected by the superior military power of the Philistines (Judges 14-4), and this situation was only reversed when David, a former military ally of the Philistines, rose to the throne of Israel. It is remarkable that David chose for his personal body guard elite military units from among the Sea Peoples—the Cherethites (Cretans) and Pelethites (name unknown; 2 Samuel 15-18), both evidently recruited at the Philistine city of Gath. In addition to the obvious political advantages—these mercenaries were personally loyal to David and not to any tribal group—they were also the best military men.

Israel, with its new capital at Jerusalem, and the island kingdom of Tyre were the successor states to the military and naval hegemony left vacant by the destruction of Philistine military might by David. It is hardly surprising, then, to find that Hiram of Tyre and King Solomon sought to expand their maritime horizons to lands previously dominated by the Sea Peoples (1 Kings 10-22).

The role of these Aegean immigrants in stimulating the subsequent developments in the Levant was considerable. These newcomers to Canaan, unlike their contemporary migrants—the Israelites and the Arameans (who came from northern Mesopotamia and settled in northeastern Canaan, primarily in and around Damascus)—brought with them new technologies, high standards of urban life, military prowess and a sophisticated maritime heritage. The Sea Peoples were not only a destructive force; they also acted as a catalyst on the coastal and inland cities they controlled militarily. The heritage of these conquerors was not entirely lost. It was perpetuated by their successors on land and on sea—the Israelites and the Phoenicians.

a. B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) and C.E. (Common Era), used by these authors, are the alternate designations corresponding to B.C. and A.D. often used in scholarly literature.

b. But see Bryant G. Wood’s article “The Philistines Enter Canaan,” in this issue, for a different view of the relationship of the Sea Peoples to the Egyptians.—Ed.

c. See Claude F. A. Schaeffer, “The Last Days of Ugarit,” BAR 09-05, also see James M. Robinson, “An Appreciation of Claude Frederic-Armand Schaeffer Forrer (1898–1982),” BAR 9-05.

d. For more on Akrotiri see Christos G. Doumas, “High Art from the Time of Abraham,” BAR 17-01.

e. See Lawrence E. Stager, “When Canaanites and Philistines Ruled Ashkelon,” BAR 17-02.

f. James D. Muhly, “How Iron Technology Changed the Ancient World and Gave the Philistines a Military Edge,” BAR 08-06.

g. Yigael Yadin, “Danaans and Danites,” BAR 02-02. See also Yadin’s “And Dan, Why Did He Remain in Ships?” Australian Journal of Biblical Archaeology 1 (1968), pp. 9–23 and Lawrence E. Stager, “When Canaanites and Philistines Ruled Ashkelon,” BAR 17-02.

1. James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts (ANET) (Princeton, NJ- Princeton Univ. Press, 1955), p. 263.

2. A. Goettlicher, Materialien für ein Corpus der Schiffsmidelle im Altertum (Mainz, Ger.- Philipp von Zabern, 1978).

3. Robert R. Stieglitz, “An Ancient Terra-Cotta Ship from Cyprus,” Sefunim 4 (1972–1975), pp. 42–44.

4. Lionel Casson, Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World (Princeton, NJ- Princeton Univ. Press, 1971), p. 37.

5. Shelley Wachsmann, “The Ships of the Sea Peoples,” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology (IJNA) 10 (1981), pp. 187–220.

6. Elisha Linder, “Naval Warfare in the El-Amarna Age,” in Marine Archaeology, ed. D. Blackman (London- Butterworths Scientific Publications, 1973).

7. The suggestion that Ugaritic refugees imported this technique to Cyprus, after the destruction of their homeland by the conflicts with the Sea Peoples, is not as attractive as the proposal that the Aegean immigrants were the ones who brought this style with them to the Levant (N.K. Sandars, The Sea Peoples [New York- Thames and Hudson, 1978], p. 153). The Sea Peoples presumably derived this technique from Middle Minoan prototypes on Crete.

8. Avner Raban, “The Ancient Harbours of Israel in Biblical Times,” in Harbor Archaeology, ed. Raban, BAR International Series 257 (Oxford- British Archaeological Reports, 1985), pp. 11–44.

9. See the report of Wen-Amon, in Pritchard, ANET, pp. 25–29.

10. Raban, “The Constructive Maritime Role of the Sea Peoples in the Levant,” in Society and Economy in the Eastern Mediterranean (c. 1500–1000 B.C.), ed. M. Heltzer and E. Lipinski, Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 23 (Louvain, Belg.- Peeters 1988), p. 273).

11. The link between the quay at Dor and the Phoenician maritime style may be found in the ashlars in public structures in Kition and at Dor throughout the 12th and 11th centuries B.C.E. The walls of slim ashlar headers found at Dor have a close parallel at Ras Ibn Hani.

12. Stieglitz, “Described Seals from Tel Ashdod- The Philistine Script?” Kadmos 16 (1977) p. 97.

13. Stieglitz, “Commodity Prices at Ugarit,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 99 (1979) pp. 15–23.

14. Raban and Ehud Galili, IJNA 14 (1985) pp. 326–329.

15. Avraham Biran, “The Collared-rim Jars and the Settlement of the Tribe of Dan,” Bulletin of American Schools of Oriental Research, 1989, 49-71–96.

16. Stieglitz, “Early Iron Age Geopolitics,” Archaeology 43, March/April 1990.

17. Benjamin Mazar “The Philistines and the Rise of Israel and Tyre,” in The Israel Academy of Science and Humanity Proceedings 1/7 (1964) pp. 1–22.

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