helmeted-philistine-prisonersA Complex Migration

Did the Philistines get to Canaan by land or by sea? The debate continues.

Authors Tristan Barako and Assaf Yasur-Landau raise fascinating questions regarding the mode of transport used by the Sea Peoples, including the Philistines, during their migrations (“One if by Sea…Two if by Land,” BAR 29-02). A pivotal question is whether Late Bronze/Early Iron Age galleys used by the Sea Peoples—like the one depicted five times on the walls of Ramesses III’s temple at Medinet Habu—could transport a culture and its movables. Barako argues that penteconters (50-oared ships) could be used for this purpose; however, in his response to Yasur-Landau, Barako backs away from this assertion and contends that actually there could have been merchant ships in the fleet (“Philistines Upon the Waters,” BAR 29-04). In doing so he muddies the waters.

Barako then relies on parallels from Egyptian and Syro-Canaanite merchant ships, ignoring the question of how available such ships would have been to the Sea Peoples during their migratory phase. While some Syro-Canaanite ships appear to have been absorbed into the Sea Peoples’ fleet, the case for Egyptian ships being pressed into service is at present nonexistent.

Both authors seem to be unaware of the fact that galleys like penteconters were regularly used for mercantile purposes. This continued from earliest recorded times up to the middle of the 16th century A.D.1 More relevant to this discussion, galleys were pressed into use for the transport of populations, as when the Phocaeans evacuated their homeland in Asia Minor under the imminent threat of conquest by the Persians (Herodotus, Histories, I.164).

Herodotus reports that penteconters were also used for exploration and that triaconters (30-oared ships) served in the colonization of Thera (Herodotus IV-148 and I-163). Finally, we need to remember that even swift-raiding galleys needed sufficient room to haul away the women, children and booty that were normally the main aim of raiding.

Barako postulates a Sea Peoples fleet of 100 ships and argues that such fleets existed in the Bronze Age. True, but again he confuses the issue. While a mega-entity like Ugarit might have had such a large fleet, there is no evidence for fleets of this size among the Sea Peoples. In fact, they appear to have operated in relatively small flotillas. We have reference to two of these in the Tablets from Ugarit- one flotilla consisted of seven and the other of 20 ships.2 We might add to this the 11 Sekel (Tjeker) ships sent by Beder, Prince of Dor, to arrest Wenamun at Byblos.3 These numbers do not seem to have changed much since the Mycenaean Palatial Period- Assuming a total of about 600 rowers in the partially damaged Linear B Pylos Rower tablet AN 610, we again end up with a flotilla of between 12 to 20 ships, depending on whether the oarsmen were to crew penteconters, triaconters or a combination of both.4

So how did the Sea Peoples’ migration take place? My guess is that is was far slower, multi-staged and significantly more complex than either Barako or Yasur-Landau postulates. Ships and ship-based raiding obviously played a significant role. The same flotillas used to carry out raids could at other times be employed in ferrying entire populations through repeated convoys. Heavy items, such as ox-carts, could either be disassembled for shipment or abandoned at the home site to be easily manufactured from available materials upon arrival at the overseas destination.

Let us put this phenomenon within the context of a cultural continuum. We see antecedents of these migrations in the ship-based Mycenaean expansion of the 14th-13th centuries B.C. The homogeneity of the material culture of these outposts of the Mycenaean culture in Crete and the outlying Aegean areas argue persuasively for intense and continuous maritime transport
interconnections. With the devastation of the Greek mainland at the end of the 13th century B.C., migrating Mycenaeans—or Achaeans as they became known—making and using late Helladic IIIC pots, along with other groups that joined common cause with them, created settlements farther afield in Cyprus and in Canaan.5 This quintessentially Greek ship-borne migration of populations, which is a hallmark of Mycenaean seafaring culture, manifested itself again during the period of great overseas colonization by Greeks in the mid-eighth to mid-sixth centuries B.C.6

Assaf Yasur-Landau responds-

As I understand Wachsmann’s comments, he is close to my opinion on the most crucial issue—the lack of evidence for the ability of the Sea People to muster large fleets and to conduct large-scale maritime migration using merchantmen (which are, by the way, very rare or even absent from 13th-and 12th-century Aegean ship iconography). Only two small steps separate Wachsmann’s viewpoint from my view that the Sea Peoples engaged in a land-borne migration-

1. Acknowledging, as I argued in my BAR article, that the maritime population evacuations mentioned by Herodotus were always conducted over very short sea distances and therefore are not good models for a mass migration of the Philistines from the Aegean area to the Levant!

2. Realizing that the migration of the Philistines was not a part of an ongoing “Mycenaean expansion,” a phenomenon of cultural influence through trade, but a product of the collapse of the Mycenaean palaces. The collapse of the Hittite empire, the Syrian states of Ugarit and Amurru, and the transition between the XVIVth and the XXth dynasty in Egypt created a power vacuum that allowed some of the Sea People to move through Anatolia and Syria and to settle in Canaan.

Tristan Barako responds-

No one really knows how large or small the Philistine fleet was. The data given by Shelley Wachsmann on this point are either ambiguous or incomplete. The two flotillas mentioned in Ugaritic texts (RS 20.18 and 20.238), and misleadingly associated with the Sea Peoples, are in fact identified only as “enemy ships.” According to the Tale of Wenamun, Beder did indeed command just 11 ships; however, the same story reports also that Zakar-Baal, the Prince of Byblos, had in his employ a total of 70 ships. As for the Pylian fleet, the “Catalogue of Ships,” which many scholars regard as the oldest pericope in the Iliad, records that King Nestor sent 90 ships to Troy—more than four times the number of vessels deduced on the basis of the An “Rower” tablets alone.

Wachsmann and I are in general agreement on two key issues- both merchantmen and galleys could be used in seaborne migrations, and the Philistine settlement was probably a lengthy and complex process. A close reading of my initial article and rebuttal, as well as my dissertation (which I would gladly make available to interested readers), elucidates these points of view.7

1. Lionel Casson, “Merchant Galleys,” in R. Gardiner and John Morrison, eds., The Age of the Galley- Mediterranean Oared Vessels since Pre-Classical Times (Conway’s History of the Ship) (London- Naval Institute Press, 1995), pp. 117–126.

2. See J. Hoftijzer and W.H. van Soldt, Texts from Ugarit Pertaining to Seafaring, in Shelley Wachsmann, ed., Seagoing Ships and Seamanship in the Bronze Age Levant (College Station, Texas and London- Texas A&M Univ. Press and Chatham Press, 1998), pp. 333–344.

3. William Kelly Simpson, ed., The Literature of Ancient Egypt- An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, and Poetry (New Haven- Yale Univ. Press, 1972), p. 153.

4. J. Chadwick, “The Muster of the Pylian Fleet,” in P.H. Ilievski and L. Crepajac, eds., Tractata Mycenaea (Proceedings of the Eighth International Colloquium on Mycenaean Studies) (Skopje, Yugoslavia, 1987), pp. 75–84.

5. Shelley Wachsmann, “To the Sea of the Philistines,” in Eliezer D. Oren, ed., The Sea Peoples and Their World- A Reassessment (University Museum Monograph 108, Philadelphia- University Museum, 2000), pp. 103–143.

6. John Boardman, The Greeks Overseas- Their Early Colonies and Trade, 4th ed. (Baltimore- Thames & Hudson, 1999).

7. “The Seaborne Migration of the Philistines,” Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 2001.