people-of-the-sea-coverPeople of the Sea- The Search for the Philistines

Trude Dothan and Moshe Dothan

(New York- Macmillan; Toronto- Maxwell Macmillan Canada; New York, Oxford, Singapore, Sydney- Maxwell Macmillan International, 1992) 276 pp., 32 color plates, unnumbered black-and-white photos, drawings, maps, $25.00 ($32.50 Canada)

Giving Goliath His Due- New Archaeological Light on the Philistines

Neal Bierling

(Grand Rapids MI- Baker Book House, 1992) 281 pp., unnumbered photos, maps, charts, $16.99, paper

For more than 3,000 years, the Philistines have suffered from bad press. Depicted as the archetypal villains in the Bible for their constant conflicts with the Israelites, they also endured media bashing by the Egyptians, who included them among the “Sea peoples,” or bands of foreign marauders, who had the temerity to attempt an invasion of Egypt in the early 12th century B.C. So pervasive was the evil reputation acquired by the Philistines that by the 17th century their very name could be used as an insult, and even today it is still used to denote one who is boorish, barbarous or uncultured.

Despite this bad rap, or perhaps because of it (since everyone loves a good villain), a great deal of scholarly energy has been expended over the years in trying to answer some basic questions about the Philistines- Who were they? Where did they come from? Why did they happen to settle in Canaan (a land to which their name—Palestine—was eventually given) at almost the same time that the Israelites were also establishing a foothold? How did they live? And could their material culture—the remnants of their daily lives—be distinguished archaeologically from those of their neighbors, the Israelites, Canaanites and other Sea Peoples? These two recent books, both intended for the archaeologically literate general reader, attempt to deal with these questions from somewhat different perspectives.

People of the Sea- The Search for the Philistines is an eminently readable, generously illustrated, handsomely laid out and highly personal account by two distinguished Israeli archaeologists whose life work has been devoted to elucidating Philistine culture and the history of their settlement in Palestine. Their focus is to explore the evidence for the Philistines as a people in their own right, not just as enemies of the Israelites. As Moshe Dothan makes clear, “our excavations were not intended to ‘prove’ biblical contentions. Our intentions were … to study Philistine culture from another perspective entirely” (p. 159).

The book is divided into six sections and a brief epilogue. After an initial, jointly written section in which the scholarly and historical background to the problem is set forth, the two authors alternate in telling us of their early studies and archaeological fieldwork, culminating in the major excavations by Moshe Dothan at Ashdod and by Trude Dothan, together with Seymour Gitin, at Tel Miqne, believed to be the site of Philistine Ekron.a Both Ashdod and Ekron were among the five capital cities of the Philistines, and both sites have yielded remarkable finds that, together with results from other sites discussed in the book, have contributed greatly to our understanding of all aspects of Philistine culture.

Probably the Dothans’ most significant contribution to the problem of Philistine origins is the detailed elucidation of their strong Aegean roots. As early as the 18th century, attempts had been made on linguistic grounds to associate Caphtor, the Biblical homeland of the Philistines, with the island of Crete. The Dothans and other recent scholars, however, have finally placed the association between the Late Bronze Age Aegean and the Early Iron Age Philistines on firm archaeological footing. The Mycenaean affinities of Philistine pottery have long been recognized, but it is only through the excavations at Ashdod, Ekron and now also at Ashkelonb that the connection can be traced.

Philistine pottery is now shown to derive from Late Bronze Age Mycenaean pottery via a transitional type of pottery known as Mycenaean IIIC1-b ware, characteristic of the early 12th century B.C. and found at Ashdod, Ashkelon and Ekron and at other sites in Cyprus, Syria and Palestine. This distribution seems to mark the path of Aegean raiders and/or refugees caught up in the general melee that we know as the “Sea Peoples era.” Mycenaean IIIC1-b pottery is still Aegean in style, but scientific analysis shows it to have been locally made at or near the places where it is found. This ware is closely related in form and decoration to the somewhat later pottery that we know as “Philistine.” As pointed out by the Dothans in their epilogue, it is still controversial whether the local makers of Mycenaean IIIC1-b pottery should already be considered Philistines, who gradually developed “Philistine” pottery out of their earlier style after settling in Canaan, or whether there were two “waves” of immigrants—the first an unnamed group of Sea Peoples who made Mycenaean IIIC1-b ware, the second the true Philistines. What does seem clear is that the Philistines’ ties to the Mycenaean culture of the Bronze Age Aegean were close, and this can now be demonstrated not only through pottery but also through a host of other aspects of material culture, from votive figurines to loomweights to building techniques, all amply illustrated and clearly discussed in this book.

If the Dothans’ book represents the memoirs of a couple of pros looking back over a lifetime of scholarship and excavation devoted to advancing knowledge of the Philistines on all fronts, Giving Goliath His Due by Neal Bierling reads like the expanded term paper of a diligent graduate student—well versed on the issues, but presenting them primarily as a digest of the secondary literature, rather than as the result of firsthand experience. Although he has participated in excavations (he is a staff member on the Tel Miqne-Ekron Expedition) and covers much the same ground as the Dothans, his main focus is the Biblical text. In contrast to the Dothans, who use the Bible as one strand among many to illuminate the life and times of a previously misunderstood people, Bierling uses archaeological findings to clarify the Bible.

Like the Dothans, Bierling accepts the Aegean background of the Philistines. He points out—as have the Dothans, Stager and other scholars—numerous similarities between the account of the Trojan war and its aftermath as narrated by Homer, the great Greek poet of the eighth century B.C., and many of the episodes concerning the Philistines as related in the Bible. Bierling, however, has a tendency to take both the Bible and Homer as literal reflections of the times they depict. He thus appears unaware that certain issues, such as the function of iron mentioned in several passages of the Iliad, are controversial and possibly anachronistic, reflecting more the practices of Homer’s own time than that of the Bronze Age heroes the poem celebrates.c They thus cannot be used as evidence for Aegean influence on Philistine metal technology, although such evidence may exist in other spheres. Bierling, in fact, pushes the Aegean-Philistine analogy so far that he falls into anachronism himself, as when he refers to the “city-state mentality” of the Philistines of Ekron “as found in their former homes in the Aegean” (p. 136), when in fact, the polis, or Greek city-state, is not characteristic of Bronze Age Greece but only developed several hundred years later.

While there is still much to be learned about the Philistines, both books contain a wealth of information showing conclusively that, far from being the uncouth boors of modern stereotype, the Philistines developed a rich, complex and cosmopolitan urban culture with links to Egypt, Cyprus and, above all, the Aegean. If you have to pick just one to read, however, the Dothans’ book, with its numerous high-quality illustrations, and especially its sense of firsthand discovery communicated by the authors, should be the one.

a. See also Trude Dothan and Seymour Gitin, “Ekron of the Philistines,” BAR 16-01 and ”Ekron of the Philistines, Part 2“ BAR 16-02.

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

c. See James D. Muhly, “How Iron Technology Changed the Ancient World,” BAR 08-06.