Mystery and romance surface at 3,000-year-old Philistine archaeological site


TEL MIQNE, Israel -- Under the rolling wheat fields of a kibbutz lies a 3,000-year-old city that thrived, waned and was finally burned away.

Why? Twenty-year-old Catherine Meiseles of Baltimore is helping find out. She and about 90 other students-- including three others from Baltimore -- spent the summer with trowels and shovels to reveal the ancient city of Ekron.

"It's fascinating," said the senior anthropology major at the University of Maryland College Park. "It's the mystery of not knowing what you'll find."

Ekron was one of five major cities of the Philistines, the "Sea Peoples" who came from lands bordering the Aegean Sea and carved out a territory among the other peoples in the area, including the ancient Israelites.

The Old Testament minutely chronicled the saga of the Israelites. Much less is known about other peoples of the region, including the Philistines -- from whom the region got its name of Palestine.

For 11 years, archaeologists from the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research and Hebrew University of Jerusalem have been slowly stripping away the dirt from small sections of Ekron in search of some answers.

Barry M. Gittlen, a professor of archaeology at Baltimore Hebrew University who has been a part of the project since the planning began in 1982, spends each summer under the fierce Middle East sun to help direct the digging.

For him and for the students who volunteer, it is a giant detective story.

"A lot of people think archaeology is the hunt for pots and walls," he said. "It's really trying to figure out who were the people, what were they doing, what was their life like."

The Philistines most remembered are those who played the bad guys in biblical accounts. Nine-foot-tall Goliath, slain by the young Israelite David, was a Philistine.

Samson, a Jewish strongman, was enchanted by the Philistine siren Delilah until his hair -- the source of his strength -- was cut off, according to the Bible. He was brought blinded and shackled to the Philistine city of Gaza, where he was said to have toppled the pillars of the building where he was being mocked, with the wreckage killing the audience as well as Samson.

But the biblical accounts are one-sided; so far, no written works have been found to give the Philistine version. In fact, the Philistines were more advanced than their neighbors, according to archaeologists Trude Dothan and Seymour Gitin, overall directors of the project.

The Philistines had fine pottery, advanced architecture and a bustling economic system at a time when the Israelites were still largely shepherds, Ms. Dothan wrote in "People of the Sea," a recent book on a series of excavations.

The "dig" at Ekron, 20 miles west of Jerusalem, has revealed some of the complexity of Philistine society. Researchers concluded that Ekron became a factory city in about 700 B.C. Excavators have found more than 200 olive oil presses, and there may be more.

"Ekron was a planned city. It was an urban-industrial complex," said Dr. Gittlen.

With Dr. Gittlen's explanation, what looks like jumbled rocks takes on the form of walls and the partitions of a factory. Dr. Gittlen said the city was arranged to receive olives from a wide area and process them by squeezing the oil from the olives between heavy rocks.

Large jars of oil were strapped on donkeys and taken to the Mediterranean ports, where the oil entered a thriving regional trade then controlled by Assyrians.

Ekron was in existence as early as the 18th century B.C. It was a Canaanite city until the Philistines reached the territory in the 12th century by boat and made Ekron, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gaza and Gath their chief places of settlement. Ekron thrived as an agricultural center and then was all but abandoned for 300 years. It was revived under Assyrian authority and was also briefly under Egyptian control.

In the early 7th century B.C., the Assyrians were defeated by Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylonia, and in 603 Ekron was put to the torch. The olive oil burned fiercely and hot, and the city was never reoccupied. Its residents were probably taken captive and removed to Babylon, in present-day Iraq.

Dr. Gittlen's students have found evidence of life through the ages: thousands of pottery shards, ivory figurines and Egyptian scarabs, beads, and five small caches of silver. This summer, they found a roughly designed ornament, a solid gold cobra of Egyptian design.

They have made more puzzling discoveries. One stone basin contained two human legs -- only the legs.

"We haven't figured that one out yet," said Dr. Gittlen. But it adds to the mystery of the search.

"There's a romance about archaeology," said Jeffrey Davis, 18, of Randallstown, a sophomore engineering student at Brown University. "I can stand on a wall we've uncovered and say people haven't stood here for 3,000 years."

He and Miss Meiseles spent the summer digging down layer after layer in a 15-by-15 foot square of dirt. Every day, the sun is wilting, the mosquitoes plenteous and the dirt can offer surprises, such as jumping spiders and the occasional snake.

It is hard work, and the students are not paid -- instead, each volunteer paid $1,500 to $1,700 plus the cost of air fare for the experience. The students attend lectures each morning and face a final examination. They get six college credits for the summer.

At night, they fight for showers and sleep in tents next to the Kibbutz Revadim, about a mile from their work.

"It's a lot of work. It's real intense. But it's also a lot of fun," said Glenda Friend, 45, a master's candidate in Jewish studies and bible archaeology at Baltimore Hebrew College.

"At the evening you can sit back with a glass of wine and discuss eighth-century ceramics and not be pretentious," she said. "You don't have to explain why you like doing this, because everybody here is doing it because they like it, too."

The students and archaeologists tidied up their work last week to close the site for the year. Dr. Gittlin will return with more volunteers next summer. It will be the last excavation before the archaeologists stop their field work, sort through the findings and publish theories on what they have found.

Ms. Meiseles was happy to be part of it: "Think about how many people get to say, 'I dug a Philistine site.' It's not something many people do," she said, as she took a break from the work.

"I'm not anxious to go home," she said. "I'd love to come back next year."

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