The Philistines

The Philistines have traditionally been seen as one of a number of Sea Peoples who reached the eastern Mediterranean region during the final years of the Late Bronze age and the initial stage of the Iron age (ca. 1250-1100 BCE). The Sea Peoples were an amalgamation of various ethnic groups, primarily of Aegean and south-eastern European origin. They arrived in the eastern Mediterranean during the upheavals at the end of the Bronze age, and were responsible, in part, for the major changes that occurred during this transitional period.

The Philistine culture appears in the southern coastal plain of Canaan/Land of Israel, in the area that later became known as Philistia. Though for many years it was assumed that the Philistines were of foreign, most likely Aegean origin, we know now that they are in fact represent a much more complex process – and seem to be of multiple origins. In fact, various aspects in their material culture indicate that they are comprised of peoples of various origins in the eastern Mediterranean, who settled along with local Canaanites. In recent years, we have argued that they should be seen as an “entangled” culture – made up of many original cultures. In addition, we have suggested that perhaps a significant aspect of early Philistine culture can be explained through seeing them as a pirate-like culture.

This entangled culture can be seen through mixture of “western” aspects (or Mycenaean, Minoan, Cyprote, Anatolian and other origins), along with aspects clearly connected to the Canaanite language and culture. Together, this formed a unique culture, quite different from other groups in the eastern Mediterranean. The Philistine political organization appears to have been based on a loose alliance of the five main cities, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, Gath (apparently Tell es-Safi), and Gaza.

In the early stages of the Iron age, the Philistines seem to have dominated areas in the Land of Israel beyond Philistia itself, presenting a substantial antagonist to the then crystallizing Israelite entity. The ongoing tension between the Philistines and the Israelites as portrayed in the Bible in the books of Judges and Samuel mirrors this situation. In fact, many believe that the primary reason for the founding of the Israelite kingdom, at first by Saul, but more successfully by David, was an answer to the Israelite’s tribes inability to efficiently counter the Philistine threat.

Throughout the Iron age, the Philistines and the Israelites/Judeans were in constant confrontations. It was in the region between the Philistia and the Judean kingdom, the Shephelah foothills that most of these altercations occurred. During the later parts of the Iron age, the Philistines fell under the Assyrian yoke, and Philistia became an important part of the Neo-Assyrian empire, serving as the gateway to Egypt. Though by this time many of the distinct attributes of the Philistine culture are not conspicuous in the material remains, the Philistine still retained a distinct ethnic and cultural identity. Philistine inscriptions from the late Iron Age show the use the use of both Semitic and non-Semitic (Indo-European?) names at the time. At the very end of the Iron Age, Philistia was conquered by the Babylonians (ca. 604 BCE), which brought to the end of the Philistine culture.

In later periods the inhabitants of this region, which continued to be called Philistia, were of a much more mixed ethnic nature. It is this name (and its later development Palestine) which eventually was used from the mid-Roman period and later as the overall name for the Land of Israel.

The Philistine Material Culture: During the initial stages of the Philistine culture, in the Iron age I (ca. 1200-1000 BCE), their material culture is quite distinct. Certain aspects reveal much about the origins of the Philistines, while others can be utilized to understand various aspects of the Philistines after the settled in the Land of Israel. A salient example of the material culture of the Philistines is their pottery. During the first stage of their culture, a distinctive type of pottery is found, belonging to the Mycenaean pottery traditions (Myc IIIc:1b). This pottery is known from regions in which the Mycenaeans were found. This pottery indicates the homeland of some of the Philistines. Though imported examples are known, clear evidence of local production in Philistia. After this stage, the Philistine pottery goes through a unique developmental pattern, combining both Aegean and other cultural facets. After a process of some 250 years, the Philistine pottery looses it’s distinct uniqueness a becomes similar to other pottery in the Land of Israel.

Other aspects of the Philistine culture are unique as well, such as architecture (both civil and cultic), metallurgic traditions & burial customs, all indicative of the unique nature of this people.

The Study of the Philistines: The Philistines have long been a focus of historical and archaeological interest, and have been studied since the very beginnings of the field of biblical archaeology. Over the years, and in particular during the last two decades, several of the major Philistines sites have been excavated, such as Ashdod, Ashkelon and Ekron. In addition, several general studies have appeared, the most noteworthy being the publications of Prof. Trude Dothan. The ongoing excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath have provided a wealth of information and insights on the Philistines, their culture and their relations with surrounding cultures – and we hope to continue doing so in the coming years!

Selected Bibliography:

Dothan, T. 1982. The Philistines and their material culture. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society.

——. 1995. “Tel Miqne-Ekron: The Aegean affinities of the Sea Peoples’ (Philistines’) settlement in Iron Age I”. In: Gitin, S. (ed.). Recent Excavations in Israel: A view to the west. Reports from Kabri, Nami, Miqne-Ekron, Dor, and Ashkelon. Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt. Pp. 41-59.

Dothan, T. & Dothan, M. 1992. Peoples of the Sea: the search for the Philistines. New York: Macmillan.

Ehrlich, C.S. 1996. The Philistines in transition: a history from ca. 1000-730 BCE. Leiden: Brill.

Gitin, S. 1995. “Tel Miqne-Ekron in the 7th century BCE: the impact of economic innovation and foreign cultural influences on a Neo-Assyrian vassal city-state”. In Gitin, S. (ed.). Recent Excavations in Israel: A view to the west. Reports from Kabri, Nami, Miqne-Ekron, Dor, and Ashkelon. Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt. Pp. 61-79.

Gitin, S. & Dothan, T. 1985. “The rise and fall of Ekron of the Philistines: Recent excavations at an urban border site”.Biblical Archaeologist 50:197-222.

Gitin, S., Mazar, A., & Stern, E. (eds.). 1998. Mediterranean Peoples in Transition: thirteenth to early tenth centuries BCE. Jerusalem: IES.

Hitchcock, L. A., and Maeir, A. M. 2014 Yo-Ho, Yo-Ho, a Seren’s Life for Me! World Archaeology 46(3): 624–40.

Katzenstein, H.J. & Dothan, T. 1992. “Philistines”. In The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. V: 326-333.

Maeir, A. M. 2012 Philistia and the Judean Shephelah After Hazael: The Power Play Between the Philistines, Judeans and Assyrians in the 8th Century BCE in Light of the Excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath. Pp. 241–62 in Disaster and Relief Management – Katastrophen und ihre Bewältigung, ed. A. Berlejung. Forschungen zum Alten Testament 81. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

Maeir, A. M., Hitchcock, L. A., and Horwitz, L. K. 2013. On the Constitution and Transformation of Philistine Identity. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 32(1): 1–38.

Maeir, A. M. 2016. Sea Peoples. Pp. 857–59 in The Routledge Encyclopedia of Ancient Mediterranean Religions, eds. E. Orlin, L. S. Fried, J. W. Knust, M. L. Satlow and M. E. Pregill. New York: Routledge.

Maeir, A. M., and Hitchcock, L. A. In press.  The Appearance, Formation and Transformation of Philistine Culture: New Perspectives and New Finds. In The Sea Peoples Up-To-Date: New Research on the Migration of Peoples in the 12th Century BCE, ed. P. Fischer. Contributions to the Chronology of the Eastern Mediterranean. Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences.

Sandars, N.K. 1985. The Sea Peoples: warriors of the ancient Mediterranean 1250-1150 BC. London: Thames & Hudson.

Singer, I. 1985. “The beginning of Philistine settlement in Canaan and the northern boundary of Philistia”. Tel Aviv12:109-114.

Tadmor, H. 1966. “Philistia under Assyrian rule”. Biblical Archaeologist 29:86-102.

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