Times Will TellThe Times of Israel's weekly podcast

PODCAST: Everything you know about the Philistines is wrong, says archaeologist

This week, Aren Maeir takes us into the strata of the biblical city of Gath to examine the technologies of Israel’s ancient enemies, and how they likely viewed themselves

This week on Times Will Tell, a weekly podcast from The Times of Israel, we dive deep into biblical archaeology and the field’s new techniques with Bar-Ilan University Prof. Aren Maeir, who for the past 25 years has led the excavations at Tell es-Safi, more commonly known as biblical Gath.

Maeir’s expertise spans a number of different cultures and ages, but he’s most interested in Bronze Age Philistines, a complex mosaic of Sea Peoples who migrated to the Holy Land from the Aegean during the biblical era.

In our discussion, the archaeologist turns on its ear so much of what we thought we knew about the Levant in the 9th and 10th centuries BCE — including just how big the famed Goliath likely was (spoiler: you might be surprised by Maeir’s estimate).

While the Philistines came either by sea or land from the eastern and possibly even central Mediterranean, their culture was far from static after reaching the Holy Land, where they settled between what is now Tel Aviv and the Gaza area, says Maeir. He discusses how the technologies used by the ancient Philistines to do anything from baking bread to forming cookware can be used to investigate much about their ancient identities. And, he says, these identities can’t be reduced to nationality or religion alone — just like today, Bronze Age peoples often had dynamic self-identities which may have included age, gender, social standing, and more.

Today, the word “philistine” is often used as a pejorative to describe a person lacking cultural or intellectual pursuits. But, Maeir says, the archaeological remains reveal the truth that the ancient Philistines were a “developed and very complex culture” with “a very complex relationship with the peoples around them, including the Israelites and Judaites.”

The accumulation of small and unspectacular finds, dig leader Aren Maeir says, "is actually the main thing." (photo credit: Courtesy of the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project)
Illustrative: The Tell eṣ-Ṣâfi archaeological site in 2012. (Courtesy of the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project)

Maeir gleaned much of this knowledge with his team at Tell es-Safi/Gath, which he originally thought he’d excavate for five or 10 years before exhausting all the possible finds. Instead, he’s been hard at work for 25 years, though he believes his team’s next season will be its last. The finds at Tell es-Safi/Gath gave insight about various periods and “opened a whole new window on a whole phase of Philistine culture that was very poorly known beforehand,” Maeir says.

Though the Philistines are often portrayed simply as adversaries of the ancient Israelites, archaeological findings show Israelite artifacts in Philistine territory and vice versa, revealing that the two sides lived and engaged not just as enemies but also as neighbors. Even in the biblical story of Samson, Maeir says, the eponymous hero married Philistine women.

Tune in to hear the full discussion about biblical day-to-day life, as well as details of a new study that contradicts the accepted story about ancient olive production. We also talk about how emerging technologies in the field of archaeology have enormously propelled the discipline over the last couple of decades.

Bar-Ilan University Prof. Aren Maeir (left) and Weizmann Institute’s Prof. Elisabetta Boaretto. (Yael Paz/Online Academe)

“It’s like comparing contemporary medicine with medicine in the 19th century,” says Maeir. “We’re doing the same thing, we have the same objectives, but the toolkit available for modern medicine as opposed to medicine from 150 years ago is incomparable. When I think about what I do now and compare it with the research we did in the 1980s, the difference is unbelievable.”

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