The Philistine Remains at Tell es-Safi/Gath: Their Regional and Transcultural Connections with the Aegean and Cyprus

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Hitchcock_LBy: Louise Hitchcock, University of Melbourne, National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow

My sabbatical semester at the Albright resulted in a preliminary analysis of the stratigraphy, finds, and architecture from Area A2, in the early Philistine sector of Tell es-Safi/Gath, in collaboration with Prof. Aren Maeir and specialist members of the excavation team. The Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project is a long-term collaborative project begun in 1996 under the direction of Prof. Maeir of Bar-Ilan University, Israel as a consortium involving foreign research partners.  It is aimed at studying the archaeology of one of the largest and most important multi-period sites in Israel, which was the location of Gath, one of the five capitals of the Philistine Pentapolis. For the last four years, I have been directing excavations in the early Philistine part of the site, Area A2, where I lead the largest Australian project in Israel with support from the Australian Research Council. This collaboration emerged as a direct result of time spent at the Albright as Annual Professor in 2007. Working at the Albright provided me with easy access to the library and my collaborators.

Area A2 has yielded several very interesting stratified and highly varied deposits of animal bones (including fish, dog, pig, cattle, tortoise, and sheep/goat). Several of these deposits were associated with symbolic items including a burnt bull figurine, an iron blade, a terracotta mold for making plaques of the goddess Astarte, and feasting ware including Mycenaean IIIC and bichrome Philistine pottery. Widespread studies of the concept of “fragmentation” and symbolic aspects of discard activities suggest that the fragmentary nature of symbolic objects that were deposited in pits and dumps points to the deliberate deposition of fragments, whereby joining pieces might be kept as a token of the event to evoke memory. The eating and drinking activities that preceded these depositions took place in large, open areas focused around outdoor hearths. Such gatherings served as contexts for promoting corporate identity and would have evoked feelings of nostalgia that were heightened by shared symbolism displayed on Mycenaean style pottery and the effects of alcohol consumption. The regular renewal of hearths may have represented competition for status among different clan based factions on the site, through the creation of features that were focal points of communal gathering.

As new discoveries continuously challenge our ideas about the Philistines, the earliest Iron Age architecture at Tell es-Safi/Gath reflects different cultural and regional traditions within a simple village lifestyle. In Area A2, a partially excavated domestic structure with a complicated history of construction and reuse was built on modest foundations of small stones, whereas in Area F, large mud bricks were preferred. Although Iron IIA rebuilding of the 9th c. BCE disturbed the ground plans of our Iron I architecture, there is clear evidence of reuse with older walls being extended, floor levels being raised to cover some earlier walls, while continuing to make use of other associated walls. This apparent emphasis on the modification and reuse of existing structures suggests a continued, multi-generational use of architecture that elsewhere has been termed “curation,” which promotes cultural continuity. In contrast, the Iron IIA structures of the 9th c. BCE, while maintaining a similar orientation as their Iron I/IIA counterparts, represent a dynamic change and possibly a reorientation in the nature of the community at Tell es-Safi/Gath. It is marked by the creation of new buildings constructed on massive stone foundations. Thus, preliminary results from our work in Area A2, indicates an emphasis in establishing a distinct Philistine culture that emphasized multi-generational ties and which was maintained through regular, large communal gatherings.


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