Bar-Ilan University archaeologist Aren Maeir is following in some big footsteps each July when he returns to the site of the ancient city of Gath to dig into the history near the Arab village of Tell es-Safi.
The Bible says Gath was the hometown of the Philistine giant Goliath.
Goliath casts an appropriately large shadow over the archaeology at Gath, which Maeir said at its peak was at least as big as any of the other four primary cities of the Philistines. And people have lived there from the Bronze Age through modern times. The Crusaders built a fortress there, and Richard the Lionheart visited, giving Gath two household names from history.
“The story of David and Goliath is a compelling story, so there’s a lot of interest on that,” keeping the Gath excavations in the spotlight and drawing volunteers and media, Maeir said. But archaeologists must fight the urge to “go out there, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m looking for Goliath, and I’m going to find him no matter what happens, and I’m going to prove the Bible, etc.,’ which unfortunately some biblical archaeologists go out and do that.”
The latest headline-grabbing find was the entrance gate and fortifications to the city. The first Book of Samuel mentions the gate when it describes David’s flight from King Saul to Gath.
Maeir said the size and depth of the archaeological site has kept him coming back for 20 years, even though he never expected to be there more than 10 when he started in 1996.
“When we started working on the site, a lot was known about the Philistines at the start of the Iron Age — 1200 to 1000 — and the end of the Iron Age around 586, but there was a big gap in the centuries in between. We found the facts in the middle,” he said, but they just raise new questions.
Archaeologists are far better able to answer those questions now than 20 years ago, Maeir said, thanks to scientific advances such as the ability to analyze DNA and the organic residue in vessels. He gave an example of how science has advanced understanding of ancient people.
“We’ve known for years that the Philistines ate pig and dog, as opposed to the Canaanites and the Israelites around them, who did not,” said Maeir, a New York native who made aliyah as a child with his parents in the afterglow of the Six-Day War. “When we analyzed pig bones, it turned out we could show that they were genetically related to European pigs, not local pigs. … When some of the Philistines who were nonlocal came, they brought their pigs with them, which is a funny anecdote, but it’s also an interesting lesson in understanding the processes we’re involved with.”
Maeir was in Atlanta on Monday, Nov. 23, to participate in a panel discussion on ancient warfare with, among others, Emory University’s Jacob Wright. The panel was part of the combined annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature.
The professor found time for a conversation over breakfast.
AJT: What things have you found that have surprised you?
Maeir: We found vessels that were used for incense, and when analyzing the vessels, it turns out that some of the incenses had cinnamon and nutmeg in them. Now cinnamon and nutmeg come from Sri Lanka, so it means that we have to have a very, very expansive view of the trade connections and cultural connections that existed in 1000 B.C., much beyond what we would probably even dream of thinking because of this. … It shows that the breadth of the world and the interconnections are much wider than we would assume.
AJT: Were the Philistines there during the whole period you looked at?
Maeir: This is a site which is settled more or less from late prehistoric times to modern times. The Philistines are there during the Iron Age, but we have a lot of remains of the Canaanite culture from the Bronze Age, when it was an important city.
AJT: Can you see a clear line between Philistine and Canaanite if the Philistines were integrating with the local population instead of just conquering them?
Maeir: There are differences, but you definitely can see continuity in certain aspects of the Philistine culture that show you the slate wasn’t wiped clean. They integrated with various aspects of the Canaanites. There’s no question about that.
AJT: Why was this a good site for people to live for millennia?
Maeir: First of all, it’s a very tall site. It stands out from its surroundings, and you can see for miles. If you look west, you see the coastline; if you look east, you see into the hills of Jerusalem and Hebron and that area. So that’s one reason. It’s right along two major roads. There’s water sources in the area. There’s a lot of agricultural lands in the area. You have everything that you need to sustain a site.
AJT: How many people were living here?
Maeir: It depends on different periods. But when it was at its largest size, that would be in the 10th and ninth century B.C., that would be more or less the time of David and Solomon and slightly after that, there were probably somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 Philistines living on the site. And it probably at the time was, if not the largest, then one of the largest cities in the region, and that’s why, if you look at the biblical texts about Gath, it’s remembered as a large, important city. It’s mentioned more often than any of the other Philistine cities. I mean, the story of Goliath being a big guy might also reflect the memory of its being an important site.
AJT: What evidence have found of Goliath?
Maeir: First of all, our finds, even though we haven’t found the signs “Welcome to Gath,” our finds have confirmed that this is the only place that could be identified as Gath, which was itself an important result of our excavations because for many, many years that was a big discussion about where Gath is and the reason is that there is no place in southern Israel that retained the name of Gath, as opposed to Ashkelon and Ashdod and Gaza. … Gath is mentioned often in the biblical text up until a certain point, about the eighth century. Then, if you look at both the Assyrian and the Babylonian texts, as well as the Bible, Gath sort of disappears. And what we’ve shown is that it was destroyed in the late ninth century and never regained its status. …
A few years ago we found an inscription that had on it two names which were written in alphabetic script, but the two names were not Semitic. Now the names were something like Alwath and Wallath, or something like that. And what’s interesting about it is even though that’s not the name Goliath, from an etymological point of view, it’s very close to what probably the original name of Goliath was. So it tells us that, as I always say, we haven’t found Goliath’s cereal bowl, but we have sort of found that more or less at the time in which the Bible portrays the story of David and Goliath, at Gath, Goliath’s home according to the Bible, there were people who had names which were similar to the name Goliath. … And needless to say if I were ever to find even one large finger digit, I would go to the press, but we haven’t. So far, nobody is big.