Do not leave the path


July 2016

Digital Dead Sea Scrolls Reveal New Biblical Insights

David Malamud  •  07/26/2016

Four and a half years of scans and reinterpretation of newly legible parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls have revealed intriguing insights into 2,000-year-old Biblical texts, including the idea that the roof of Noah’s Ark was pointed, reports Haaretz.

Digital Dead Sea Scrolls: The badly damaged textual fragment describing the apocalyptic struggle of Melchizedeck was barely legible before scanning (top), but once digitized, the faded ink becomes clearer (bottom). Photo: Israel Antiquities Authority.

The Israel Antiquities Authority created a laboratory, equipped with a custom camera, to scan tens of thousands of Dead Sea Scroll fragments and complete the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library project. Researchers photographed each fragment 28 times in high resolution, employing different wavelengths of light. This technique allowed erased or burned fragments to be readable. The historical dictionary department of the Academy of the Hebrew Language read and reinterpreted these texts and presented their findings at a Dead Sea Scroll conference held at the academy.

In a passage describing Noah’s ark, the once-illegible word following “the ark’s tallness” can now be read as ne’esefet, or “gathered,” and describes the ark’s pointed roof, according to researcher Dr. Alexey Yuditsky. Yuditsky cited other sources as evidence, including a similar Greek verb in the Septuagint (the earliest ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible). Maimonides, the famous medieval Jewish commentator, also suggested the ark had a pointed roof, a claim now supported by the team’s discovery.

Interested in the history and meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls? In the free eBook , learn what the Dead Sea Scrolls are and why are they important. Find out what they tell us about the Bible, Christianity and Judaism.

Yuditsky and fellow researcher Dr. Esther Haber deciphered an apocalyptic text that depicts a mythical hero, Melchizedek, triumphing over an enemy, Belial, by freeing “captives.” Researcher Chanan Ariel argues that these captives were forgiven of their sins because of the sabbatical—or shmita—year, thus suggesting that monetary debt could replace sin. This view is similar to the medieval Catholic Church and its use of pardons—and antithetical to Judaism—but the researchers do not know if the practice as recorded on the scroll was the inspiration for the Catholic Church.

Furthermore, after centuries of debate, the researchers discovered what the ptil was that Judah gave to his daughter-in-law Tamar, who was disguised as a prostitute, to guarantee his payment (Genesis 38). Two fragments, once reunited, explained that the “ptil is his belt.”

Exciting new interpretations may continue to be released as the researchers work to scan and interpret the last 20 percent of the scrolls. Who knows what the laboratory and academy will shed light on next?
David Malamud is an intern at the Biblical Archaeology Society.

Alexander in the East




Alexander the Great never reached his goal of conquering all the inhabited earth. This was simply beyond his army’s endurance. But he did get as far east as ancient Bactria, in modern Afghanistan. More than two thousand years later, archaeologists have begun to recover evidence of Greek settlers Alexander left behind at a village called Ai Khanoum. Unfortunately, much of what remains in this remote area of war-torn Afghanistan is being looted from the site and plundered from museums. The tale is nonetheless heroic, even if it ends in tragedy.

History, it is said, is a huge mirror, a reflection of who we were and are. If so, archaeology is the painstaking recovery of pieces of that fragile looking glass, and the life of Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.) represents but a tiny sherd of that mirror.1

Archaeologists have turned up Alexander’s traces in Egyptian temples, Apulian vases, Etruscan reliefs, Pompeian mosaics, Gandharan sculptures and medieval medallions—as well as in a village in Afghanistan. Perhaps someday they will “unearth” his image from the remains of the opulent Alexander Suite in Donald Trump’s Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City.

Over and over, succeeding generations of Greek heroes, Roman imperialists, saintly medieval kings and modern totalitarian dictators have recognized reflections of their own glory in Alexander’s grand, panoramic career.2


The Alexander I see was neither a ruthless monster nor a poster-boy for world peace and brotherhood.3 He was cultured and charismatic but also cunning and cruel. He grew up in a dangerous world of war and intrigue that gave no quarter to real or imagined weakness. His native Macedonia in northern Greece embraced the old warrior code of Homer’s Iliadand Odyssey: No challenge went unanswered, no insult passed unpunished. Men fought hard, hunted recklessly and drank epically—monarchs most of all.

Macedonian kings did not order their armies into battle; they led them. Alexander, like his father Philip II, bore the conspicuous scars of brutal combat as badges of leadership. A mutilated eye, arm, collarbone and leg distinguished Philip among friends and foes. Alexander endured wounds to the head, neck, shoulder, chest, thigh, leg and ankle. Never safe, the threat of assassination also haunted these restless heads of state. Alexander witnessed the murder of his father during a royal procession in 336 B.C.; in later years, his mother, two wives and son would also be killed. Every one of Alexander’s relatives died at the hands of assassins.4

Although bred for battle, Alexander nonetheless received the finest education possible under the tutelage of the philosopher Aristotle. The young heir-apparent proved himself a devoted student of Greek culture, and as king he was a lavish patron of the arts. He built or refurbished many shrines and temples, founded cities (usually named Alexandria) and vied to outdo the deeds of his avowed ancestors, both mortal and divine: Zeus, Herakles, Achilles.

That Alexander set out to conquer Greece’s traditional enemy, the Persian Achaemenid Empire,a should come as no surprise. The conquest of Persia had been his father’s unfulfilled dream, and the promise of gold and glory fired the ambitious young king’s imagination. But the magnitude of Alexander’s successes—the swiftness and decisiveness of his victories—remains shocking even after 23 centuries.

Backed by a shaky coalition of Greek city-states, Alexander led an army of 37,000 troops against Persia in the spring of 334 B.C. He soon rocked the cradle of civilization with astonishing victories: the Battle of Granicus in 334, the Battle of Issus in 333, the Siege of Tyre in 332 and the Battle of Gaugamela in 331. In just four years, Alexander overran and occupied the rich territories of the modern Middle East, including Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Iran. The Persian “King of Kings,” Darius III, lay dead, his palaces plundered and his armies—which had always outnumbered Alexander’s—scattered. At the age of 26, Alexander had become the mightiest, wealthiest and most celebrated conqueror of all time.5

But he did not stop there. Although his army was anxious to return home to Greece, Alexander decided to push ever eastward toward the fringes of the then-known world. How he drove his men through the hardships to come remains a mystery of military science.

For the next three years (329–327 B.C.), Alexander’s forces struggled desperately to win control of Bactria, the harsh, inhospitable region of modern Afghanistan.6 At times, weather seemed the Greeks’ worst enemy. A lack of provisions and waist-deep snows in the Hindu Kush mountains compelled the men to eat their baggage animals raw; howling blizzards in the Pamir Mountains actually froze many Greeks where they stood or slept. In summer the burning plains of Bactria claimed more lives than any battle fought by these long-suffering troops. Dehydration and brackish water debilitated everyone, including Alexander.

Superstock, Inc. The idealized image of Alexander is captured in this Roman marble bust (compare with photo of mosaic from Pompeii’s House of the Faun).

All the while, the local peoples put up fierce resistance. First led by Bessus, a kinsman of the dead King Darius, and later more ably by one of Bessus’s generals named Spitamenes, the native populations engaged the Greeks in a new style of warfare—the hit-and-run guerrilla combat that still works so well in Afghanistan. In 328 B.C., while Greeks back home gathered to celebrate the 113th Olympic Games, Alexander’s army competed in a much grimmer contest 3,000 miles away. They stormed mountain fortresses and chased mobile insurgents all over the region. The Greek soldiers faced stern opposition, with enemies coming at them from all sides; it was like trying to put out a forest fire that kept breaking out in different areas. In an essay on Alexander, the Greek historian Plutarch (c. 46–120 A.D.) chooses a different metaphor:

But if the spirit of Alexander had not been great, had not drawn strength from virtue, had not defied Fortune, then would he not have wearied and given up marshalling and arming his troops, besieging cities, chasing down subjects in numerous revolts, desertions, and riots, pursuing faithless kings to Bactra, Maracanda, and Sogdiana as if he were cutting off the heads of the Hydra which always grew back in renewed wars.7

Under the strain, some of Alexander’s men became mutinous and the king himself cracked: He murdered a Macedonian general named Cleitus the Black—who had once saved his life in battle—simply for insulting him at a dinner party.8

To retain control of the region, Alexander settled his men in military colonies at strategic points in Bactria. These soldiers lamented their orders, which required them to spend their careers living so far from the sun-splashed beaches and balmy climate back home in Greece. In 327 B.C. Alexander finally enjoyed a change of fortune. Spitamenes’s own exhausted troops (or his unhappy wife, as one source reports) betrayed him and delivered his head to the Greek camp.9 Seizing the moment, Alexander married the daughter of a captured Bactrian leader, Oxyartes, to win favor among the disheartened locals. His young bride, Roxanne, may seem a romantic figure, but she was a mere pawn queened by her father and husband in a move toward peace in central Asia. Leaving behind 13,500 reluctant soldier-settlers to garrison Bactria, Alexander headed east once again.

Photograph by Sharon Suchma, courtesy of the American Numismatic Society The ancient Greek silver decadrachm shown here was minted in 323 B.C. (possibly in Babylon) and depicts a mounted Alexander charging an Indian war elephant (compare with photo of medieval miniature). During the Battle of the Hydaspes River, many of the wildly trumpeting elephants panicked, trampling Porus’s foot soldiers, while Macedonian archers picked off his cavalrymen. The Indian rajah’s defeat was devastating; his casualties have been variously estimated at 12,000 to 23,000 men. Yet Alexander saluted his foe’s bravery by magnanimously permitting Porus to continue to rule—under Greek control, of course.

In 326 B.C., Alexander’s troops encountered yet another hostile world in northwest India. The monsoons swamped the invading army and made the five great rivers of the Punjab nearly impassable. On the far side of one of these raging torrents, the Hydaspes River, the forces of a defiant rajah named Porus lay in wait. His elephant corps, the panzers of the ancient past, complicated Alexander’s task immensely but did not stop the Greeks. Alexander outmaneuvered the Indians, ferried his main army across the river under cover of rain and darkness, and overwhelmed Porus with a surprise dawn attack. After a harrowing fight punctuated by the screams of trampled men and trumpeting elephants, the Indian forces collapsed and Porus was captured.

Unexpectedly, Alexander rewarded the rajah’s bravery by restoring his throne, a rare outcome indeed for an ancient battle. Many historians consider the Battle of the Hydaspes to be Alexander’s greatest victory and compare it to the Norman invasion of Britain or (conversely) the Allied landing at Normandy.10 It turned out to be the last major battle of Alexander’s career. Soon thereafter his weary Greeks begged to turn back. Alexander’s personal goal, reaching the end of the inhabited earth, obviously lay far to the east across the Indian subcontinent, well beyond the limits of his army’s endurance. Grudgingly, the 30-year-old king settled on a less grandiose plan: He would build a fleet and subdue the Indus Valley as far south as the Indian Ocean, then divide his forces and return by land and sea to Babylon.

Still leading by fearless example, Alexander suffered grievously during these last campaigns. Attacking the town of Multan in India, he was the first man over the wall and sustained a life-threatening arrow wound to the chest. Afterward, on his arduous trek westward across the bleak Gedrosian Desert, the king refused water in order to share the suffering of his men. This march cost many lives and left a rare stain on his exemplary record of logistical planning.11



Undaunted by torrential monsoon rains, Alexander crossed the Hydaspes River in 326 B.C. to take on the elephant-mounted troops of the Indian rajah Porus—a scene captured in the medieval miniature shown here (compare with photo of Greek silver decadrachm). Alexander displayed his tactical genius during the battle, confusing Porus with feints and mounting an attack on the Indian army’s flanks.

Some modern scholars insist that these hardships drove Alexander to despair, even dementia.12 He put to death some of the high-ranking officials in his imperial government, ordered the Greeks to worship him as a god, mourned excessively the death of his dearest friend, Hephaestion, compelled many of his generals to marry Persian noblewomen and dreamed of improbable conquests across Africa, Asia and Europe. Although his body was battered by war, his mind raced ahead to envision a supranational world under his divine power. Then, swiftly and unexpectedly, Alexander sickened and died in Babylon, probably the victim of either typhus or malaria.13 He was only 32 years old. According to tradition, his final prophetic words were, “I foresee a great funeral contest over me.”

Alexander had single-mindedly carved out an empire ranging from the Adriatic Sea to the borders of India. His ambitious generals gradually killed off all the conqueror’s kinfolk, including Roxanne and her royal son Alexander IV, so that the empire could be whittled into new dynastic kingdoms: Antigonid Macedonia, Seleucid Syria, Ptolemaic Egypt, Attalid Pergamum, Diodotid Bactria and others. Alexander’s remarkable conquests and untimely death gave birth to a new epoch, called the Hellenistic Age (323–30 B.C.); its civilization has generally been considered more like ours than any other in history. We can see in that ancient world similar patterns of imperialism and colonialism, and a comparable array of social and ethnic tensions. Then, as now, economies boomed, scientific discoveries dazzled the public, cults and astrology flourished, and people sought personal liberation. According to one modern scholar, the Hellenistic Age confronts us with “an overpowering sense of déjàvu.”14

Phototgraph by Sharon Suchma, courtesy of the American Numismatic Society East meets West on the two sides of the silver tetradrachm shown here, minted in the Bactrian city of Panjhir around 145 B.C. The obverse is inscribed with Greek writing and a helmeted bust of Menander, a Hellenistic Bactrian king who converted to Buddhism in the mid-second century B.C. The coin’s reverse is written in the local Kharosthi script—which uses an alphabet derived from Aramaic—and depicts Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, hurling a thunderbolt.

There is, however, one notable blind spot in this mirror of history. We can see with some clarity the Mediterranean and Mesopotamian regions of Alexander’s old empire, but the eastern edge has long eluded us.15 Ancient texts tell us simply that Alexander’s legacy in Bactria and India was a troubled one. After Alexander’s death, the unhappy Greeks who had settled in Bactria tried to pack up and leave their posts, but they were compelled to stay under penalty of death by Alexander’s generals, among them Seleucus, the founder of the Seleucid dynasty. In 318 B.C., further east, Greek settlers assassinated Porus (the rajah whom Alexander had conquered and then returned to power), leaving Seleucus little choice but to trade India back to the natives for 500 war elephants. The literary sources tell us little more; they provide only a fantastic image of Greek merchants and mercenaries adrift in central and south Asia—a land beyond history where fierce griffins flew, strange rivers oozed oil and honey, native peoples ate their aging parents, and giant ants heaped up mounds of gold. Ancient geographers and poets wrote of a thousand lost cities in this neverland of monsters and missing Greeks. In the 13th century A.D., Marco Polo sought the lost cities in vain; Chaucer imagined one of their kings, Emetrius, as a man who rode a splendid steed “like Mars,” attended by an entourage of lords, lions and leopards.
When Englishmen arrived in the 19th century to play out the infamous “Great Game” between Czarist Russia and British India, they found the hoary ghosts of Alexander and his army everywhere in Afghanistan. Tribesmen in remote valleys claimed to be the direct descendants of the ancient Greeks; even the ancestors of their horses, it was said, had been sired by Alexander’s famous steed, Bucephalus. Lakes and towns bore many variations of the ubiquitous name Iskendar (Alexander), as did such leaders as Sha Sikander Khan. These tireless legends even trickled into Rudyard Kipling’s tale “The Man Who Would Be King.” Not long ago, a Tadjik native told me about an amateur archaeologist who took a skull he had found to a local museum. “Alexander’s,” the man proudly informed the curator. Pleased by the museum’s eagerness to display his find, the man quickly returned with a smaller skull. “Alexander’s, too,” he reported, “only a little younger!”

Alexander himself will never be found in Afghanistan (the king’s mummy, with one head only, was actually entombed in Alexandria, Egypt). But what of his lost colonists in the Alexandrias of central Asia? What became of the Greeks forced to build a new life in that far-off land?

Superstock, Inc. The towering mountains of the Hindu Kush overlook the Bamiyan valley of Afghanistan, where Taliban soldiers recently reduced most of the famed Buddhas of Bamiyan to rubble (see John C. Huntington, “The Buddhas of Bamiyan”). Alexander’s troops faced punishing weather and terrain as they made their way through narrow mountain passes. (Alexander’s tutor, Aristotle, had conjectured that the ends of the earth should be visible from the peaks of the Hindu Kush.) Alexander moved on, conquering Bactria and sweeping into the Punjab, finally reaching the Indian Ocean near the modern city of Karachi, Pakistan. The Greek conqueror then returned westward through Persia and Mesopotamia, where he died suddenly in Babylon in 323 B.C.

The scientific search for them began in earnest with the foundation of the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan (DAFA) in 1922. Alfred Foucher, a French expert on the Greco-Buddhist art found in Gandhara, guided this mission in the belief that Alexander’s colonies in Bactria were the obvious missing link in the evolution of Greek-style art in ancient India (See Rekha Morris, “Imagining Buddha”). Hellenistic cities must have survived in central Asia long after Alexander was gone, but where were they? Foucher excavated in vain. No traces of Greek cities or monumental art turned up anywhere in Afghanistan, forcing the exhausted archaeologist to declare 20 years later that he had been chasing a “mirage.”16 Others continued the search until finally, in 1961, the mirage lifted and revealed a significant piece of the mirror of history near a village named Ai Khanoum.

On a royal hunt in a remote corner of his realm, King Muhammad Zahir Shah of Afghanistan spotted a strange outline in the dry soil between two rivers. Looking down from a hillside at this confluence of the Amu Darya (ancient Oxus) and Kochba rivers, the king could see traces of a well-planned ancient city: A wall and defensive ditch stretched from the hill to the Oxus, broken only by a gateway leading to the main street inside the settlement. The shapes of many large buildings bulged underneath the thin carpet of dirt, and at least one Corinthian column rose up like a signpost of Hellenistic civilization. Here, at last, was Alexander’s elusive legacy in the East.

In 1965, the DAFA commenced full-scale work at Ai Khanoum that continued until the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. During those years, under the very fortunate direction of French archaeologist Paul Bernard, archaeologists wrested the remarkable story of Hellenistic Bactria from the ruins of Ai Khanoum.17

The Greek founder of this colony, which may have been called Alexandria Oxiana,b was a man named Kineas, whose fourth-century B.C. shrine and tomb stood in the heart of the city. Kineas may have been one of Alexander’s soldiers, sent to settle this strategic fortress on the frontiers of Bactria. There are indications of an attack on the site soon after Alexander’s demise, perhaps part of the disturbances that took place when Greek settlers attempted to abandon Bactria. Fifty years later, under the aegis of the Seleucid dynasty, a major building phase began. True to Greek cultural traditions, the later citizens of the city enjoyed a large theater, a gymnasium with a pool, and quantities of olive oil and wine. Papyrus for writing was transported from Egypt.

The Archaeology of Afghanistan Inscribed at the base of the funerary monument of Kineas, the founder of the city of Ai Khanoum, are five Delphic maxims (shown here, compare with photo of confluence of the Oxus and Kochba Rivers)—exhortations to follow certain ethical behaviors at each of life’s stages. A high premium was placed on preserving such Greek values in imperial backwaters like Ai Khanoum. The philosopher Clearchus made a special trip to Delphi to make a transcript of the maxims and carried them all the way back to Ai Khanoum to inspire the city’s inhabitants.

These ancient Greeks built large, luxurious private homes and a great sprawling palace. Their Greek names and political titles appear on tombstones and government records. To preserve Greek values in this alien land, an Aristotelian philosopher copied the Delphic Maxims in Greece and carried them all the way to Bactria. An inscription found at Ai Khanoum explained to the colonists that these maxims were the wise counsel of earlier Greeks as codified by priests at the sacred site of Delphi. Their closing lines convey the idea of this Hellenic creed “blazing from afar”:

As a youth, be self-controlled.
As an adult, be just.
As an elder, be wise,
As one dying, be without regrets.18

Ancient Ai Khanoum must also have been visited by numerous itinerant merchants and nomads, from both East and West. Archaeologists have found a few ostraca (texts inscribed on potsherds) in Aramaic, a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew that the Persians used for administrative purposes. (Aramaic also influenced the development of contemporary Indian scripts, such as Kharoshthi.)

What of the Bactrians themselves, the natives who fought Alexander and outnumbered the Greek immigrants? Are they reflected in the mirror of history as equal partners at Ai Khanoum or as an exploited underclass? The archaeological record reflects a picture that is disturbingly similar to the ghettos and barrios of our own cities. The Bactrians (ancestors of today’s Tadjik peoples) huddled in single-room houses—well away from the guarded mansions and public buildings of the Greek ruling class. Some Bactrian names appear in lists of the city’s officials, but only in the very lowest ranks and always under Greek supervisors.

Coins minted at Ai Khanoum and other Bactrian sites give us the first real evidence of cultural integration. On these coins, the Greeks introduced images of native deities and even inscriptions in local languages. Square coins, like those favored in India, were also minted. The more valuable the coin, the more purely Greek it tended to be, and some of this money was precious indeed. The largest gold and silver coins ever minted in the ancient world came from the Greek kings of Hellenistic Bactria.

The Bactrian kings condensed as much information as they could onto these portable billboards: royal names, titles, portraits, regalia, religious patronage, dynastic connections and military victories. Their coin inscriptions reveal that new dynasties continued to arise in Bactria. In about 250 B.C., the region rebelled against the Seleucids and established itself as an independent Greek kingdom under Diodotus I and II, an ambitious father and son who fell in turn to Euthydemus I and his family. This next dynasty flourished and carried Greek power back into India, retracing and then surpassing Alexander’s original conquests. One Euthydemid king, Agathocles, honored Alexander’s memory with a special coin. In the second century B.C., the usurper Eucratides—the first Greek king to call himself “the Great”—defeated the Euthydemids, but was then assassinated by his own son around 150 B.C.

All of this in-fighting weakened Hellenistic Bactria. As a result, 200 years after the reign of Alexander, the Greek settlements along the Oxus River were overwhelmed by nomadic invaders from the north.19 The settlement at Ai Khanoum was among the first to be abandoned, its inhabitants fleeing into the mountains or moving south into India.

Paul Bernard Archaeological excavations (the outlines of the ancient city near the confluence of the Oxus and Kochba Rivers can be seen in this photograph, compare with photo of Kineas funerary monument inscription) have revealed that Ai Khanoum’s colonists also took these maxims seriously and built institutions—a large theater, palace library and gymnasium—that fostered traditional Greek mores.

Lost for 2,000 years, these Hellenistic settlements are vanishing once again—this time, forever.20 In war-ravaged Afghanistan, the tangible traces of Alexander’s legacy are being systematically destroyed. Ai Khanoum lies looted, its buildings cratered into a lunar landscape by clandestine digging, its treasures trucked away for sale. Artifacts excavated by the DAFA and “safely” stored in the National Museum at Kabul have also been plundered; some of these antiquities are now being publicly auctioned on the World Wide Web to collectors in Europe and America.21 So once again the fragile mirror of history has been shattered; its sherds swept up by the greedy among us. We may at least be grateful to archaeology for providing us with a fleeting glimpse of a tumultuous era hauntingly similar to our own.

I dedicate this article to the unsung heroes of the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage.

Frank Holt, a professor of history at the University of Houston

Where Did the Philistines Come From?



Where Did the Philistines Come From?

The excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath, the site of Gath of the Philistines mentioned in the Bible (e.g., 1 Samuel 6:17), have produced many fascinating finds,* and the summer of 2011 was no exception.

While uncovering an impressive destruction level dating to the second half of the ninth century B.C.E., when Gath was the largest of the five cities of the Philistines and perhaps the largest city in the Land of Israel during the Iron Age, excavators found an exceptionally well preserved horned altar reminiscent of the Israelite horned altars described in the Bible (Exodus 27:1–2; 1 Kings 1:50).

Had it not been for a stroke of luck, the horned altar may never have been discovered. Like most archaeological digs, the Tell es-Safi/Gath excavation leaves unexcavated “balks” between the excavation squares, thereby allowing easier access to the squares as well as providing a profile view of the excavated layers. In the winter of 2010/2011, however, strong rainstorms caused some of the balks to collapse.

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When the team came back to the field in July 2011, one of their first priorities was to clean up and straighten the collapsed balks. As they cleaned one of the balks in Area D (in the lower city), they came upon an unusually shaped stone object just 10 inches below the surface. Work was immediately stopped as they probed further, and, lo and behold, one of the horns of the altar appeared. Once they realized what they had discovered, the team began the slow, delicate process of excavating the entire horned altar.

The horned altar stands nearly 3.5 feet high and measures just over 1.5 feet on each side. These dimensions more or less match the dimensions given in the Bible (Exodus 30:2) for the Israelite incense altar of the Tabernacle (though this altar shows no signs of having been used to burn incense). Moreover, the decorative features of the altar, including its horns and the groove and raised band of the base, are similar to Israelite altars described in the Bible (Exodus 27:2), as well as other Iron Age altars that have been found throughout the southern Levant.

But why does this altar have only two horns, when we know from the Bible and excavated examples that the altars of both the Israelites and, later, the Philistines, typically had four horns?**

The fact that the Tell es-Safi/Gath horned altar has only two horns may have to do with the cultural origins of the Philistines. As Louise Hitchcock, senior staff member of the Tell es-Safi/Gath excavations, has suggested, the very motif of the horned altar in the Levant may have been influenced by earlier Minoan “horns of consecration,” symbolic representations of the horns of the sacred bull in Minoan culture. In fact, there is an altar from the Late Bronze Age site of Myrtous Pigadhes in Cyprus that also has only two horns. The unique horned altar from Tell es-Safi/Gath, the earliest stone altar ever found from the land of the Philistines, may be another indication of the Aegean influences on early Philistine culture and quite possibly a hint to their origins.

——————Based on Aren M. Maeir, “Prize Find: Horned Altar from Tell es-Safi Hints at the Origins of the Philistines,”Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2012. Originally published in Bible History Daily on January 19, 2012.

First-Ever Philistine Cemetery Unearthed at Ashkelon

Discovery brings us face to face with the Israelites’ archenemy


The first and only Philistine cemetery ever discovered has been found outside the walls of ancient Ashkelon. As one of the major Philistine city-states during the Iron Age, Ashkelon was a significant Mediterranean port and boasted a thriving marketplace. Excavations at Ashkelon have revealed many details about how the Philistines lived: the kind of houses they built; the food they ate; the plates, bowls, cups, pots and jars they made; the tools and weapons they used; the jewelry they wore; the imports they bought; the way they made clothes; and much more.Now Ashkelon has yielded the Philistines themselves.

Directed by Lawrence E. Stager, Dorot Professor of the Archaeology of Israel, Emeritus, at Harvard University, and Daniel M. Master, Professor of Archaeology at Wheaton College, the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon discovered the Iron Age cemetery in 2013 and began excavating it extensively in 2014. Three seasons of significant investigation have revealed previously unknown details of the Philistines in death—and life. First of all, the cemetery provides a window into Philistine burial practices.

“Ninety-nine percent of the chapters and articles written about Philistine burial customs should be revised or ignored now that we have the first and only Philistine cemetery found just outside the city walls of Tel Ashkelon, one of the five primary cities of the Philistines,” said Lawrence E. Stager.

Various theories have been proposed about Philistine burial practices: Some thought that the Philistines were burned at death, like Patroclus and other figures in Homer’s Iliad. Others connected late 13th-century B.C.E. Egyptian anthropoid ceramic coffins with the Philistines. While a cemetery has been found at Azor (dated to the Iron Age 1), located at the northern boundary of Philistia, Ashkelon’s cemetery is the first to be found in the heartland of Philistia—and the first to be indisputably Philistine. As such, it is the standard for measuring all other burials claimed to be Philistine, such as the tombs found at Tel Farah (South) and near Tel Eitun, which were found beyond the limits of Philistia but argued by some to be Philistine. All of these “Philistine” burials and practices must be reevaluated in light of Ashkelon’s cemetery—as should perhaps the cemeteries found at Ruqeish (dated to the Iron Age 2) and Erani (Iron Ages 1–2), located at Philistia’s southern and eastern boundaries, respectively.


More than 210 individuals have been excavated from Ashkelon’s cemetery. Their burials have varied from simple pit internments and cremations in jars to interments in ashlar-built tombs—with the most frequent being pit internments. Grave goods dated from the 11th–8th centuries B.C.E. accompanied some of the Philistine burials. The most common items included in Philistine burials are small juglets. Storage jars, bowls and juglets have been found next to many individuals; these installations consist of a storage jar standing upright with a bowl sitting on its top opening and a juglet resting inside the bowl.


Many of the decorated juglets from the cemetery were imported from Phoenicia. This is not surprising since the Philistines had close ties with Phoenician cities of the central Lebanese coast, such as Tyre, Sidon and Byblos. This close relationship is reflected in the Hebrew Bible (see, e.g., Jeremiah 47:4). From other excavated areas at Tel Ashkelon dated to the 12th–7th centuries B.C.E. (the Iron Age), we see that the largest portion of Ashkelon’s imports came from Phoenicia.

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In addition to the many ceramic vessels from Ashkelon’s cemetery, jewelry, amulets and weapons have also been discovered. Individuals were found wearing delicate silver earrings, as well as bronze necklaces, bracelets, earrings and rings. A few bracelets with alternating bronze and carnelian beads and necklaces with alternating carnelian beads and cowrie shells were found; although the strings that originally connected these beads had long deteriorated, the beads themselves stayed in their original positions.


Amulets and scarabs were found with some individuals, as were weapons. Notably, one warrior was buried with a quiver full of bronze arrows. This discovery was made by Adam Aja, Assistant Curator of Collections at the Harvard Semitic Museum and the Expedition’s Assistant Director, who supervised the excavation of Ashkelon’s Philistine cemetery. Although the cemetery has produced a large quantity of grave goods, the majority of the Philistines were buried without personal items.The difference between Philistine burials and other burials in the region is compelling. The earlier Canaanites, as well as the Israelites and Judahites of the Iron Age, buried their dead in two steps. They first laid out their dead—usually on a bench in a tomb—and waited for the corpses to deflesh. Then about a year later, they gathered the deceased’s bones into niches in the tomb—repositories—where the bones were mixed with those of their ancestors. This process is not seen in Ashkelon’s Philistine cemetery, which has instead yielded many fully articulated skeletons. Sometimes burial pits would be dug again, and new individuals would be laid on top of previous burials—with their own grave goods—but the earlier burials were not intentionally disturbed. Relationships between those buried in the same pits and tombs are currently being investigated.

Not only does Ashkelon’s cemetery shed light on Philistine burial practices, but it also illuminates the Philistines as a people group.

“After decades of studying what the Philistines left behind, we have finally come face to face with the people themselves,” said Daniel M. Master, Co-Director of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon. “With this discovery we are close to unlocking the secrets of their origins.”

The Bible records that the Philistines, Israel’s archenemy, came from Caphtor (see, e.g., Amos 9:7). Many correlate Caphtor with the island of Crete. An Aegean heritage for the Philistines lines up well with the archaeological finds from Philistia. Modern excavations at the Philistine sites of Ashdod, Ekron, Ashkelon, and Gath (Tell es-Safi)—four city-states of the Philistine Pentapolis—have demonstrated that the Philistines brought their own distinctive types of pottery, building styles, weapons, jewelry and weaving with them when they settled on the southern coast of Israel around the 12th century B.C.E.

Ashkelon’s cemetery supports the Philistines’ distinctness from their neighbors and may be able to connect the Philistines to related populations in the Aegean world. Bone samples of the cemetery’s population are undergoing DNA testing, radiocarbon dating and biological distance studies (the degree of genetic relatedness). The results of these investigations may give us a better picture of the Philistines’ heritage, when Ashkelon’s cemetery was in use, and how the population of the cemetery was related to one another.


Sherry Fox, the head forensic anthropologist analyzing Ashkelon’s Philistine burials, has already identified some of the illnesses and traumas that plagued the Philistines. Her team’s study of the material is sure to yield many other insights into the Philistines, such as common traits and average life span. Although their investigations are just beginning, Fox and her team have noted a curious phenomenon: The vast majority of the individuals from Ashkelon’s cemetery are adults. Just a small percentage is children and infants. In a culture that surely experienced high rates of infant mortality, this is surprising. Where did the Philistines bury all of their babies? This question warrants further investigation.The discovery of Ashkelon’s cemetery was announced today, July 10, 2016, at a press conference in Jerusalem and coincides with the opening of Ashkelon: A Retrospective, 30 Years of the Leon Levy Expedition, an Israel Museum exhibition at the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum in Jerusalem. The exhibit features discoveries from the Philistine cemetery, as well as artifacts uncovered from recent excavations at Tel Ashkelon that are representative of the site’s long, diverse occupational history from the Chalcolithic period through the Crusades. Highlights include the famous Canaanite silver calf (dated to the 16th century B.C.E.) that was found in a shrine on Ashkelon’s ramparts and beautiful imported Greek pottery from Ashkelon’s Philistine marketplace that was well-preserved due to Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of the city in 604 B.C.E.

2016 marks the final season of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon, which began excavating the site in 1985. The discovery of the Philistine cemetery is a nice addition to 30 years of extraordinary finds at Ashkelon.

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