2019 Season: Archaeology of Historic Gath, Home of Goliath (#15).

By John Stringer. Dedicated to Mikenmildagain and Nassaka.

A beautiful quintessential Philistine sherd emerged this week from Area D at Safi/Gath where I was excavating last season inside the ‘Nixon’ water gate. This an iconic Philistine motif as much as Mickey Mouse is for America. This image will be much photographed in historic and archaeological literature over coming years, as a similar sherd found decades ago at Ekron, has been; something of a Philistine brand logo.

This is unusual, because the Philistines were such warriors. So why a bird rather than a bear, a lion or a dragon?

We’re not sure why. My own belief is, it is perhaps a swan. Swans look like ships on the water, they are stately and very aggressive, fearless, thus encapsulating a marine warrior spirit (thus the Sea Peoples?). I also believe the Philistine headdress was bird feathers, perhaps associated with an avian goddess. Athena had her owl after all as a hangover from very early ‘greek’ religion. The beak is wrong for a swan, but who’s being that detailed? Mickey looks nothing like a mouse. So it could be a bird from back in th’Aegean. Semites tended to worship masculine storm gods, not avian female goddesses. Ashterah was a consort of a male god.

I believe the distinctive Philistine headdresses, as visualised by the Egyptians on Rameses’ III mortuary temple of Medinet Habu, were perhaps the red crown feathers of the Mediterranean hoopoe (thus the red headgear in my Philistine model below). The hoopoe’s prominent yellow-red (orange) crown feathers were perhaps for sarims only (army officers/town war chiefs), and horsehair or lessor bird feathers for headdresses of the oi polloi. Maori aristocrats used the now extinct hui as chiefly head attire and Native Americans the bald eagle or turkey feathers. The hoopoe’s crown parades like those tossing horsehair helmets of the greeks (Mycenaeans) in The Iliad.

For that reason the headgear representation in this model is red, which is often a sacred colour. The later Spartans wore read and ancients painted themselves and their dead with red ochre (including perhaps Neanderthals). I painted an imaginary shield motif onto this Philistine infantryman’s cowhide shield years ago that resembles the artefact uncovered this week quite closely.

This find establishes very strongly that Gath in Iron I (ca. 1150 bc) was a Philistine centre, if there was still any doubt about that. Tomorrow, more pics and vey cool finds from the last week – 10 days.

Gath (Tell es-Safi) in the Bible from the official Tell es-Safi website.

Gath of the Philistines was one of the five principal cities of the Philistines, the “Philistine Pentapolis” (along with Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gaza & Ekron). In the biblical text, and in particular in the portions relating to the early stages of the Judean and Israelite kingdoms, Gath is portrayed as the most important city (at least in relation to the Israelites). In fact it is mentioned in the Bible more often than any of the other Philistine cities. The prominence of Gath is seen as well through the mention of various figures originating from Gath (“Gittites”) in the biblical narratives relating to the Davidic cycle. Suffice to mention Goliath who fought David (I Sam 17), the King Achish, to whom David escaped from Saul (I Sam 21;27;29), as well as several of David’s heroes (II Sam 15:18-23). In addition, Gath is portrayed as a city of the legendary “Anakim”, a race of giants, remnants of the early Canaanite population of the land (Josh 11:22). This earlier tradition may relate to the Gath/Gimti mentioned in the El-Amarna correspondance (EA 290) dating to the 14th cent. BCE (LBII), possibly the town of the Canaanite king Shuwardata.

Throughout the Iron Age, Gath apparently passed from Philistine to Judean hands and back several times. It apparently was captured by David (I Chr 18:1), may have been fortified by Rehoboam (2 Chr 11:8, though the date of this text is far from clear), was apparently captured by Hazael of Damascus (2 Kgs 12:18), and recaptured by Uzziah (2 Chr 26:6). Nevertheless, it was still considered a Philistine city to late in the Iron age (Amos 6:2). In 711 BCE, Gath was conquered by Sargon II of Assyria, and apparently forever lost its independence.

The identification of Gath has been extensively discussed in the literature. In the mid-19th cent., it was already suggested to identify Tell es-Safi as Gath (e.g. Porter and others). For many years though, following Albright, this identification was not favored and various other sites were suggested, such as Tell Sheikh Ahmed el-‘Areini (near modern Kiryat Gath) by Albright itself, Tell esh-Sharieh (by Wright), and even recently at Tell Abu Hureira (by Stager). These identifications though are problematic, and as Rainey demonstrated (and recently reiterated by Schniedewind), the only site which fits in well with the various mentions of Gath in the Biblical and post-Biblical sources is in fact Tell es-Safi. With the renewal of the new excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath, we have not, as of yet, found incontrovertible proof of this identification. Nevertheless, the finds from the excavations lend strong support to this thesis. This is particularly seen in light of the extensive finds dating to the Late Bronze and Iron Age I-II, and in particular, the wide range of Philistine material culture, all of which fits in very well with the proposed identification. In addition, the few finds dating from the late 8th and 7th centuries BCE (the Iron Age III) corresponds nicely with the lack of reference to Gath of the Philistines in the biblical and extra-biblical sources during the latter part of the Iron Age.