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Tell es-Safi/Gath

The period of the United Kingdom of David and Solomon, at least from an archaeological point of view, is in fact well represented at Tell es-Gafi.

By Dr. Aren M. Maeir
The Institute of Archaeology, Bar Ilan University   

    During the last thirty years, archaeological excavations have revealed much information about the Philistines during the biblical period. In fact, three of the Philistine cities have been excavated (Ashkelon, Ashdod and Ekron), and fascinating aspects of their culture have been revealed. The latest and probably most interesting find is a monumental inscription discovered three years ago at Ekron, mentioning a list of the kings of the city from the end of the Iron Age, just a few years before the Babylonian destruction.

    In spite of this recent work, little is known about Goliath’s hometown, Gath. From the biblical text, it would appear that Gath was the most important of the Philistine cities during the early period of Philistine history. It was from Gath that Goliath, the fabled champion of the Philistines, came, and it was the king of Gath, Achish, who played an important role in the story of the young King David.

Cypro-Phonicians Pottery unearthed at Tell es-Safi. Cilck to view larger picture: 22 K    Although there is a bit of a controversy regarding the exact location of Gath, most scholars believe that it was located at the site known as Tell es-Safi. This tell, which is situated approximately halfway between Ashkelon and Beth Shemesh, on the border between Philistia (the southern coastal plain of Israel) and the Judean Shephela (foothills), is one of the largest biblical sites in Israel (ca. 40 hectares/100 acres). Settled almost continuously from the Chalcolithic period (5th mill. BCE) until modern times, it is a veritable mine of archaeological evidence from all periods. Although its impressive size and archaeological promise were noted during the last century, until recently, very little archaeological research had been conducted at the site. Aside from a brief, two-week excavation conducted in 1899, only cursory visits and illicit robber excavations (conducted by the late General Moshe Dayan) took place at the site.

    Scientific knowledge about this central site, so important for the study of the history and culture of the biblical period, was completely lacking. To remedy this situation, an archaeological project was recently begun at the site. As of 1996, a team of archaeologists, led by Dr. Aren M. Maeir of Bar Ilan University, initiated a long-term project at the site. Commencing with exploratory surface-survey work to define and plan the future work, the actual excavations were begun in 1997. Since then, the finds have been astonishingly rich and indicate that the project, which will continue for well over a decade, will surely reveal important information concerning the material culture and history of the site and its larger context. In these first few seasons, we have already made some noteworthy discoveries.

    At the very beginning of the project, an unusual find was noticed. Through the utilization of aerial photography, we discovered the existence of a previously unknown, manmade trench that surrounds the site. This trench, 2.5 kilometers long, some 8 meters wide and more than five meters deep, surrounds the site on three sides. It is believed that this unique feature is an unparalleled siege system, set up by a besieging army to hinder escape from the besieged city. As of the 2001 season, we have been able to explicitly date this feature to the Iron Age II. It now seems likely that it may be evidence of the Aramean siege of Gath (II Kings 12:17).

    Another find of extreme importance was uncovered during the 1998 season. In the main excavation area, mere inches below the present-day surface, we excavated a level that was completely devastated in a fiery destruction. In this level, we discovered houses that collapsed during the destruction, sealing within them all the original objects that they contained. This included an extraordinarily rich assortment of well-preserved finds. These finds included several hundred pottery vessels of various kinds, shapes and functions, including those used for storage, cooking, serving and cultic purposes. To this, one can add various other objects such as ivory decorations and metal weapons. Altogether these finds provide a well-rounded picture of the various kinds of objects used for different functions in these houses, illuminating daily life in the Land of Israel during the biblical period. Based on the dating of this destruction level (late 9th cent. BCE), it is suggested that this may be the remains of the destruction of Gath by Hazael, king of Aram Damascus (as mentioned above).

A chalice was among the group of items unearthed at Tell es-Safi. Click to see larger picture (22 K)    In addition to this destruction level, we have found stratigraphic evidence spanning from the end of the Late Bronze Age (ca. 13th cent. BCE) until the late 8th cent. BCE (Iron Age IIA). Of some importance is the fact that we have found impressive finds from the "middle stage" of the Philistine culture between the 10th and 8th cent. BCE. This phase is missing at many other Philistine sites and is of importance for the understanding of the development of the Philistine culture.

    In addition, these remains can be dated to a very important period during and immediately after the “United Kingdom” of David and Solomon. In recent years, some scholars have questioned the veracity of the description of the events in this period as portrayed in the Bible. Accordingly, it is claimed that there is little, if any, non-biblical archaeological and historical evidence that relates to this period. But in light of the extraordinarily rich finds that were discovered at Tell es-Safi, it would appear that, at least from an archaeological point of view, this period is in fact well represented at this site. To this, one can add that the rich finds appear to support the view that Gath did in fact have a primary role among the Philistine cities during the earlier stages of their history.

    If we take into account that these are finds from but the very first seasons of excavation, the planned future work at Tell es-Safi/Gath seems very promising. And in fact, during the 1999-2001 seasons, we continued to expose substantial remains from this impressive destruction level. In addition, other archaeological levels relating to periods before and after the destruction level were discovered, once again indicating the high potential and importance of the future excavations. We now have an almost complete stratigraphic sequence spanning the Late Bronze Age II (13th cent. BCE) until the late Iron Age II (ca. late 8th cent. BCE). In the upcoming 2002 season, we plan to continue to excavate levels dating to various phases of the Late Bronze and Iron Ages.

Dr. Aren M. Maeir is Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Archaeology, The Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies, Bar Ilan University.

For further information on the project, please visit our website at: http://faculty.biu.ac.il/~maeira/index.files/slide0001.htm

For further information on participating, please contact:
Dr. Aren M. Maeir
The Institute of Archaeology
The Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies
Bar Ilan University
Ramat-Gan, 52900 ISRAEL
Fax: ++972-3-5351233
e-mail: maeir@h2.hum.huji.ac.il