Biblical Archaeology Review 16:1, January/February 1990
Sea Peoples Saga

Ekron of the Philistines

How they lived, worked and worshiped for five hundred years

By Trude DothanSeymour Gitin

The first joint American-Israeli archaeological expedition was conceived on a hot summer’s afternoon in 1980. Seymour Gitin, director of the William F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, and Ernest Frerichs, the Albright president, were having tea with Hebrew University professor Trude Dothan at her home in Jerusalem. We were discussing joint American-Israeli academic programs. Everyone agreed on the mutual benefits of these programs for American and Israeli scholars, as well as their students, and we asked each other why there weren’t more such programs. None of us recalls who suggested it, but before we knew it, we were talking about a joint Albright/Hebrew University archaeological expedition.

Americans and Israelis had often worked together on archaeological digs, but there had never been a project in which both groups equally shared the responsibility for all facets of the expedition. The more we talked about it, the more attractive the possibility sounded—a joint American-Israeli expedition from conception and planning to execution. Why not really do it together? That was the beginning of the Tel Miqne-Ekron project.

Trude Dothan, from Hebrew University’s Institute of Archaeology, and Sy Gitin, of the Albright Institute, the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem, would be joint directors. Trude was particularly interested in the Philistines in the Iron Age I period (1200–1000 B.C.E.).a Sy had a major interest in Judah in the Iron Age II period (1000–586 B.C.E.).b So we decided to look for a site that would produce data for an interregional study of Philistia and Judah in both Iron Age I and Iron Age II.

We soon developed an interdisciplinary research project in which each of us could concentrate on our complementary research goals: The study of the settlement patterns of the Sea Peoples (a group that included the Philistines), and the geopolitical, economic and environmental factors that affected the process of urbanization. We were also interested in investigating the differences between Philistine and Israelite material culture and the influence of each on the other. To do this we needed to formulate criteria for evaluating the continuity of Philistine culture throughout the 600 years of the Iron Age.

In addition, we needed to agree on excavation techniques that would incorporate the best aspects of American and Israeli field methods. Ultimately, we developed an approach based on the American field recording system used at Tell Gezer, where Gitin had worked, with modifications based on methods developed by Israeli field archaeologists.

We thus agreed on our research design as well as on how we would excavate. But we still had no site.

The next several months we explored, hoping to find an appropriate site on the historical border between Philistia and Judah. On our short list of three sites, the best prospect seemed to be Khirbet el-Muqanna’, or Tel Miqne (MEEK-neh), as it is called in Hebrew.

When we attempted to visit the site, however, we had difficulty finding it. It was supposed to be at point 96, as indicated on the official 1:100,000 map of Israel. But when we got there, point 96 turned out to be the logistical base for the farmers of Kibbutz Ramat Rahel who worked in the area. We walked through their fields looking for the tellc and literally stumbled on it. Tel Miqne is a low mound, almost indistinguishable from Kibbutz Ramat Rahel’s cotton and wheat fields, which both surround it and, at the time, covered it. Little did we know then that half the height of the tell was masked by the sediment from a nearby wadi;d much of the tell was simply hidden below the surrounding cotton fields. Even from this cursory examination, however, we could see the outline of monumental Iron Age II architecture peeking through the surface; obviously this had once been a major city.

From the viewpoint of our interregional interest, the site had a number of advantages. It was strategically located on the northeast border of Philistia. In the 1950s it had been identified as Ekron, one of the capital cities in the Philistine pentapolis (the others were Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gaza and Gath [Joshua 13:3]). Tel Miqne also occupied a central position in relation to major sites that had already been excavated or were about to be excavated in Philistia and Judah—Gezer to the northeast, Batash-Timnah to the east, Lachish to the south, Ashdod to the west and Ashkelon to the southwest.

In the fall of 1980, the fellows of the Albright Institute conducted a random ceramic survey of the site. The pottery sherds they collected produced strong evidence for both Iron I and Iron II occupation, with no indications of any later settlement. If true, this meant we could begin excavation without having to deal with any overburden from the post-Iron II periods. (We could not then guess how good it would be: A massive destruction layer sealed the well-preserved remains of the last Iron Age II city only inches below the topsoil. It was a tell waiting to be excavated.)

The Albright Institute and the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University agreed to become the primary sponsors of our joint project. We also sought and were granted affiliation with the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) and the Israel Exploration Society (IES).1 Israel’s Department of Antiquities then issued us a license to excavate. We were now a dig!

Our first step was to conduct a trial sounding to establish the stratigraphic profile of the site, to test the results of the survey that identified Iron I and Iron II remains and to find out whether our other assumptions about the site were correct.

In 1981 and 1982, we conducted two pilot excavations on the acropolis of the tell.2 The material we excavated—an assortment of sherds—confirmed a strong presence in Iron I and Iron II. What surprised us, however, was that the sherds also revealed some settlement at the site in earlier periods—from the late Chalcolithic (fourth millennium B.C.E.) to the end of the Middle Bronze Age (16th century B.C.E.), as well as a Late Bronze settlement (15th–13th centuries B.C.E.). Previously, it had been thought that Miqne was first settled only in the Iron Age.3

Especially intriguing was the presence of a Late Bronze settlement. This was the period immediately preceding the arrival of the Philistines and the period of the emergence of Israel in Canaan. Perhaps we could learn more about the transition from Late Bronze to Iron I and the arrival both of the Philistines and of the Israelites.

We planned our first major season of excavation for the summer of 1984. We wanted not only to excavate, but also, in effect, to be a field school. We planned a series of lectures, workshops and in-field seminars to be given simultaneously with and as part of the excavation. Undergraduates who successfully complete this course of study and pass a final examination can earn six hours of academic credit from the Hebrew University. Graduate students must, in addition, write a research paper to obtain the same credit.

Everything seemed to be going smoothly when a major logistical problem developed at the last moment. Two months before we were to begin our first full-fledged season, with a staff of 30 and over 70 volunteers from all over the world, we learned that we would not be able to get to the site. Tel Miqne lies about four miles from the main highway. The narrow dirt road from this highway to the tell could be traversed only by tractor—or at least a four-wheel-drive vehicle. In our two pilot seasons we had managed to transport 25 people in a four-wheel-drive truck, but just barely. We clearly needed a better road to bring over 100 people to the site each day by bus, especially because the condition of the dirt track is even worse in summer than it is in spring when we did the pilot excavations: In the summer the dirt track is rendered virtually impassable by the intensive irrigation of the surrounding cotton fields. The Jewish National Fund (JNF), the agency in Israel responsible for land development, had the foresight to realize that the area would eventually be developed for tourism as a result of our excavation, so they agreed to build us a road. Two months before the dig was to start, they had completed 70 percent of the road from the main highway. Unfortunately, circumstances beyond their control forced them to stop building the road. We were frantic. Then, four days before the dig was to start, the JNF brought in seven bulldozers and ten trucks, this time from nearby Kibbutz Revadim (Reh-vah-DEEM). By the time the volunteers arrived, the new road was 90 percent complete. Two days later it was finished.

Ironically, the difficulty in reaching the site may have worked to our advantage. This logistical problem probably accounts for the fact that Tel Miqne had never been excavated. For us, this was an advantage. We had the opportunity to excavate a virgin site.

With the road in place, we settled into our permanent camp at a site that Kibbutz Revadim had designated for our use. In only three months Camp Dorot had been built—with two permanent buildings, a dig house, a shower and toilet facilities. We also set up lecture areas, several outdoor work areas and the grounds for a tent camp.4

In the next four years, we greatly expanded our pilot work in the area we call the upper city. We also opened new excavation areas in the lower city. Altogether we have six fields of excavation. The results have been beyond our expectations. Yet we have only excavated about 3 percent of the site.

Tel Miqne lies on the western edge of the Inner Coastal Plain, the natural and historical frontier zone that separated Philistia and Judah, overlooking the ancient network of highways leading from Ashdod to Gezer and inland via the Nahal Soreq to the ancient city of Beth Shemesh. It is one of the largest Iron Age sites in Israel. Actually, it is composed of two parts—a 10-acre upper tell (the upper city) and a 40-acre lower tell (the lower city). The lower, 40-acre tell is flat, almost square-shaped; at its northern end there is a small 2.5-acre mound-shaped acropolis. The upper 10-acre tell is a rectangular-shaped ridge and juts out northward into the Wadi Timnah. In profile Tel Miqne rises only about 22 feet above the surrounding plain. The true height of the tell is masked, however, by a heavy buildup at its base of alluvium from the downflow of the Nahal Soreq.

In 1924, the great American archaeologist William F. Albright surveyed the site and identified it with Biblical Eltekeh in the territory of Dan (Joshua 21:23), based on his view that it was only a small khirbeh (ruin).5 In 1951, the Circle for Historical Geography confirmed Albright’s identification.6 It was Natan Aidlin of Kibbutz Revadim who first discovered that the site included not only the 10-acre upper tell, but also the 40-acre lower tell. He promptly notified the Department of Antiquities and in 1957 Joseph Naveh surveyed the site. Naveh concluded that its identification as Eltekeh, one of the less important towns in the region, was inconsistent with its large size—a total of 50 acres between the upper and lower parts of the tell. Naveh’s analysis of the architectural, ceramic, Biblical, extra-Biblical and topographical evidence led him to conclude that the site should be identified as Ekron.7 Subsequent discussion in the literature and our excavations support Naveh’s conclusion.8

Ekron is best known as one of the cities of the Philistine pentapolis. It is first mentioned in the Book of Joshua as part of “the land that yet remains” to be captured by the Israelites (Joshua 13:2–3). Later, Ekron is cited as defining the northern border of the tribe of Judah Joshua 15:11) and as belonging to that tribe Joshua 15:45–46). In the Book of Judges, Judah is described as having taken “Ekron and its territory” Judges 1:18). However, it is also stated in Judges that “Judah took possession of the hill country, but could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain [where Ekron is situated], because they [the inhabitants of the plain] had chariots of iron” (Judges 1:19). Apparently, based on this verse, the early Greek translation of the Bible known as the Septuagint corrected Judges 1:18 so that it states that Judah did not conquer Ekron and its territories. The same conflict in the Biblical account of the Israelite conquest exists regarding the Philistine cities of Gaza and Ashkelon.

Did the Israelites take Ekron in the days of the Judges? Was Ekron actually part of the territory of Judah at this early stage in Israel’s history, as we are told in the Book of Joshua? From the Biblical account itself, it is difficult to tell. Perhaps the assignment of Ekron to Judah reflects a late addendum—from the days of King Hezekiah of Judah in the late eighth century B.C.E., when the Judahites actually did control Philistine cities, for example, Ekron. The archaeological evidence, as we shall see, fails to place the Israelites in Ekron in the days of the Judges. Although Joshua 13:2–3 assigns Ekron to the tribe of Judah, this conflicts with another Biblical source (Joshua 19:43), which lists Ekron in the territory of the tribe of Dan. This latter notice may reflect the tribal territory from the time of David and Solomon in the tenth century B.C.E., rather than from the time of the Judges.

Ekron was a focal point of important events during the time of the Judges—the Iron I period—when it was in Philistine hands. When the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant, they took it to Ekron (1 Samuel 5:10). In the David and Goliath epic we are told that the Israelites pursued the Philistines to the “gates of Ekron” (1 Samuel 17:52).

The Bible also refers to Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron. When the ninth-century king Ahaziah of Israel fell through a lattice of his upper chamber and injured himself, he sent messengers to consult the Ekron god to find out if he would recover (2 Kings 1:2). (Ahaziah did not recover because, according to Elijah the prophet, he sought to consult Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron, instead of the God of Israel: “Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron?” [2 Kings 1:3]).

Finally, the eighth-century prophet Amos threatened Ekron and its Philistine sister cities with destruction because of their transgressions (Amos 1:8).

Ekron is also referred to in extra-Biblical records as ‘Am-qa-(ar)ru(na), but only beginning in the eighth century B.C.E. In 712 B.C.E. the Neo-Assyrian king Sargon II besieged Ekron. The siege is depicted in a relief on the wall of Sargon’s palace at Khorsabad.9 The royal annals of the Assyrian kings also describe the capture of Ekron in the course of Sennacherib’s suppression of a Judahite rebellion led by King Hezekiah.10 Other references to Ekron from the seventh century B.C.E. also appear in the Assyrian annals.11

Apparently, in the second half of the seventh century B.C.E., the Philistine pentapolis became a tetrapolis. We infer this from the prophetic forecast of the destruction of Ekron together with Ashdod, Ashkelon and Gaza, because Gath is no longer mentioned (Jeremiah 25:20; Zephaniah 2:4; Zechariah 9:5–7). The imminent destruction of the Philistine cities is supported by the late seventh-century B.C.E. Aramaic Saqqarah Papyrus, or Adon Letter. In the letter, Adon, the king of one of the Philistine city-states, appeals to the Egyptian pharaoh for military aid against the forces of the king of Babylonia. A recent interpretation of a line on the letter suggests that Adon was king of Ekron.12 The actual destruction of Ekron may be indicated in a Babylonian chronicle that describes a 603 B.C.E. campaign by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, against a city in Philistia.13

Ekron is not mentioned again until the Hellenistic period, when, in 147 B.C.E., Alexander Balas grants Ekron (Accaron) and its toparchy to Jonathan the Hasmonean as a reward for his loyalty (1 Maccabees 10:89; Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews 13.4, 4). The toparchy of Ekron is also cited as being torn from Ashdod (1 Maccabees 14:34). The latest references to Ekron are in the fourth-century C.E. Onomasticon of Eusebius, which cites “a village near Accaron called Gallai,” and states that there is “a very large village of Jews, called Accaron, between Azotus [Ashdod] and lamnia [Jabneel].”14

So far our excavations have uncovered nine distinct strata at the site. We count from the top down, because when we start, we don’t know how many strata there will be. The lowest stratum so far is stratum IX, which dates to the early part of the Late Bronze Age (15th–14th centuries B.C.E.). As we indicated, until our project investigated the site, no one thought that there was a Late Bronze settlement here. In fact, it was a very important period of occupation. The earliest Late Bronze city was destroyed by a fire sometime in the 15th–14th centuries B.C.E. In this destroyed city we found an industrial area. We also found, among the pottery remains, many imports from Cyprus.

Above the destruction of stratum IX lay stratum VIII, another Late Bronze city, which dates to the 14th–13th centuries B.C.E. This city ceased to exist at the end of the Late Bronze Age (the end of the 13th century B.C.E.). Stratum VIII contained much evidence of Late Bronze Canaanite culture. The pottery is similar to that in other Canaanite cities—a typical array of plain and painted Canaanite coarse ware, including an example with the ibex-and-palm motif. Some of the imported pottery, including Mycenaean III B ware and Cypriote imports, indicates connections with Cyprus and the Aegean. We also found Egyptian-style vessels, although they were rare. From the very end of the Late Bronze occupation, we even found fragments of two large kraters of Anatolian gray polished ware, indicating connections with Anatolia at the very end of the Late Bronze Age.15

The diverse forms of ceramic imports reflect the international character of the Late Bronze Age. Our discovery of this imported pottery in every field of the excavation—always mixed with Canaanite coarse ware—suggests that the city may have extended over most of the tell in the 14th–13th centuries B.C.E.

Interestingly, we found no trace of Late Bronze fortifications. If this stratum VIII city was in fact unfortified, it reflects a peaceful period, when the inhabitants apparently felt secure despite the lack of a city wall.

In the next level, stratum VII (the first Iron Age city, dated to the first-third of the 12th century B.C.E.), a new people appear—the Philistines, one of the Sea Peoples who settled throughout the eastern Mediterranean coast at this time. In the article that follows, Trude Dothan describes the archaeological remains discovered from this first Iron Age city at Ekron.