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

Ekron of the Philistines, Part I: Where They Came From, How They Settled Down and the Place They Worshiped In

By Trude Dothan

The accumulated evidence from recent excavations at Miqne and other sites and current research on the material culture of the Philistines and other Sea Peoples make the time ripe for a reassessment of the initial appearance and settlement in Canaan of this enigmatic people. Critical to any such reassessment is the understanding that cultural change during the transitional period from the Late Bronze Age to early Iron Age I was not uniform or simultaneous throughout the country. Rather, this period was characterized by a complex process in which indigenous Canaanite, as well as Egyptian, Philistine and Israelite cultures at times overlapped. Several recent articles dealing with the end of the Late Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age in Canaan are based predominantly on the assumption that cultural change in the period was both uniform and simultaneous.a This conclusion distorts the true nature of this transitional period.1

This transitional period in Philistia can be better understood in light of the recent excavations at Tel Miqne-Ekron. At this site, ceramic and architectural evidence from secure stratigraphic contexts makes it possible to distinguish important stylistic developments within the monochrome Mycenaean III C:1b repertoire and to assess its connection to, and impact on, later Philistine bichrome ware. In addition, the archaeological finds from Miqne-Ekron provide a fresh context in which to try to determine the absolute chronology for both Philistia and greater Canaan.

We will be talking about two principal Iron I phases—the first, stratum VII, is characterized by a style of monochrome pottery known as Mycenaean III C:1b. The second phase, represented by stratum VI, is characterized by a style of pottery known as Philistine bichrome ware. We will be trying to understand the changes, the transitions—first from the Late Bronze Age to the Iron Age and then within Iron Age I, from stratum VII to stratum VI.

The change from the Late Bronze Age to the first Iron Age settlement is clear-cut and distinct. As we noted, the Late Bronze Age was characterized by extensive international trade. In the Late Bronze Age we find Mycenaean and Cypriote pottery throughout the eastern Mediterranean—the result of this trade. The cessation of such imports is a hallmark of the termination of the Late Bronze Age in Canaan, as well as elsewhere in the eastern Mediterranean. That is precisely what we found in Ekron. The absence of Mycenaean and Cypriote imports signals the end of the Canaanite settlement at the site.

In stratum VII, which dates to the first third of the 12th century B.C.E., we find locally made Mycenaean III C:1b ware. This marks the beginning of the Iron I city at Ekron. The Mycenaean III C:1b ware is typically decorated and painted with dark brown to reddish monochrome designs and occasionally decorated with a stylized bird or fish motif.

In stratum VI, the second Philistine stratum, a new kind of pottery appears—Philistine bichrome ware. While it is obviously related to the early Mycenaean III C:1b monochrome pottery, bichrome ware is decorated not only in two-color designs but also with fish and bird motifs. The transition from Mycenaean III C:1b to Philistine bichrome ware is gradual, unlike the clear-cut division between the Late Bronze Age, on the one hand, and the earliest Iron I city, on the other.

All this attention to the fine details of pottery changes may sound less than exciting. But it paid off—in stratum VII it allowed us to identify a new ethnic group at the site—the Sea Peoples. The tip-off was that in stratum VII Mycenaean and Cypriote imports disappeared; instead we found locally made Mycenaean III C:1b ware. But the distinctly Mycenaean characteristics of this locally made pottery show the Sea Peoples’ strong inclination to recreate in Canaan—at least in their pottery—the home environment of the Aegean world they came from.

With this background, we can look in more detail at the evidence as it came from the ground in the various excavation fields. This evidence, especially the pottery, will flesh out the cultural transitions we have identified. In what follows, however, we will be looking not only at pottery, but at fortifications, architecture, industrial activity, cult practices and even city planning.

Let us begin with fortifications. A mudbrick wall over 10 feet thick protected the first Iron Age I city (stratum VII). We found extensions of this wall in both the upper and lower cities (along the northeastern and southern crests). This indicates that the Iron I city occupied the entire 50 acres of the tell. We identified two fortification phases of this city wall. The first was associated exclusively with Mycenaean III C:1b pottery; the second—a reinforcement of the first—was associated with the first appearance of Philistine bichrome pottery.

In the upper city, next to the city wall, we excavated a number of square and horseshoe-shaped kilns, indicating a large industrial area. An enormous quantity of Mycenaean III C:1b pottery was found in this area. A recently developed, highly sophisticated process for measuring trace elements of various chemicals in the clay from which ancient pottery was made enables us to determine whether the pottery was locally made. We performed this test—known as neutron activation analysis—on this Mycenaean III C:1b pottery and determined that it was indeed locally made.2 Locally made pottery of this type, associated with kilns of the early Iron Age, has also been found on the coastal plain, at Ashdod3 and Acco4 in Israel, as well as in the north, at Sarepta in Lebanon.5 This type of pottery can be followed around the Mediterranean coast—from Sardinia in the west, to Sicily, to Greece, down the coast of Anatolia (Tarsus), to Ras Ibn Hani in Syria, to Crete, Rhodes and Cyprus. The wide distribution of this locally made pottery indicates not trade, but settlement of people of the same cultural background—the Sea Peoples. This is a focal point for understanding Mediterranean history at this time. The locally made pottery signals the cessation of Late Bronze Age trade and the arrival and settlement of the Sea Peoples in Early Iron I.

The locally made Mycenaean III C:1b at Ekron, with its similarities in ware, form and decoration to the pottery manufactured in Cyprus and the Aegean during the same period, reflects the firsthand know-how the new settlers brought with them. They used their skills to manufacture fine tableware, such as bell-shaped bowls, kraters with horizontal handles and jugs with strainer-spouts; the Ekron settlers decorated these vessels in monochrome with many variations of spirals and related motifs, all reflecting their Aegean origins. The forms of their undecorated vessels, incidentally, can also be traced to the Aegean. A deep, V-shaped bowl with horizontal handles, known as a lekane or kalathos, made of well-levigated clay and in some cases decorated with plain bands is the most common of this type. A small, plain, rather delicate globular cooking pot with one or two handles is clearly not a continuation of a local Canaanite tradition, but is known from Cyprus and the Aegean.

On the other hand, the Canaanite ceramic tradition did continue in other forms, such as store jars, juglets, bowls, lamps and cooking pots that were found with the Mycenaean III C:1b pottery. In the kiln area at Ekron, the new ceramic style associated with the arrival of this new ethnic group makes up 60 percent of the pottery assemblage.

We have become accustomed to finding cultic objects in industrial areas of Iron Age cities, a phenomenon we don t entirely understand. In any event, the phenomenon made its appearance in the kiln area of Ekron. Indeed, we found a number of objects of a cultic nature in the kiln area, including painted animal figurines and a stylized head with a spreading headdress and birdlike facial characteristics. The head foreshadows the famous Ashdoda, a female figurine—first found at Ashdod, in Israel—with a birdlike head and a body in the shape of a chair. The Ashdoda is a hallmark of the mother goddess in the Aegean cult.6

In the next stratum (stratum VI), which dates to the last two-thirds of the 12th century B.C.E., the character of the kiln area changed. A building consisting of four rooms displays special features, including a stone pillar base and a pit with a cows shoulder blade, or scapula, and a kalathos, the familiar Aegean large krater with horizontal handles. These features clearly identify a cultic shrine (which continues in a different form into stratum V). Around the small shrine of stratum VI, which lay on the periphery of the city, was a rich assortment of cultic items from the different phases of the shrine, including miniature vessels, clay figurines of the Ashdoda type, kernos fragmentsb and a lion-headed rhyton.c7 The rhyton is remarkably similar to one found in the temple favissa (a repository for discarded cultic objects) at Tell Qasile, a Philistine site uncovered in modern Tel Aviv. (Objects like these have a long history in the Aegean world.)

Several incised cow shoulder blades, long known from shrines in Cyprus, were also found at our Ekron shrine. These scapulae are associated with the cultic ritual of divination in which the god delivers a message or gives advice. The cow was the chief sacrificial animal used in this ritual.8 The earliest scapulae at Ekron, found in stratum VI, may mark this shrine as one of the first cultic installations of the Sea People/Philistines established in Philistia, and it may indicate that from its inception this building complex functioned as a cultic installation.

As we continued to excavate, new kilns appeared; next to one we found a beautifully worked, ivory ring-shaped pommel handle. This ivory handle, with a suspension hole and traces of an iron blade, was found near a ritual burial; a decapitated puppy had been interred with the head placed between the hind legs. We have no idea what this signifies. Three other knives were later found at the site, two in a cultic context.

In stratum VI Philistine bichrome pottery appeared for the first time. Therefore, we could confidently date the stratum to the final two-thirds of the 12th century B.C.E.

As we have noted, Philistine bichrome ware differs from the earlier Mycenaean III C:1b pottery. Philistine bichrome ware is characterized by red and black decoration, divisions into metopes (discrete decorated areas) and the use of fish and bird motifs in a highly stylized manner. This new pottery has close affinities with the elaborate style of Mycenaean III C:1b pottery that was just then appearing in Cyprus, so its appearance at Ekron may mark a second influx of settlers at our site. Its appearance at this time may also correspond with the first historical mention of the Philistines in the Egyptian annals, dating from the eighth year of the reign of Ramesses III (1191 B.C.E., according to the high chronology, and 1175 B.C.E. according to the low chronology).

Toward the end of this phase, Philistine bichrome pottery predominates; the amount of Mycenaean III C:1b pottery of the earlier period gradually diminishes and finally disappears.

Let us turn now to the evidence from the lower city (in our fields III and IV). We have already mentioned the fortification wall found here. In addition to the wall itself, we revealed a massive fortification with rooms attached; this may have been a gate. The heavy white plastered mudbrick walls of these fortifications and rooms are typical of all buildings on the site during the late-12th through 11th centuries B.C.E.

Near these fortifications was a huge installation lined with hamra (a red, sandy plaster). In this installation we found a crucible with traces of silver on it. Perhaps a metal industry existed here. Remember that on the upper tell as well, we found an industrial area located on the periphery of the city. The locations of these industries may reflect town planning policy that considered ecological factors—and placed industrial facilities as far away as possible from the center of the city. (We found much the same “planning” in the Iron Age II city.)

We also uncovered some very special artifacts in this area—for example a gold, double-coiled ring for the hair of a Philistine maid. As might be expected, the ring has close analogies in the Aegean world.9 Another unusual find is a beautifully worked ivory knife handle.

Let us leave the industrial area on the periphery of the city and go now to the city center (our field IV). Here we are in the heart of the site, what we call the elite zone. This was undoubtedly the administrative center of the city. Here stood well-planned, monumental buildings—possibly palaces or temples. Plastered mudbrick walls, well preserved, still stand to a height of 3.5 feet.

We will concentrate our attention here on two buildings, one built partially on top of the other. One we call building 350; the other, building 351—very prosaic names for two very exciting structures. The earlier building—that is the lower one—is building 351. We have still not finished excavating it, so this must be considered only a preliminary account. Our work has been drastically slowed down because of numerous technical problems, not the least of which was the nature of the soil we were excavating: It was extremely moist, almost wet, suggesting we were very close to the water table. In the coming season, we want to lower the water table—a large-scale project for which we hope to use modern hydraulic equipment. But it is imperative to continue the excavation of building 351 because its history will tell us a great deal about the initial phase of the Philistine settlement in the elite zone of the city.

Despite the fact that the excavation is incomplete, it is clear that building 351 was a public building. In the earliest phase so far uncovered (our stratum VIA), it is a large, well-planned mudbrick structure, partially damaged by the later construction of palace/temple 350. It consists of a large hall (26 feet by 33 feet) on the west and a number of small rooms on the east. So far we have not found any evidence of pillar bases or interior walls that would have supported a roof, so we don’t yet know whether this area was a roofed hall or an open courtyard. The walls were constructed of mudbricks laid lengthwise. Traces of white plaster can still be seen on the walls, a feature that repeats itself in building 350.

The floor of this large hall in building 351 is composed of beaten earth covered by ashes, charcoal and pottery sherds. The only hint we have of what went on in this hall is the presence of a number of huge open vats, of which we found large, thick fragments. In the southwestern corner of the large hall, we found a small, white-plastered, stepped “niche.” The function of this niche is still unclear, but it is obviously cultic.

One of the small rooms on the east yielded a very large number of restorable vessels, mostly storage jars. The pottery includes elaborate Philistine bichrome ware and only a few Mycenaean III C:1b potsherds, so we date this phase near the end of the 12th century B.C.E. But there is surely an earlier phase yet to be uncovered.

On top of building 351 is building 350—another large hall, with smaller rooms (three of them) on the east. Here we are in stratum V—the 11th century B.C.E.

Near the southeast corner of the large hall, just below the floor level, we discovered a foundation deposit that included a lamp inside two bowls. One bowl was upturned on top of the other, with the lamp nested inside in an upright position. The bowls were decorated with concentric circles, and the lamp showed no burn signs. Similar deposits at other sites—from Gezer in the north to Deir el-Balah10—have been connected with the ceremonial founding of a new building.

The massive, 4-foot-wide foundation of building 350 and the boulder-size stones used for it suggest that this building had more than one story, although only the foundation and part of the first floor have survived.

The above-ground 4-foot-thick walls were made of white-plastered mudbrick. Several layers of plaster could be detected, indicating frequent replastering. Small fallen fragments of blue-colored plaster seem to indicate that at least parts of the walls were painted.

Architectural features as well as the artifacts found indicate that the building was used for cultic purposes. It was either a temple or a palace/temple. The main hall and each of the three side rooms on the east display unusual features that are as yet only incompletely understood.

The middle of the three small eastern rooms contained a plastered, mudbrick bamah (offering platform) that was preserved to a height of 3 feet. On it were two bowls and a flask with red concentric circles. Near the bottom of the bamah was a bench that ran around its base. Such bamot (the plural of bamah) are part of the local Canaanite tradition seen at Tel Mevorakh and Tell Qasile, but they are also known from Cyprus and the Aegean, at such sites as Enkomi, Kition, Philakopi and Mycenae.11 In the Canaanite tradition (for example, at Tell Qasile) temples with bamot existed as independent shrines. In the Aegean (as at our site), the bamot and the shrines were part of a larger building complex. We now need to consider the Aegean and Levant influences on shrines and bamot and what these influences tell us about interconnections among these regions.12

In the next phase of this room, in stratum V, we found two bamot and a bench. The floor from this level proved to be a treasury of finds: a broken ivory knife handle; a broken faience ring; a gaming piece of faience in the shape of a chess pawn; various pottery vessels, including chalices; and a fang of a wild pig.

Especially interesting were three bronze wheels with eight spokes each. These were undoubtedly part of a square cultic stand on wheels, a design known from Cyprus in the 12th century B.C.E.13 We also found a corner of this stand, and a bud that hung down from the stand as a decoration, all made of cast bronze. A basin, or laver, would be set on top of the square stand, which, in effect, provided a supporting frame. The offering was placed in the basin.

This cult stand—in its shape, workmanship and decorative repertoire—is reminiscent of the Biblical description of the mechonot, the laver stands made for Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem by Hiram, king of Tyre. As with our stand, lavers were placed on the frame of the stand:

“[Hiram] made the ten laver stands of bronze. Each stand was four cubits long, four cubits wide and three cubits high. This is how the stands were constructed: They had panels and on the panels within the frames were lions, oxen and cherubim. In the frames, both above and below the lions and oxen were wreaths of hammered metal. Each laver stand had four bronze wheels and [two] bronze axles” (1 Kings 7:27–30).

Our Ekron example is the first wheeled cult stand found in Israel. It is also the closest in time (11th century B.C.E.) to Solomon’s Temple (mid-tenth century B.C.E.).

Other rooms in building 350 also contained extensive finds, many of them associated with cultic practices. Architectural features in these rooms, such as benches, also indicate that the rooms were used for cultic rituals.

The northernmost of the small rooms actually had three superimposed floors. A plastered, funnel-shaped installation was set into the upper floor. We are not sure how it functioned, but, taking into account the other finds in this building, we assume that it had some cultic purpose. On the middle floor, a mudbrick bench was built next to the eastern wall. The other finds on this middle floor included 20 lumps of unbaked clay objects, biconical or rounded in shape. Similar objects, designated as “loom weights,” were found in large quantities at Ashkelon in 12th- and 11th-century B.C.E. contexts. They are also known from Kition and Enkomi on Cyprus. But what they are or what purpose they served is still a mystery. Stacked alongside the eastern wall on this middle floor, we found a cache of unusual vessels: a bottle with an elaborate style decoration, including a dotted scale and triangles; a horn-shaped, red-slipped, burnished bottle; an elongated bottle with horizontal red stripes; and a red-slipped, black-decorated, highly burnished carinated beer jug. The decorative styles called red slip and red burnished slip seem to appear at the beginning of the 11th century B.C.E., alongside the elaborate Philistine bichrome decorative style. Finally, on the highest floor of this room, we found a large, ivory, Egyptian-style earplug. The earplug was used as an earring inserted in the lobe of the ear.

The southernmost of the three small rooms contained another small bamah. Its top and two sides were covered with a thin layer of plaster. On top of the bamah was an iron object that resembled an ingot; it may represent something that still escapes us. One of the most important artifacts found on the floor of this room, a complete iron knife, had an ivory handle and bronze rivets fixing the blade into the handle. Not far from the iron knife lay a bronze linchpin. Originally part of a real chariot, this linchpin secured one of the chariot’s wheels to its axle. The length of the linchpin would fit a normal-sized wheel, not the miniature wheels on the laver stand we described above.14

The entrance to the large, elongated main hall of building 350 was in the building’s northern wall. Inside, three entrances led from the main hall to the small rooms on the east. On the north-south central axis of the main room, we discovered two pillar bases (and possibly a third), one located exactly in the center of the hall. This configuration resembles that in the Philistine temple at Tell Qasile, where two support pillars stood about 6 feet apart. These two pillars, of course, also recall the pillars in the Philistine temple mentioned in the famous Bible story in Judges 16. Chained and blinded, Samson brings a Philistine temple down on himself by pushing two pillars apart. The two pillars in the Ekron building were 7.5 feet apart.

The floor of the main hall, a laminated, beaten earth surface, contained many fish bones, animal bones, ashes and charcoal. Three superimposed hearths in the northeastern part of the hall may explain why fish and animal bones, ashes and charcoal appear in the floor material. Each of these round hearths, about 3 feet in diameter, was paved with hundreds of small wadi pebbles. On top of these pebbles lay a thick layer of ashes and charcoal mixed with animal bones. Nearby we found chicken bones—a unique phenomenon in archaeological excavations in Israel.15 Hearths are not known in the Canaanite building tradition; the only other hearth known in Canaan comes from Tell Qasile, which was also a Philistine city. On the other hand, hearths are an important feature in the building tradition of Cyprus and the Aegean, particularly in the plan of buildings we call megarons. A megaron is a large, long building with a central hall, which features a hearth, side chambers and an open-fronted porch. Indeed, in a megaron, the hearth is a central element. Again at Ekron we find reflected the Aegean background of the Philistines.

A word about the iron objects that came to light in this building. We already mentioned one complete iron knife with an ivory handle. We also recovered three other ivory handles belonging to iron knives—all dating to the 12th and 11th centuries B.C.E.. In addition, we mentioned a large iron ingot found on a small bamah. These all add to the growing inventory of iron objects found at Philistine sites in Iron Age I. And this inventory raises anew the question of the Philistines’ role in the introduction of ironworking technology.d The elegant craftsmanship of these iron knives and the context in which they were found attest to their cultic and ceremonial significance.16 Similar knives found in the Aegean also make the discovery of the Ekron knives important. Current research increasingly points to evidence of European influence in the development of this type of knife with ring pommel handles.

In stratum IV (late 11th to early tenth century B.C.E.), the building we have just described in such detail retained the same architectural plan. Neither the walls nor anything else in the building was changed. The fill, intentionally placed to level and raise the floor, helped to preserve the walls to a height of 3 feet.

The cultic function of the building in stratum V continued in stratum IV. In the main hall, a bamah was still in use. The rich finds—pottery, ivories, faience and stone artifacts—found on the last floors of the building also point to the special character of this structure. The hearth, on the other hand, a central feature in the earlier strata, was not rebuilt; this Aegean tradition was no longer significant.

The finds from this stratum, including ivories and faience pieces, reflect strong Egyptian ties. This indicates a turning point in Philistine material culture: New features reflect the impact of Egyptian and Phoenician culture on the Philistine world.

Thus we come to the end of Iron Age I at Ekron—about 1000 B.C.E. Our excavations at Ekron have given us a glimpse into the history of a large urban center with a rich material culture—from its initial settlement, associated with the arrival of the Sea Peoples/Philistines, to its fortification and development into an important member of the Philistine pentapolis. The city featured industrial areas, unique cultic installations and a distinctive material culture, all reflecting strong Aegean ties. Ekron reached its peak of development in the 11th century B.C.E. in Iron Age I. However, this progress went hand in hand with a loss of distinctiveness of the Philistines’ material culture. The quality of the Philistine bichrome pottery degenerated as Egyptian and Phoenician influences had their effects on Philistine material culture.

In the early tenth century B.C.E., Ekron was destroyed and for the most part abandoned. The bulk of the city lay barren for 270 years, until it was resettled in the seventh century B.C.E.

Who destroyed the city? Perhaps King David. Contemporaneous strata (stratum X at Ashdod and stratum X at Tell Qasile) were also destroyed. Someone was obviously pressing the Philistines. If it was not David, perhaps it was the Egyptian pharaoh Siamun.

What military, political or economic reasons can account for the sudden abandonment of most of a major urban center like Ekron? The answer is probably to be found in the changing geopolitics of the region. In short, as we shall see, the Philistines were no longer able to control the land that had been their home for 200 years.

The second part of this article, by Seymour Gitin, covering Ekron’s resurgence in the eighth century B.C.E., will appear in our next issue.