Discussions with the Diggers: An Interview with Dr. Aren Maeir

The goal of Discussions with the Diggers, is to interview leading archaeologists and learn from them about different biblical sites and people. My next guest is one of the world’s leading authorities on the Philistines and the site of biblical Gath (Tell es-Safi).

Dr. Aren Maeir is a professor in the Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Bar-Ilan University. He holds a PhD in archaeology (Hebrew University, 1997), and Post-doctorate (MIT, 2003). Dr. Maeir has participated in excavations at numerous sites in Israel, including: Hazor, Jerusalem, Beth Shean, and Qasile, and has directed archaeological excavations and surveys in Jerusalem (The Western Wall Tunnels, Mamilla, Kikar Safra, Malha), Tell es-Safi/Gath, the Beth Shean Valley, and Tel Yavneh. He is, perhaps, best known for his work as the director of the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project (https://gath.wordpress.com/), which has been excavating the site of Philistine city of Gath since 1997.

BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY REPORT: How did you become involved in archaeology and what led you to Tell es-Safi/Gath

DR. AREN MAEIR: As a child and a teenager, I was interested in history and archaeology on the one hand, and hiking, birdwatching and other outdoor activities on the other. When I finished my army service I reached the decision that becoming an archaeologist would combine these interests and passions.

Towards the end of my PhD, I was looking to start a long-term archaeological project with some colleagues. After some deliberation, we decided on Tell es-Safi/Gath, as it was an important, multi-period site which had not been excavated for a century. Quite soon after the start, my colleagues who dealt with post-iron Age periods dropped out (as the main finds were Bronze and Iron Age), and I continued. At first I was sure I would work at the site for 10 years or so and move on, but as time went by, and finds became more and more exciting, and more questions and answers kept popping up, I stayed at the site for a quarter of a century!

BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY REPORT: Who are the Philistines?

DR. AREN MAEIR: The Philistines are a goup(s) mentioned in the bible as adversaries of Israel/Judah during the biblical period (settlement through monarchical period). 

Philistine captives defeated by Ramses III, from a relief at Medinet Habu,. Photo: Rémih / Wikimedia Commons / GFDL

The are identified with a cultural group(s) that is seen in the archaeological record of the Iron Age (ca. 1200-600 BCE) in the southern coastal plain region of Israel/Canaan/Palestine, particularly at the large sites of Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron and Gath. 

Based on both the biblical and archaeological evidence, the Philistine culture appeared in the early Iron Age and major portions of their population were from non-local regions. This includes peoples who migrated from the area of the Aegean Sea, but other regions as well. Recent study shows that the Philistines were comprised of a mixed lot of people, of various origins, some foreign and some local. With time, the Philistines became more and more influenced by the local levantine cultures, but until the end of the Iron Age, when the final Philistine cities were destroyed (by the Babylonians), they retained a unique identity.

The Philistines had a rich material culture, that is currently well-known from many excavations in Philistia, such as at Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron, Gath, Qasile and other sites.

BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY REPORT: Based on your excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath, how would you describe biblical Gath? 

DR. AREN MAEIR: It was a large (perhaps the largest) site in the Land of Israel in the Iron Age I and II (until the destruction by Hazael), with a large upper and lower city. It had temples, public buildings, domestic quarters and industrial zones, connections with faraway lands, and was well-fortified. It probably was the most important of the Philistine cities until its destruction.

An aerial view of Tell es-Safi/Gath. Photo: Pascal Partouche / Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project

BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY REPORT: One of the exciting finds from Tell es-Safi was the Gath Ostracon. Can you tell us what that is and why it was significant?

This ostracon (inscribed potsherd) dates to the time of David and contains two names which are similar etymologically to the name Goliath. Photo: The Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project

DR. AREN MAEIR: This inscription is important as it mentions two names of non-Semitic, Indo-European origin, which show that the Philistines had non-Semitic names (similar to Goliath), but at the same time, commenced writing them using the local alphabetic script. 

BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY REPORT: The Bible describes Hazael, the king of Syria, defeating Gath (2 Kings 12:17a – At that time Hazael king of Syria went up and fought against Gath and took it.). What evidence have you found of this event?

Dr. Aren Maeir with pottery that was destroyed ca. 830 BC by the Arameans.

DR. AREN MAEIR: We have evidence of the siege system that he built around the site (earliest known archaeological evidence of siege system in the world), and throughout the site, extensive evidence of the total destruction of the site. This massive destruction brought about about the end of Philistine Gath.

Excavations at the fortified Water Gate of Tell es-Safi/Gath, where the Syrian King, Hazael, may have breached the walls of the city. See: https://biblearchaeologyreport.com/2021/08/27/top-three-reports-in-biblical-archaeology-august-2021/ Photo: Ariel David

BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY REPORT: I understand the Tell es-Safi/Gath Excavation Project is coming to an end. What’s next for you?

DR. AREN MAEIR: The large scale excavations are ending (that is a large group every summer). I plan to continue various focussed projects on the site in the next few years, and at the same time, continue with the final publication of the excavations (two volumes have appeared already, another one is about to appear, and several others are in various stages of preparation). 

I want thank Dr. Maeir for graciously taking the time to answer my questions and to share with us about the archaeology of Tell es-Safi, the Philistine city of Gath.

Here are two articles written by Dr. Maeir about Tell es-Safi/Gath for those who wish to learn more about the Philistines, as well as a presentation he gave:

Dr. Maeir also teaches a free MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) called, “Biblical Archaeology: The archaeology of ancient Israel and Judah.” I’ve taken this 12-week course and found it both engaging and informative. It’s an excellent introduction to archaeological methods and various interpretations – some of which I agreed with, some of which I didn’t – related to ancient Israel and Judah. You can learn more about the MOOC by watching the trailer video below and/or clicking this link: https://www.edx.org/course/biblical-archaeology-the-archaeology-of-ancient-is.

Disclaimer: As always, I allow each archaeologist to answer in his or her own words and may or may not agree with his or her interpretation of their work.

Photos: Unless otherwise stated, photos are courtesy of Dr. Aren Maeir and/or the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project.

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