Where Did the Philistines Come From?

Horned altar from Tell es-Safi hints at the origins of the Philistines

Where Did the Philistines Come From?

This nearly 4-foot-tall, two-horned altar from the site of Tell es-Safi (Gath of the Philistines) suggests the origins of the Philistines are to be sought in the Aegean world.

The excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath, the site of Gath of the Philistines mentioned in the Bible (e.g., 1 Samuel 6:17), have produced many fascinating finds,* and the summer of 2011 was no exception.

While uncovering an impressive destruction level dating to the second half of the ninth century B.C.E., when Gath was the largest of the five cities of the Philistines and perhaps the largest city in the Land of Israel during the Iron Age, excavators found an exceptionally well preserved horned altar reminiscent of the Israelite horned altars described in the Bible (Exodus 27:1–2; 1 Kings 1:50).

Had it not been for a stroke of luck, the horned altar may never have been discovered. Like most archaeological digs, the Tell es-Safi/Gath excavation leaves unexcavated “balks” between the excavation squares, thereby allowing easier access to the squares as well as providing a profile view of the excavated layers. In the winter of 2010/2011, however, strong rainstorms caused some of the balks to collapse.

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When the team came back to the field in July 2011, one of their first priorities was to clean up and straighten the collapsed balks. As they cleaned one of the balks in Area D (in the lower city), they came upon an unusually shaped stone object just 10 inches below the surface. Work was immediately stopped as they probed further, and, lo and behold, one of the horns of the altar appeared. Once they realized what they had discovered, the team began the slow, delicate process of excavating the entire horned altar.

The horned altar stands nearly 3.5 feet high and measures just over 1.5 feet on each side. These dimensions more or less match the dimensions given in the Bible (Exodus 30:2) for the Israelite incense altar of the Tabernacle (though this altar shows no signs of having been used to burn incense). Moreover, the decorative features of the altar, including its horns and the groove and raised band of the base, are similar to Israelite altars described in the Bible (Exodus 27:2), as well as other Iron Age altars that have been found throughout the southern Levant.

But why does this altar have only two horns, when we know from the Bible and excavated examples that the altars of both the Israelites and, later, the Philistines, typically had four horns?**

The fact that the Tell es-Safi/Gath horned altar has only two horns may have to do with the cultural origins of the Philistines. As Louise Hitchcock, senior staff member of the Tell es-Safi/Gath excavations, has suggested, the very motif of the horned altar in the Levant may have been influenced by earlier Minoan “horns of consecration,” symbolic representations of the horns of the sacred bull in Minoan culture. In fact, there is an altar from the Late Bronze Age site of Myrtous Pigadhes in Cyprus that also has only two horns. The unique horned altar from Tell es-Safi/Gath, the earliest stone altar ever found from the land of the Philistines, may be another indication of the Aegean influences on early Philistine culture and quite possibly a hint to their origins.

 


 

Notes

* See Aren M. Maeir, “Did Captured Ark Afflict Philistines with E.D.?” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2008; Aren M. Maeir and Carl S. Ehrlich, “Excavating Philistine Gath: Have We Found Goliath’s Hometown?” Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 2001.

** See Yoel Elitzur and Doron Nir-Zevi, “Four-Horned Altar Discovered in Judean Hills,” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2004, and “Horned Altar for Animal Sacrifice Unearthed at Beer-Sheva,” Biblical Archaeology Review, March 1975.

 


 

Based on Aren M. Maeir, “Prize Find: Horned Altar from Tell es-Safi Hints at the Origins of the Philistines,” Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2012.

Posted in Artifacts and the Bible, The Ancient Near Eastern World.

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10 Responses

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  1. David says

    It looks like the “back side” of the altar is broken stone. Maybe there were four horns and two broke off sometime in the last 2800 years. There was an “impressive destruction level” after all.

  2. michaEL says

    My thoughts exactly, David!

  3. Kendall says

    it looks more like it wasnt really finished….the back just hadnt even been shaped.

  4. Varghese says

    Bible is disproved at last! Gen 10:13-14 says Egypt fathered the… Casluhites from which came Philistines.

  5. Shushannah says

    Here’s a thought: Goliath was a Philistine. He was also a GIANT of a man. The Nephilim (fallen angels) sired many giants by mating with human women. Perhaps the Philistines were all descended from Nephilim and Goliath’s size seems to be proof of this.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Israel Journal | LePremium Holy Land Tours linked to this post on January 23, 2012

    [...] A large horned alter was found at Tel es Safi; Tel es Safi is the original Philistine city of Gath, which was one of the largest of the five Philistine cites in Israel around 1,000 B.C.E. that did battle with the Israelites. (Here). [...]

  2. philistines: bastards in ashdod | Madame Pickwick Art Blog linked to this post on May 13, 2013

    [...] When the team came back to the field in July 2011, one of their first priorities was to clean up and straighten the collapsed balks. As they cleaned one of the balks in Area D (in the lower city), they came upon an unusually shaped stone object just 10 inches below the surface. Work was immediately stopped as they probed further, and, lo and behold, one of the horns of the altar appeared. Once they realized what thad discovered, the team began the slow, delicate process of excavating the entire horned altar.Read More:http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-artifacts/artifacts-and-the-bible/where-did-the-ph… [...]

  3. The Philistines in Jordan - Creation RevolutionCreation Revolution linked to this post on February 1, 2014

    [...] three of the five cities of the Philistine “pentapolis” were located on the coast; Philistine religion shows distinct Aegean characteristics; and the Philistine marketplace at Ashkelon was situated directly on the sea, suggesting a western [...]

  4. The Philistines in Jordan | historyonly linked to this post on February 2, 2014

    [...] three of the five cities of the Philistine “pentapolis” were located on the coast; Philistine religion shows distinct Aegean characteristics; and the Philistine marketplace at Ashkelon was situated directly on the sea, suggesting a western [...]

  5. The Philistines in Jordannewsantiques.com | newsantiques.com linked to this post on February 10, 2014

    [...] design of a Philistines: 3 of a 5 cities of a Philistine “pentapolis” were located on a coast; Philistine sacrament shows graphic Aegean characteristics; and a Philistine marketplace during Ashkelon was situated directly on a sea, suggesting a western [...]


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