Adornment in the Southern Levant

The body as a site of cultural expression in Philistia and beyond


Medinet Habu relief showing a Sea Peoples warrior wearing a feathered headdress.

Adornment is literally superficial—it rests upon the body’s surface. Yet personal ornaments constitute a fascinating field of material culture, as they can convey cultural identity—or what I prefer to term cultural intention. Cultural intention, a means of explaining human agency, is the wearing of objects that convey ethnicity and personal identity in a manner more immediate than verbal communication. How we present ourselves demonstrates both our group and regional belonging; it affects others’ perceptions of us and provides an outlet for individual expression.

In every society, people dress and adorn themselves according to social conventions and the realization of two basic desires: differentiation and inclusion. Likewise, the importance of jewellery and costume in the study of ancient art, the processing of materials and fabrication techniques should not be underestimated. Therefore, ornaments are not simply aesthetic artifacts or costume embellishments but are also an effective symbolic medium to convey complex information and messages which cannot always be inferred from other archaeological evidence.

The Early Iron Age I–IIA period of the southern coastal plain of the Levant (ca. 1200-900 B.C.E.) has certain new features that suggest the appearance of the Philistines or other Sea Peoples. Recent studies have shifted the focus away from the traditional view of Philistia—comprising the pentapolis sites Ashdod, Askhelon, Ekron, Gath and Gaza—as being settled by migrating groups from the Aegean. The evidence suggests that in fact a wide range of cultural interactions within the broader region were responsible for changes in cultural material at the start of the Iron Age. Philistine sites display distinct combinations of local and non-local cultural attributes. In fact, the cultural groups in Philistia display variations across sites and over time, and reference to them as a discrete or homogeneous entity is misleading. Furthermore, the cultural relationships between Philistine sites and the eastern Mediterranean remain a primary focus, while connection to sites in Transjordan and beyond is little understood.

The free eBook Life in the Ancient World guides you through craft centers in ancient Jerusalem, family structure across Israel and articles on ancient practices—from dining to makeup—across the Mediterranean world.

Topographic map of Tell es-Safi/Gath showing excavation areas and the location of the burial cave in Area T. Click for a larger view. Courtesy Tell es-Safi Archaeological Excavation.

My analysis of Early Iron Age jewellery and costume is informed by these cross-cultural relationships. Using data drawn from sites in Israel and Jordan, and more broadily from Cyprus and the Aegean, I examine methods of cultural display, with a particular focus on the jewellery from Gath as a result of my involvement since 2010 in the ongoing Tell es-Safi/Gath archaeological excavation under the direction of Professor Aren M. Maeir.1 This involvement as part of an Australian contingent from the University of Melbourne (led by Associate Professor Louise Hitchcock) has provided me the opportunity to study the jewellery from one of the few Philistine burials to be excavated: Tomb 1 in Area T (see map, right).2


Floral bud pendant from Tell el-Far‘ah (scale unknown).

The results of this research suggest that adornment in the Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age transition demonstrated two key issues that require further attention: first, the inclusion of a range of non-local customs as a form of either group solidarity through the continuity of older traditions or possibly the result of intermarriage; and secondly, that from the Iron Age I–IIA in particular, some forms were recontextualised by expressing Canaanite tradition through the lens of new regional social groups. This is particularly the case with a local form of a floral bud pendant earring, found at sites such as Beth Shemesh, Deir el Balah, Tell el-Far‘ah and Tel Nami, that transforms into a tassel at the end of the Iron Age I. The clearest indication of this can be sought at Tell el-Far‘ah (see image, left). The development of flower bud to tassel, a motif with both Western and Asiatic parallels, in the corpus of Levantine jewellery is contemporaneous with the appearance of Philistines in the region and perhaps heralds the visual demarcation of new identities according to ethnicity and status that may have been understood either by a cultural group or within a geographic area.

To date, the little known about Philistine dress and adornment also includes the heavily documented but poorly understood “feathered” headdress depicted in the mortuary temple of Rameses III at Medinet Habu in the reliefs of the land and sea battle between the Egyptian forces and the Sea Peoples. The feathered headdress-wearing individuals among the Sea Peoples have long been referred to as Philistines (or Peleset), although they are in fact also depicted on the Sea Peoples tribes known as Denyen and Tjekker (see images below). My research of this topic indicates that the headdress iconography can be found from northern Greece to Crete, from Italy to western Anatolia, Cyprus and the Near East, with extant parallels deriving from several Late Helladic III sites in Greece. Perhaps those who abandoned their cities during the period of unrest at the end of the Late Bronze Age to travel between Mediterranean ports with their ships and weapons joined a contingent drawn from the wider region who wore symbolic headdresses. These headdresses, I contend, were what drew these disparate maritime groups together.


Relief of the battle between the Egyptians and the Sea Peoples from the temple of Rameses III at Medinet Habu.


Detail of the battle relief from Medinet Habu.

While there are several indications of the adoption of non-local adornment traditions during the Early Iron Age in Philistia, most of these cannot yet be interpreted as “patterns” in material culture. They are simply the unsurprising result of multi-lateral forces that would have been an everyday reality for people living within reach of a coastal region of the Mediterranean.

I must stress, though, that to attempt an identification of cultural affiliation based purely on adornment is overly simplistic. The cultural matrix of a site or region must of course include a holistic view of the cultural material, of which personal adornment should be considered an important category. My aim is to provide a different set of data—one rarely used in archaeological reconstructions of the past—that has the capability of identifying individuals and their relationships to a larger group. Whether by jewellery or headwear, it is clear that, historically, individuals demonstrate public displays of communication to differentiate themselves from others while at the same time fostering inclusion within their own group.

Learn more about the Philistines in a BAS Library Special Collection featuring BAR articles by Trude Dothan, Lawrence E. Stager, Aren M. Maeir and more >>


1 The Tell es-Safi/ Gath Archaeological Excavation has been conducted since 1996 under the auspices of The Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Bar Ilan University, located in Ramat Gan, Israel. The project is directed by Professor Aren M. Maeir of Bar Ilan University in collaboration with teams from Australia, the United States and Canada.

2 M. Faerman, P. Smith, E. Boaretto, J. Uziel and A.M. Maeir, “‘. . . In Their Lives, and in Their Death . . .’: A Preliminary Study of an Iron Age Burial Cave at Tell Es-Safı, Israel,” Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palästina Vereins 127 (2011), pp. 29–48. This material will be published in A.M. Maeir, ed., Tell Es-Safi II, (Kommission: Harrassowitz Verlag) (forthcoming).

josephine-verduci-smJosephine Verduci is a Ph.D candidate at the University of Melbourne and has been a staff member on the Tell es-Safi/Gath archaeological excavation for the past five years. She specializes in ancient costume and jewellery, with a special focus on the formation of cultural identity. Verduci was the 2014 Sean W. Dever Memorial Prize winner for her paper “A Feather in Your Cap: Symbols of Philistine Warrior Status,” presented at the American Schools of Oriental Research 2013 Annual Meeting in Baltimore.

Related Content in Bible History Daily:

Where Did the Philistines Come From?

Philistine Cemetery Unearthed at Ashkelon

Philistine and Israelite Religion at Tell es-Safi/Gath

Remembering Trude Dothan by Seymour Gitin

The Philistine Marketplace at Ashkelon


5 Responses

  1. Bill says:

    Do you think that the beads as well as headdress could be a symbol of military rank or social status in the community?

  2. Vorax says:

    So many studies, so many scholars, years and sleepless nights passed analyzing those sea people. Linguistic, cultural remains, burials etc. Are they from here or from there…. And no one tried to extract the DNA from the skeletons of the philistine burials. ..who knows why. That simple strain of ribonucleic acid would have ended the debate once for all.
    They do it for everything, but when it comes to this region it’s somehow taboo to do it.

  3. Egon H.E. Lass says:

    Josephine, I’m part of the Ashkelon crew, now working on Persian flotation project. You can find my work on Microcommons and Academia. Have been finding hundreds of small beads in domestic context, in Iron I and II, and probably in the Persian period still in progress, waiting for analysis. Have used them intuitively as an indicator of gender (as in women’s domain). Hope that this is justified, although there’s no reason why men would not wear small beads, though I think, intuitively, that they would have preferred larger adornments. Would love to hear your take on this.

  4. Nice piece by Jo Verducci | The Tell es-Safi/Gath Excavations Official (and Unofficial) Weblog says:

    […] Verducci has notified me of a very nice essay that she has just published in Bible History Daily on Philistine adornment, referring, inter alia, […]

  5. Carlton Bookheimer says:

    Like sea birds, their feet were the claws, their hands wielding weapons were the beak. Their ships were the body, the sails were the wings. The feathered headress made them waterproof and was the symbol of their flock and freedom.

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