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Archaeological Dig May Counter Bible's Version Of The Philistines


American archaeologists say they've made a discovery in Israel. This discovery sheds light on some of the Bible's bad guys - the Philistines. This is not the first time that Philistine artifacts have been unearthed, but this is the first cemetery found so far. And as NPR's Daniel Estrin reports, the bones might tell a story that the Bible does not.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: David and Goliath is the most famous story about the Philistines - Goliath, a giant Philistine warrior who challenged the Israelites to battle but ended up vanquished by David. They fought Samson as well. In the Bible, the Philistines were among the Israelites' biggest enemies. The Philistines lived in the region between the 12th and 7th centuries B.C. But scholars say they're trying to get beyond the one-sided account of the Philistines. Archaeologist Daniel Master of Wheaton College in Illinois is the co-director of the dig at the site.

DANIEL MASTER: We have the story of the Philistines as told by their enemies. What we want to do is tell the story of the Philistines from beginning to end from their point of view.

ESTRIN: There have been other digs at Philistine sites, but this is the first time archaeologists have found a large group of the Philistines' remains, the bones of more than 200 Philistine people buried in the sand here at the site of the biblical city of Ashkelon. Many of them complete skeletons, head to toe, wearing bracelets and toe rings and buried with bottles of perfume near their nostrils. Now, university students spend their mornings in a shady corner near the dig, quietly scratching at the bones with chopsticks and dental tools.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I'm just cleaning off the soil around this bone so that it can be analyzed properly later without the soil disturbing it.

ESTRIN: Scholars have long believed the Philistines came to this region from what is now modern Greece or Turkey. Researchers are now testing some DNA samples found on the bones to see if that's really true. The archaeologists discovered the cemetery in 2013, but they kept it a secret for three years - no Facebook posts allowed - until they finish their dig this week. In Israel, excavations can spark controversy. Small but vocal groups of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel have demonstrated when human remains have been excavated, arguing that the bones could belong to Jews and disturbing them would be sacrilegious. But Master says his team felt very welcomed doing its work.

MASTER: And after all, we were digging Philistines. And Philistines are not the same as digging other groups of people. Remember, this is the arch-enemy.

ESTRIN: But looking at what they dug up, the archaeologist says the Philistines don't deserve their reputation.

MASTER: Well, you can think about what it would mean if you called someone a Philistine today. It would mean they didn't like art and they didn't like music or perhaps they were just uncultured, and so they've really gotten a bad rap. But when we look at them, there wasn't a period where we don't see them loving art and sophistication and decoration.

ESTRIN: Based on the findings from the dig, Master says, the Philistines appear to be a people who came from far away. They made a home on the Mediterranean and had different burial customs and used distinctive pottery. While they may have been Philistines, they had a rich culture. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Ashkelon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
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