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Contents of the first discovered Philistine cemetery unveiled

(Tsafrir Abayov/Leon Levy Expedition)

Earlier this year it was reported that the first Philistine cemetery was discovered on the Israeli coast near Ashkelon. Now, the contents of the 3,000 year-old cemetery have been revealed.

Burial practices of the mysterious group who are known for their conflicts with the israelis in the Bible and whose geographic origins remain unknown, is a much debated topic among scholars for decades.

“We are still working to understand the identity and origin of the Philistines,” excavation leader Adam Aja of Harvard’s Semitic Museum, told Foxnews.com. “The study of the burial practices and skeletal remains will contribute to this picture, but this will only be a part of.”

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The discovery has, however, also critical to a number of experts not associated with the excavation of questions about the identity of the persons buried at the cemetery.

The cemetery in the vicinity of Ashkelon, an area long connected with the ancient non–Semitic people, was discovered under a huge overburden of the soil just outside the settlement walls. He was buried under vast layers of the soil is, in Aja’s mind, a part of the reason Philistine cemeteries have not yet been discovered for so long.

While the overall size of the cemetery is unknown, the excavated area measures 65 x 98 metres and contains the remains of 227 Philistines, according to Aja. For a small area has a very high burial density, with two buried persons per ten square metres.

The dead Philistines’ ages ranged from babies to seniors, adults, and were buried in different ways.

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“I was impressed by the variety of burial types,” Aja said. “We found stone tombs, children buried under the pottery fragments [fragments of pottery] or down, pit digging, and cremations [in sealed jars]. This shows that there is no single burial practice for this population.”

Most of the bodies were buried in shallow graves, together with jugs and small containers that may have held perfume.

Aja is of the opinion that the cup, bowl, and juglet assembly that in many of the skeletons may have been part of a wine drinking set. “It is unclear whether this was intended for use by the dead, or as part of the funeral ceremony for life,” he said.

Some of the men were buried with decorative beads or engraved stones, while most of the women and children had on the jewelry– earrings, rings and bracelets that were generally made of bronze, or beads.

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Aja, he says, was very excited to see how the jewelry is worn.

“I often have a few beads in my excavations of settlements, but it was interesting to find the entire stringed necklace, bracelet or anklet is still intact on the body,” he said.

Many of the bodies showed signs of physiological and biological stress, which affects their growth and development. The Ashkelon dead were relatively short: men average 5’1″, women 4’10”. The small difference in height between the sexes is a sign of the population are undernourished. There were growth interruptions in many individual teeth, with the mention of fever and malnutrition, among other possible organic disorders.

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And while the Philistines were a notoriously violent people, none of the skeletal remains found showed signs of death in battle (although the team found a set of iron arrows in the vicinity of a man of the hip).

DNA testing needs a bit more light on the deceased Philistines’ health and causes of death.

“Among other things, we hope to add details with respect to the health of individuals on the basis of our study of the bone, and the population similarities based on DNA evidence, but it is still too early to say much about these things,” Aja said.

The team also found eight stone tombs, with the largest holding of 23 skeletons. The rooms were drawn up in three rows parallel to the coast.

There is hope that this is only the tip of the iceberg and that there are many more cemetery to be excavated.

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“It is uncertain what limit to our cemetery, causing this excessive use of every square meter of the ground,” Aja said. “It was never clear whether the cemetery was described, so that all the graves were forced in a particular field or in the graves were grouped around some feature in the landscape. In both cases, if the measured density was extrapolated across only the excavated areas, the number of funerals would top 1200 persons.”

He expects that the cemetery was much larger, and as it approached the maximum limits proposed by other evidence (more than 260 meters long), the number of buried persons would be many times greater.

The team is currently waiting on the results of the DNA analysis of the skeletons, which could eventually reveal where the Philistines originated.

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