[To survey the history of the Philistines as known primarily from the archaeological record, this entry comprises two articles: Early Philistines and Late Philistines.]

Early Philistines

The Philistines were one of the ancient Sea Peoples of unspecified Aegean origin who settled along the coast of Canaan in the Early Iron I period (beginning of the twelfth century BCE), soon after the destruction of the Mycenaean palaces on the Greek mainland. They were a people of cultural and material sophistication who maintained their own sense of cultural identity in their cities and settlements in southern Palestine for about six hundred years.

There are two major sources for the early history of the Philistines after their arrival in the ancient Near East: Egyptian records and the Hebrew Bible. The first specific mention of the Philistines is from the twelfth century BCE (probably 1191 BCE), in the inscriptions and reliefs of the mortuary temple of Rameses III at Medinet Habu in Thebes. The texts refer to a people called the pršt or plšt, which must be no other than the biblical Philistines. The records describe their defeat, as well as that of other allied peoples, by the Egyptian army led by pharaoh, who repulsed a combined land and sea attack at the mouth of the Nile River. The accompanying battle scenes depict ships with prows decorated with lion or bird heads; the Sea Peoples' warriors wear high feathered headdresses and are armed with straight swords, spears, and round shields. In another scene the women and children are being borne in oxcarts. This information is supplemented by Papyrus Harris I and the Onomasticon of Amenope. Papyrus Harris I also describes Rameses' defeat of the Philistines in which they “are made as ashes.” The Onomasticon of Amenope is an encyclopedia of such various subjects as natural history, customs, and foreign peoples. In it the Philistines are reported as dwelling in the coastal cities of Gaza, Ashkelon, and Ashdod. [See Ashkelon; Ashdod.]

The Hebrew Bible provides supplemental information on the early history of the Philistines in Palestine and lists the cities of the Philistine Pentapolis as Ashkelon, Gaza, Ashdod, Ekron/Tel Miqne, and Gath/Tel ῾Erani (cf. Jos. 13:2–3) as well as smaller, semiautonomous centers such as Ziklag (cf. 1 Sm. 27:5) and Timnah/Tel Batash (cf. Jgs. 14). Other references suggest that their territorial expansion may have reached much farther north and inland, perhaps as far as Beth-Shean. [See Miqne, Tel; ῾Erani, Tel; Batash, Tel; BethShean.] A number of passages point to the Philistines' technological expertise, suggesting that they possessed a monopoly on smithery (cf. 1 Sm. 13:19–23). Their warrior champion, Goliath, is described as having worn a bronze helmet and a coat of chain mail with greaves and having carried a bronze javelin and a spear with an iron tip. Coupled with the description of the battle, whose outcome was decided by a duel between champions, the Goliath narrative is strongly reminiscent of the Homeric epic tales of Greek heroes engaged in single combat.

Modern archaeological investigation of the Philistines began In 1889, when Sir William Flinders Petrie, excavating New Kingdom tombs in the Faiyum discovered evidence of cultural and commercial contacts between Egypt and the Aegean in the fifteenth–twelfth centuries BCE. [See Faiyum.] Included among the typically Egyptian tomb goods was Mycenaean pottery that could be dated by the inscribed scarabs found with them. [See Grave Goods.] This was followed by the discovery of Mycenaean sherds in Palestine at Tell eṣ-Ṣafi, the presumed site of Philistine Gath. It soon became accepted that a particular repertoire of elaborately decorated red-and-black-painted vessels was the identifying hallmark of Philistine ceramics. Duncan Mackenzie's discovery of similar pottery at Ashkelon in a stratum directly above an earlier thick layer of ash suggested that the Philistines had conquered and razed that flourishing Canaanite city in the twelfth century BCE and subsequently built their own settlement on the ruins.

Recent investigations have expanded upon the Aegean context of Philistine culture with regard to Egyptian, Canaanite, and Israelite cultures, exploring social, economic, and cultic aspects of Philistine life: Ashdod has been extensively excavated and excavations at Ekron/Tel Miqne and Ashkelon are still in progress. Excavations at Tell Qasile near Tel Aviv indicate that Philistine settlement was more widespread than previously thought and its patterns considerably more varied. [See Qasile, Tell.]

It is clear from the discovery of underground silos, flint sickle blades, millstones, oil presses, loom weights, and wine jars that the Philistines were not merely the warriors depicted on Egyptian reliefs and in the biblical narratives: they were experienced farmers as well. They were, for the most part, however, urban dwellers, living in well-planned and well-fortified cities with developing industries. The very earliest Philistine levels, exhibited best at Ashdod and at Miqne, show the cities divided into zones: an industrial belt, a central area with monumental public architecture and shrines, and a domestic area. The cities were ringed by thick mudbrick fortification walls. The general plan was more or less adhered to in each successive level as expansion took place.

Philistine cult practices incorporated such Aegean traits as the seated female deity (best exemplified by the numerous examples found at Ashdod), temples with apses (also known from Ashdod), offering benches (Tell Qasile), votive vessels called kernoi, ritual burial pits, hearth rooms (Miqne, Tell Qasile), and connecting cult and industry—exhibited most clearly in the Late Iron II (seventh century BCE) phases by the four-horned alters associated with the olive-oil industry. [See Cult; Olives.] Over the course of time, the Philistines gradually assimilated elements of Semitic and Canaanite beliefs into their own religion. The Hebrew Bible, for instance, mentions the Semitic deity Dagon being worshipped in Ashdod (1 Sm. 5:2).

So far, no Philistine burials have been uncovered in any of the major cities of the Pentapolis. However, several cemeteries that may be related to Philistine culture on the basis of tomb contents (e.g., Azor), show great diversity in the manner of interment. [See Burial Techniques.] Interment practices included simple single inhumations in earthen graves and jars (Azor) and rock-out, communal graves (Tell el-Far῾ah [South], Beth-Shean). Two other Philistine burial customs—both ostensibly borrowed from foreign traditions—are the use of anthropoid clay sarcophagi (cf. Deir el-Balaḥ), modeled after Egyptian examples, and rockcut chamber tombs reminiscent of Mycenaean burial customs. [See Deir el-Balaḥ.] There is also some evidence from Azor that cremation may have been employed, a practice unknown in Mycenaean Greece but documented in Asia Minor.

Glimpses of Philistine mourning customs may be gleaned from terra-cotta female mourning figurines with their hands placed on their head or with one hand placed across the breast that have been found at burial sites at Azor and Tell Jemmeh. [See Jemmeh, Tell.] Similar examples are known from the Aegean from the cemetery at Perati on the Greek mainland; from Ialysos on Rhodes; the island of Naxos; and eastern Crete. These figurines are often attached to the rims of Philistine kraters and are similar to large Aegean bowls called kalathoi that have figurines attached to their rims.

Four different influences can be seen in the decoration of Philistine pottery: first and most dominant is the Mycenaean. A Cypriot, Egyptian, and local Canaanite influence is also evident in form and decoration. The earliest Philistine pottery has a monochrome decoration, but “classical” Philistine pottery is red-and-black bichrome ware on a white slip. Most of the motifs—birds, fish, spirals, concentric semicircles, chevrons—were borrowed from the Mycenaean IIIC:1b decorative repertoire. At a later stage, the white slip gave way to red slip, hand burnished with dark-brown decoration. Common Philistine shapes are the bowl, krater, stirrup jar, pyxis, amphoriskos, three-handled jar, strainer spout, and juglet pinched in at its middle. Types of cult vessels include ring kernoi, kernos bowls, zoomorphic vessels, rhyta, cup-bearing kraters, and seated female terracotta figurines called Ashdoda (named for Ashdod, where they were initially discovered).

Very little is known about the language of the Philistines, except what can be gleaned from the Hebrew Bible. For instance, the title seren given to the rulers of the Philistine cities is thought to be Indo-European—perhaps Proto-Greek or Lydian—and related to the Greek word turanos, “tyrant.” No inscriptions from Iron I Philistine levels have yet been found, although two seals from Ashdod bear as yet undeciphered signs. Some scholars have suggested that clay tablets discovered at Tell Deir ῾Alla may represent Philistine script. [See Deir ῾Alla, Tell.] However, both the nature and alphabet of the Philistine language continue to be the subject of controversy.

The Philistines played a significant role in the history of the ancient Near East by furthering the connections between Canaan and the rest of the eastern Mediterranean world. They brought to the region a developed material culture that continued to evolve, even as it was affected by local, indigenous influences. The Philistines were accomplished architects and engineers, artistic potters, textile manufacturers, dyers, metalworkers, silversmiths, farmers, soldiers, and sophisticated urban planners. They played a pivotal role in the political upheavals and population movements that marked the transition from the Bronze to the Iron Age in southern Canaan.


  • Aharoni, Yohanan. The Land of the Bible. 2d ed. Philadelphia, 1979.
  • Dothan, Trude. The Philistines and Their Material Culture. New Haven, 1982.
  • Dothan, Trude. “The Arrival of the Sea Peoples: Cultural Diversity in Early Iron Age Canaan.” In Recent Excavations in Israel: Studies in Iron Age Archaeology, edited by Seymour Gitin and William G. Dever, pp. 1–14. Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 49. Winona Lake, Ind., 1989.
  • Dothan, Trude. “Ekron of the Philistines, Part I: Where They Came From, How They Settled Down, and the Place They Worshipped In.” Biblical Archaeology Review 16.1 (1990): 26–36.
  • Dothan, Trude, and Moshe Dothan. People of the Sea: The Search for the Philistines. New York, 1992.
  • Dothan, Trude. “Tel Miqne Ekron: The Aegean Affinities of the Sea Peoples' (Philistines') Settlement in Canaan in the Iron Age I.” In Recent Excavations in Israel: A View to the West. Reports on Kabri, Nami, Miqne-Ekron, Dor, and Ashkelon, edited by Seymour Gitin, pp. 41–59. Archaeological Institute of America Colloquia and Conference Papers, no. 1. Dubuque, Iowa, 1995.
  • Mazar, Amihai. Excavations at Tell Qasile, part 1, The Philistine Sanctuary: Architecture and Cult Objects; part 2, The Philistine Sanctuary: Various Finds, the Pottery, Conclusions, Appendixes. Qedem, vols. 12, 20. Jerusalem, 1980–1985.

Tru de Dothan

Late Philistines

The Late Philistine period (Iron Age II, 1000–600 BCE) represents the second and final chapter in the history of an immigrant society as it adapted to the continuous impact of external forces, while maintaining the features that gave it its own peculiar identity. By the beginning of the tenth century BCE, this dual process was well advanced in Philistia. Most of the material culture traditions of the early immigrant Sea Peoples had disappeared, and new traditions had been adopted from neighboring societies. This process, during which Philistia experienced periods of decline and growth, continued until the end of the Iron Age. The phenomena that demonstrate the long-term regional character of Philistia in Iron II are the continuity of occupation at traditional Philistine sites, the development of Philistine coastal plain material culture traditions, and the dynamics of the behavioral patterns and interactions between Philistia, Judah, and the Neo-Assyrian Empire. [See Judah; Assyrians.]

The excavations at Ashdod and Tel Miqne/Ekron, two of the five Philistine capital cities, provide the evidence for the regional character of Philistia throughout Iron II. Thus far, Ashkelon has produced evidence only for the end of the period, and Gaza and Gath (possibly Tel eṣ-Ṣafi), offer little or no secure archaeological data. [See Ashdod; Miqne, Tell; Ashkelon.]

Ashdod, following the destruction of its 200-year-old Philistine city at the beginning of the tenth century, was rebuilt in stratum X. This stratum contained pottery characteristic of the end of Iron I, such as bowls with horizontal handles of the “degenerative” Philistine type. It also produced pottery with features that represent new elements of material culture that developed through most of the Iron II period. One such group of pottery forms is Ashdod ware, with its decorative pattern of red-slipped and hand-burnished pottery with black and white bands. Together with the other decorated and coarse ware forms of the Philistine coastal plain ceramic tradition, they belong to a corpus that developed through stratum VI until the end of the seventh century BCE. During these three hundred and fifty years, the acropolis and the large fortified lower city of more than 75 acres were both occupied, although the latter not continuously in all areas.

At Ekron, with the destruction of stratum IV in the first quarter of the tenth century, the large lower Iron I city was abandoned, not to be resettled until the very end of the eighth century. The Northeast Acropolis continued to be occupied, however. Strata III–II (tenth–the eighth centuries) produced new fortifications, monumental architecture, and the continuation of the stratum IV ceramic tradition of redslipped and burnished decoration. Also, coarse-ware forms, including jars, jugs, and bowls, among others, some of which had developed out of Iron I ceramic traditions, came to constitute part of a new southern coastal tradition. This corpus is fully represented in its final development in stratum I of the seventh century, not only at Ekron, but at Ashdod, Ashkelon, and Timnah/Tel Batash. [See Batash, Tel.] It is in stratum I, following the 701 BCE conquest by Sennacherib (see below), that Ekron expanded to more than 75 acres and became an international entrepôt, with the largest industrial center in antiquity known to date for the production of olive oil. [See Olives.] The stratum I city also produced five caches of jewelry with two hundred pieces of silver jewelry and silver ingots. [See Jewelry.] These were most likely used as currency, vital to the advancement of the multinational Assyrian commercial policies that also involved Phoenician maritime trade. [See Phoenicians.] While maintaining its coastal plain traditions in architecture and pottery, Ekron, like Philistia in general, developed into a multicultural society, as indicated by the presence of Israelite, Neo-Assyrian, Phoenician, and Egyptian elements of material culture. At Ekron, these include, among others, the monumental Neo-Assyrian-type palace and cultic objects (e.g., a silver medallion with a Neo-Assyrian motif depicting the goddess Ishtar), Israelite incense-type four-horned stone altars, Phoenicianlike inscriptions (qdš l'šrt, “dedicated for the goddess Asherah,” and lmqm, “for the shrine”), and an Egyptian Hathor sistrum. [See Cult; Altars.]

At Ashkelon, to date, only the final (seventh century) Iron Age occupation phase has been exposed on a large scale. This evidence, similar to that at Ashdod and Ekron, but containing a larger sample of imports, has enhanced the scope of material culture features that define the final corpus of Philistine coastal plain material culture. Tell Qasile, Tel Batash/Timnah, and Tell esh-Shari῾a/Tel Sera῾ on the periphery of Philistia provide further evidence of continuity and the impact of other cultures. [See Qasile, Tell; Sera῾, Tel.]

Textual references from as late as the eighth and seventh centuries BCE that reflect Philistia's status as a separate geographic, political, and demographic entity are found in several of the prophetic books of the Bible (Am. 1:6–8; Jer. 25:20; Zep. 2:4; Zec. 9:5–8). In them the Philistines are seen as the Israelites' principal “other,” or main antagonist. Their separate existence is also documented in Neo-Assyrian texts: in the royal annals, Sargon II cites his 712 BCE conquests of Ashdod, Ekron, Gath; the 701 BCE conquest of Ekron is described in the annals of Sennacherib; in the first half of the seventh century BCE it was recorded in the annals of Esarhaddon that the kings of Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron, and Gaza supplied materials for the construction of the palace in Nineveh; In 667 BCE Ashurbanipal, in his royal annals, is quoted as ordering the vassal kings of Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron, and Gaza to support his military campaigns against Egypt and Cush; and Nebuchadrezzar's campaign against Ashkelon In 604 BCE and against a Philistine city In 603 BCE (probably Ekron) is described in the Babylonian chronicles. [See Nineveh.] The texts use the names Palaštu (Philistia), ῾Amqar(r)ūna (Ekron), Ašdudu (Ashdod), Ḫazatu (Gaza), and Išqaluna (Ashkelon) to refer to the region, cities, and people of Philistia.

Philistia's collapse at the end of the seventh century BCE was the result of the cumulative effect of the process of acculturation, accelerated by the new economic patterns established when Philistia became integrated into the Neo-Assyrian Empire in that century and subject to a wide range of cultural influences from Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean basin. The impact was so overwhelming that, by the time of the Neo-Babylonian conquest of 604–601 BCE, Philistia no longer had a sufficiently strong or resilient core culture to survive the destruction of its cities and the deportation of its population.

The ultimate fate of the inhabitants of Philistia is hinted at in the Babylonian ration lists of the first quarter of the sixth century, in which the sons of Aga, the last king of Ashkelon, are mentioned. The final echo of the Philistines can be heard in the second half of the fifth century BCE, in the toponyms from the Murašû archives from Nippur. [See Nippur.] They point to ethnic self-identification among the exiles in Babylonia, who are listed by the name of a local region: Išqalunu, “Ashkelon,” and Ḫazatu, “Gaza.” With this, the Philistines disappear from the pages of history.


  • Gitin, Seymour. “Tel Miqne: A Type-Site for the Inner Coastal Plain in the Iron Age II Period.” In Recent Excavations in Israel: Studies in Iron Age Archaeology, edited by Seymour Gitin and William G. Dever, pp. 23–58. Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 49 Winona Lake, Ind., 1989.
  • Gitin, Seymour. “Ekron of the Philistines, Part II: Olive Oil Suppliers to the World.” Biblical Archaeology Review 16.2 (1990): 32–42, 59.
  • Gitin, Seymour. “Last Days of the Philistines.” Archaeology 45.3 (1992): 26–31.
  • Gitin, Seymour. “Tel Miqne–Ekron in the Seventh Century BCE: The Impact of Economic Innovation and Foreign Cultural Influences on a Neo-Assyrian Vassal City-State.” In Recent Excavations in Israel: A View to the West. Reports on Kabri, Nami, Miqne-Ekron, Dor, and Ashkelon, edited by Seymour Gitin, pp. 61–79. Archaeological Institute of America Colloquia and Conference Papers, no. 1. Dubuque, Iowa, 1995.
  • Mazar, Amihai. Archaeology of the Land of the Bible, 10,000–586 B.C.E. New York, 1990. See chapter 12, “Philistia.”
  • Porten, Bezalel. “The Identity of King Adon.” Biblical Archaeologist 44 (1981): 36–52.
  • Tadmor, Hayim. “Philistia under Assyrian Rule.” Biblical Archaeologist 29 (1966): 86–102.

Seymour Gitin