Tell es-Safi – Mightier than you Might have Thought

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Tel es-Safi National Park

Before I take you to the ancient Philistine city of Gath (Tell es-Safi, or תל צפית), I’d like to tell you how I got there. It all started in March 30 in New York, when I went to a symposium in the Center for Jewish History, called “In the Valley of David and Goliath: Digging up the Evidence of the United Monarchy”. If you haven’t yet been to – or heard about – Khirbet Quiayafa (Biblical Sha’arayim. See I Samuel 17:52) – then you should definitely look it up:

Aerial photo of Khirbet Qeiyafa. Picture from HUJI link above

And if you will be in Jerusalem anytime from September 22, 2016, you would be in for a special treat if you visit the Bible Lands Museum:

The museum is hosting the exhibition “In the Valley of David and Goliath”, showcasing the latest finds from that site. Some of these sites have changed the pages of history, and they all have exciting stories. Don’t miss it!

While getting to know different people who attended the events, I met Professor Jill Katz of Yeshiva University. It turns out that she was going to be part of an expedition to Tel es-Safi, and she invited me to the dig, if I will be in Israel. At the time I wasn’t sure I was going to make it, but as it turned out – I did!

Getting in touch ahead of time with Dr. Aren Maeir, the director of the expedition, I got permission to film some footage from the site, and to conduct several interviews with archaeologists. That itself would be an important task, but I was there to get down and dirty with uncovering history. Luckily, I was able to do both, and I am now going to share it with you!

But before I do, please make sure to check out Dr. Maeir’s blog, which was updated almost daily during the excavation and surely has lots of exciting footage:

In this article, I will share some of my personal experiences at the dig, as well as some of the things I learned from the interviews I conducted on site. Hopefully soon, I plan to post the entire transcripts with videos and footage of, and relating to, the interviews.

Interviews I succeeded in recording:

  1. Dr. Aren Maeir – Bar Ilan University
  2. Professor Jill Katz – Yeshiva University
  3. Dr. Daniel Warner – Head of the Tel Gezer Excavations (check out and

tel es safi altar 2011.jpg

An altar uncovered in previous excavations of es-Safi (ca. 2011). The altar is important because it teaches about Philistine ritual, and their cultural relationship to the neighboring nations at the time. Picture from the article:


Day 1: Monday, July 12, 2016

It is said that the best way to learn a foreign language is through immersion. Well, I learned a lot of archaeological terminology through immersion. With abbreviations such as “EB”, “MB” and “LB” thrown around (Respectively: Early, Middle and Late Bronze Age), I was immersed in conversation about different excavations, comparative analyses of finds, and biblical references. I also met a whole lot of interesting people, who came to learn through the digging into the dust of the land.

I was working in “Area P”, while further up the Tel was “Area E”. I was immediately assigned a square to work in, learning quickly terms such as “banketim” (Hebrew for the ramps which outline the 5×5 Meter square areas into which a site is typically divided), usage of pickaxes and types of shovels, what is “topsoil” and what are “mud bricks”, uttered in a number of accents, from Hebrew and Russian to Korean.

It was a crowded day at the site. Besides myself and many other volunteers of all ages, there was a group of Yeshiva University students who joined for the day, as well as a group of Israeli soldiers. Apparently, their commanders decided it would be a good idea to spice it up a bit and join a dig for a couple days.

Aren Maeir Interview.jpg
Dr. Maeir, during the interview

“But why Tel es-Safi”, you ask? I’ll let Dr. Maeir answer that:

“…it is a site which is identified as Gath, one of the five cities of the Philistines known from the Bible (Introduced in Joshua 13:3, and then several times throughout Judges and Samuel), and we find here substantial remains of the Philistines and their culture. And more specifically, we can talk about various historical events that are mentioned in the biblical texts, such as the conquest of Gath by Hazael which is mentioned in II Kings 12:18, and we can find the remains of the destruction of the site at the time”

We spoke earlier about the battle of David against the giant Philistine, Goliath. Gath was his very own hometown!

“We know of the importance of Gath to the Philistines in the stories relating to David…and we can find the remains of a very, very impressive city at the time.

“We hear the story of David who is escaping from Saul, and meeting Achish king of Gath – faking [to be] mad – and we excavated the gate of Gath. Even though it is not necessarily that gate (which David wrote all over in his apparent madness)…it gives us a nice idea of what a gate at that time looked like.”

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Examining a clay shard I unearthed

I can say, personally, that when I had the historic context of where I was digging, it made the uncovering of pottery shards, jug handles and even a flint blade – a lot more exciting!

When I asked Professor Katz why we should come and dig, she said “…the amazing thing about it is that we really do not know what we are going to find. And the only way to find what’s here, is to dig! It is the only way to find out.”

We found out a lot about the site. I think that the most important lesson I took from this day is how impressive this city was. When we read about it in Tanach, it’s basically yet another nameless city, which had nameless villains who are long gone. But through this experience, I know now more about these people and their lifestyle, as well as the impact that this city might have had on my hillside-dwelling ancestors. In the words of Professor Katz:

“…this site, is a wonderful site. I think the first thing that anybody coming to the site would notice…is you get the sense of the scale. This is a huge site in the ancient world, something on the order of 500 dunam (around 123 acres), which is probably around ten times the size of Jerusalem in the Iron Age I period (1150-1000 BCE, estimated time of King David and King Solomon). The philistines were formidable. Even though they were just in the southern coastal plain, they were a real power. They came and built large cities, cities that were fortified, cities that…would have dominated the region. So I think that working at Gath, and knowing that we are really at the beginning of the foothills, you get a sense of what the Israelites living in the hillside must have felt when they looks down from the hills to the foothills, and knew there was this huge city there, with a population that was well organized, and quite affluent, on a relative scale”.

And I did say that there were surprises. One of those “small world” surprises: Uri Shalmon, my neighbor from Highland Park was digging there for the day, with Yeshiva University. Israel – it’s where these things happen!


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With Uri Shalmon

Day 2: Wednesday, July 14

I was infused, energized, motivated. I wanted to share this excitement with my friends. Convincing two of my friends, Josh and Mark, to join me, we made our way to another day at Safi. The way it goes is everyone starts setting up and digging before day break, around 5:45. Then, at 7:00 we have a coffee break. At 9:00 we have breakfast, and at 11:00 there is a “watermelon break” – exciting to us, but to those on the site every day for the past few weeks, the same drill gets rather boring. 12:00 is when we start wrapping up and getting on buses. Once everyone gets to the lodging (Kibbutz Revadim), there is the pottery wash activity, which I did not participate on this site. I did in the next site I visited, but that is for another article.


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Enjoying watermelon break with Josh and Mark

On this day I was assigned a different area. Lo and behold, two small world surprises: In the same spot that Josh, Mark and I were working, Josh found a neighbor from his street in his hometown of St. Louis, and I bumped into the older sister of my student, from New Jersey.


This day was a particularly intensive say, but not as crowded. This was basically the last day of digging, and everything had to be wrapped up, documented, and prepared for inspection. That is the main reason I was unable to interview Amit Dagan – he was extremely preoccupied with finishing up the dig with as much clarity as possible. It was truly inspiring to watch him hop from spot to spot, feeling the earth, examining, conversing about it.

There is a lot of information that was learned on this site, both about the site itself, and about the contributions of archaeology to our classrooms and text-based lessons. I would like to dedicate a separate article to the three interviews (and corresponding footage) that I recorded here, because there are so many interesting things that expand outward. For example, Dr. Dan Warner directs the dig in Tel Gezer, another biblical site, and is also working on innovative methods for bringing sites to life in the classroom. These things deserve their own spotlight.

To sum up the second day at Tel es-Safi, I think the most important lesson I learned is from the interview with Prof. Katz: Archaeology teaches us about the life of the common people, while history is written by the victor. In her own words:

“I think that Archaeological studies are a good compliment to historical studies. In the sense that…the general approach is that this is reflecting the elite culture, maybe the male culture, but this is something that is written by the victors. And so, there’s whole swaps of people and of life that are not really reflected in history.”

Indeed, when it comes to the Philistines, this is very true. But we know a lot about our interactions with them. What about the “seven nations” who settled the land? We are commanded to inherit the land and send those people away – or fight them. But why? Who are they? What is their story? What remains of them? These are all intriguing questions. Every morning in the prayers we review in brief the history of Abraham through David, talking about the covenant to Abraham who is given inheritance of the “Land of the Canaanites: The Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites and the Girgashites (Geshurites?)” nations forgotten from the annals of history, and if not for our daily mention of them, who would remember them? What do we know about them, indeed?

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Professor Katz, during the interview

“…you can find out what the kings and queens were doing, and what the elite were doing, but you don’t necessarily know what the average person was doing.

So I think what the big advantage of archaeology is that we have the opportunity to…find the remains of almost everybody…there is a lot of emphasis, particularly today, in excavating a farmstead, investigating just the daily life of regular people.

The number one find that we find in archaeological sites are ceramic remains, pots. Ceramics is something that everybody used, it was ubiquitous.

A king or queen – they would have fancy pots. But the average person still had to use pots for storing food, for preparing food, serving food, eating food. Everybody was using it.



So I think the best thing about archaeology is that it reflects sort of the general population as well as the elite population. And it reminds us that, you know, most of us are not necessarily in the elite. So you get a sense of what the majority of people were like.”

A very humbling thought, indeed. Who would have thought that digging in the dust reminds us that, well, we should also be humble. As Abraham said:

Abraham spoke up, saying, “Here I venture to speak to my Lord, I who am but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27)

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Dr. Maeir and Dr. Dagan surveying the site at the end of the day

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