Published: January 2001

Ancient Ashkelon

By Rick Gore
Photographs by Robert Clark
The ruins of a Byzantine church mark just one era of ancient Ashkelon's nearly 5,000-year history. The site of the once-walled city is now part of an Israeli national park, surrounded by the modern city of Ashkelon.

"They've found a new 'banana' in grid 50." Tracy Alsberg, a young archaeologist from the University of Chicago, is passing on the morning scuttlebutt from the dig at the ancient city of Ashkelon on the Mediterranean coast of Israel.

I have taken a break from the sweltering July heat and humidity to browse through 14 years of excavation records at her team's field office in a nearby hotel, but the new banana sends us back into the sun.

"Banana is our code word for human skeleton," explains Alsberg as we head over to grid 50, one of three active dig sites at Ashkelon this field season. In Israel, she explains, some Orthodox Jewish groups believe that human remains should not be disinterred. The previous season, members of one of those groups staged a protest after hearing that archaeologists were excavating skeletons from tombs of well-to-do Canaanites, pre-Israelite settlers of ancient Palestine. So this season team members speak in code.

Today Ashkelon is a forgotten name outside of Israel, and even there people know it mainly as a beachside city whose national park fills with bathers and picnickers on weekends. But as far back as 3500 b.c. Ashkelon was a major seaport.

Strategically located on the trade routes from Turkey and Syria to Egypt, it witnessed the rise and fall of numerous cultures besides the Canaanite, including Philistine, Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Crusader. The biblical Goliath probably walked its streets, as did Richard the Lion-Hearted, Alexander the Great, Herod, and Samson before he met Delilah. It was destroyed in 604 b.c. by the Babylonian king Nebuchadrezzar and again, for the final time, in a.d. 1270 by the Mamluks, the Islamic dynasty that ruled Egypt at the time.

Buried for centuries beneath its accumulated rubble, covering about 150 acres, Ashkelon has recently been emerging from obscurity. Since 1985 a team of archaeologists led by Lawrence Stager of Harvard University has found a trove of artifacts that reveal details about everything from the burial customs to the sexual practices of the people who lived there.

Alsberg and I meet Stager at grid 50, which fronts the beach. He is a large and cheerful man, and nothing can put fire in his eyes faster than word of a new find. Despite temperatures pushing 100˚F, he charges down the path that over the years his team has excavated through Islamic, Byzantine, and Roman occupations. We descend through layers that contain the foundations of storehouses built between 500 and 350 b.c., during Ashkelon's Persian–Phoenician period, to hold the town's abundant imports and exports. Then we pass a group digging out a building from the 13th century b.c., the closing era of Canaanite Ashkelon.

The Canaanites, a people who probably originated in eastern Syria, had begun migrating down the Mediterranean coast about seven centuries earlier. "They came by the boatload," says Stager. "They had master craftsmen and a clear idea of what they wanted to build—big fortified cities."

The Canaanites made Ashkelon a major center of trade, exporting wine and olive oil throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Stager's team recently found evidence of the cosmopolitan nature of Canaanite Ashkelon— part of a 13th-century tablet used to teach scribes languages. The tablet had one column of Canaanite words, which would have matched up with two or three adjacent columns containing equivalent words in different languages. Based on complete tablets found in Syria, linguists suspect that one column would have been a Semitic language called Akkadian, another an unrelated tongue, possibly Hurrian or Hittite.

Discovery seems continuous at this site. A student volunteer excitedly greets Stager with an Egyptian amulet of the baboon god. An older volunteer brings him a pottery sherd with a branching symbol painted on it. With one glance he identifies the symbol: "It's a Late Bronze Age tree of life."

When we reach the bottom of the grid, we enter the City of the Dead—a cluster of Canaanite burial chambers. So far the team has found 16 chambers, and Stager believes that there may be dozens more. Each was connected to the surface by a shaft.

"Families would bring their corpses down here," says Stager, "and put them in the middle of the chamber until the flesh rotted off. That could take several months. Then they'd place the bones in recesses and corners. Over time those families would have had quite a few ancestors buried here."

In a chamber about ten feet (three meters) in diameter three members of the team huddle over the skeleton they found this morning—a child about two years old. The youngest Canaanite skeleton uncovered at that point, it has been nicknamed "Baby."

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