Baby gives the team a new piece of information about Canaanite culture. It was buried with Egyptian scarabs, or magical charms, around its neck, indicating that children were given full status in Canaanite culture. In subsequent finds, children even younger were similarly buried.
Later that day I see Baby again. Netta Lev-Tov, a physical anthropology student, is cleaning and measuring the bones under a sunshade near the hotel where the team stays. Besides Baby, Lev-Tov is working with the remains of three adult males that the team has whimsically named Franky, Johnny, and Mr. Man.
"These were robust men," she says. "They were muscular and had very manly jaws. These people ate dust every day. Sand got in their food and wore their teeth down quickly."
The teeth intrigue specialists like Lev-Tov for another reason. DNA from dental interiors may one day enable scientists to determine how closely these buried people were related to each other as well as to other Mediterranean populations, both ancient and modern.
The canaanites fascinate Stager, partly because so little is known about them. They and the Philistines are largely what drew him to this forgotten site. In 1985 he got an opportunity most archaeologists only dream about. Leon Levy, a wealthy U.S. businessman and connoisseur of ancient art, was impressed by his record and offered to finance the excavation of any site Stager chose. He settled on Ashkelon.
Although archaeologists knew Ashkelon's location from its crumbling medieval walls, few had dug in the tell. In 1815 a wealthy Englishwoman, Lady Hester Stanhope, found part of a Roman-era basilica while searching for a treasure marked on a medieval monk's map. In the early 1920s John Garstang, a British archaeologist, tried to find the layers containing Philistine buildings. Although his team discovered Philistine artifacts at the bottom of two trenches they dug, they abandoned the project. There were simply too many layers from later cultures to dig through.
Ashkelon posed no less of a challenge to Stager, but with ample funds he began digging, and found the Canaanites much more quickly than he had expected.
"This is where we first started to realize the magnitude of this place," says Stager, as we stand alongside an ancient moat a few hundred feet in from the beach. We are looking up at a 50-foot-high (15 meters) sloping earthen rampart covered by row after row of fieldstones. As imposing as this barricade is, it is merely the base of a great wall with towers built by the Canaanites in 1850 b.c., a century after they reached Ashkelon. That towered wall probably rose another hundred feet and formed an arc 1.4 miles (2.3 kilometer) long around the city. It protected some 15,000 inhabitants—quite large for an ancient city. By comparison, Babylon at this time might have had a population of 30,000.
The rampart was an extraordinary 150 feet (46 meters) thick—a defensive necessity, says Stager. "Armies besieging a city used to dig tunnels under its rampart either to sneak into the city or to undermine the structure, causing part of the wall to collapse."
Stager's team discovered the rampart by luck in 1987. The operator of a nearby resort had illegally sent a bulldozer to the site to dig sand for making concrete. The bulldozer scrapings exposed mud bricks and some pottery that the ancients had thrown into the base of the rampart. Working with picks and wheelbarrows over the next 12 excavation seasons, which last about two months each summer, team members exposed a 900-foot-long (274 meters) stretch of the rampart as well as a moat that lay before it. They also uncovered the oldest known arched gateway in the world. More than 8 feet wide (two meters), 12 feet (four meters) high, and lined with mud brick, it was built as part of the great towered wall in 1850 b.c.
In its prime this gateway would have bustled with activity. Oxcarts and donkeys laden with produce from the countryside or goods from ships in the harbor would have labored up a sloping road to pass through the portals. Sailors and merchants speaking a babel of tongues entered with goods from Egypt, Crete, Turkey, and Syria. Ashkelonian goods would likewise have flowed out of the gateway.
Near the bottom of the steep slope leading to the gateway, many voyagers stopped at a sanctuary discovered in 1990. As the excavators dug through the crumbled debris, they came across a silver-coated bronze figurine of a bull calf—a symbol of Baal, the Canaanite storm god. Four inches tall and dating from 1600 b.c., the calf lay within its own shrine, a beehive-shaped pottery vessel (page 68). Apparently travelers paused at the sanctuary either to beg the storm god's protection for their journey or to give thanks for safe arrival.
Now on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, this little calf, with one horn missing and only patches of its silver plating remaining, evokes the idolatrous calf worship by Israelites that so outraged Moses in the Bible. Though the Israelites did not emerge until several centuries after the Ashkelon figurine was made, they were probably derived from the same cultural stock as the Canaanites. The calf perhaps symbolized the common past the two groups shared, a past that the Israelites rejected as they developed their own identity.