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At the Ashkelon Dig
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By Rick Gore Photographs by Robert Clark

From Canaanites to Crusaders, the city of Ashkelon was a strategic Mediterranean port for nearly 5,000 years.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

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.”

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.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

Ashkelon is just 12 miles (19 kilometers) north of the hotly disputed Gaza Strip. How can such sites be preserved in the midst of regions where eruptions of violence are frequent? Is the preservation of antiquities worth the potential risks to human safety? Tell us.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Samson, the biblical Israelite who killed lions and Philistines with ease, had, like Superman and kryptonite, one weakness—his long hair. But is Samson fiction or fact? Could one man have the strength to topple a building? Or was Samson’s power symbolic—to rally the Israelites against their Philistine enemies 3,000 years ago? Did his nemesis, Delilah, represent Samson’s punishment for straying from his own people? Lawrence Stager, head of the Leon Levy Expedition at Ashkelon, believes Samson was fictional. Like the mighty Heracles or Paul Bunyon, he was the folk hero of the time. The stories of his strength are bigger than life, and his downfall has a counterpart in Greek mythology: After Scylla cut a lock of hair from Nisus, her father, he lost his invincibility and was captured by King Minos of Crete. We will never know if Samson’s feats sprang from the imagination of a biblical-age Homer, but he will continue to live vividly in the pages of the Old Testament’s Book of Judges.

The Semitic Museum at Harvard University
Join the crew of the Leon Levy Expedition at Ashkelon and explore the excavation sites.

The Oriental Institute
Read a summary of the Ashkelon dig by assistant director David Schloen of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute.

Development of the Alphabet
Discover the origins of the Roman alphabet from Egyptian hieroglyphs and cuneiform to Canaanite phonetics.

Ashkelon—Tours & Sites in Ashkelon
Take a web tour of the city of Ashkelon’s modern, ancient, and medieval sites and museums.


Hornblower, Simon and others. The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 1996.

Levy, Thomas E., ed. The Archaeology of Society in the Holy Land. Leicester University Press, 1998.

Sharon, Moshe. Egyptian Caliph and English Baron: The story of an Arabic inscription for Ashkelon. Corpus Inscriptionum Arabicarum Palaestinae, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1994.

Stager, Lawrence E. “Ashkelon and the Archaeology of Destruction,” Biblical Archaeology Review, (January/February1996), 57-72.

Stager, Lawrence E. Ashkelon Discovered: From Canaanites and Philistines to Romans and Moslems. Biblical Archaeological Society, 1991.


Boyer, David S. “Jerusalem to Rome in the Path of St. Paul,” National Geographic, (Dec. 1956), 707-759.

Di Fiore, Ann L. “Great Ashkelon Dog Bone Mystery,” National Geographic World, (Oct. 1993), 29-31.

Glueck, Nelson. “An Archeologist Looks at Palestine,” National Geographic, (Dec. 1947), 739-752.

Kluge, P. F. “City of the Ages,” National Geographic Traveler, (Nov./Dec. 1999), 66-79.


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