Plant, fruit analysis from Goliath’s biblical city sheds light on Philistine rituals

The mysterious culture of the Philistines that flourished during the Iron Age (1200-604 BCE) profoundly affected the southern Levant’s cultural history, agronomy, and dietary customs. More than a quarter century of excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath in central Israel, identified as the biblical Gath of the Philistines and the home of Goliath, has provided a unique window into the world of this ancient civilization.

In the systematic excavation project of the temple area in the lower city of Gath, a team from Bar-Ilan University (BIU) in Ramat Gan – led by archaeology Prof. Aren Maeir and archaeobotany Prof. Ehud Weiss – has overseen the reconstruction of the plants used in Philistine rituals.

“Our findings challenge previous understanding of Philistine ritual practices, offering a fresh perspective on their cultural practices, and the connections between Philistine culture and broader Mediterranean religious traditions,” Weiss said.

While many aspects of Philistine culture are well-documented, the specifics of Philistine religious practices and gods have long remained shrouded in mystery. The study by Maeir, Weiss, Dr. Suembikya Frumin, Maria Eniukhina, and Amit Dagan in Nature’s prestigious Scientific Reports entitled “Plant-Related Philistine Ritual Practices at Biblical Gath” contributes valuable new data to our understanding of the Philistines’ ritual practices, the team said.

Photograph of Chaste tree fruits produced using stereoscopic light microscope (credit: Dr. Suembikya Frumin)

The discovery of numerous plants in two temples unearthed at the site unraveled unprecedented insights into Philistine cultic rituals and beliefs – the food ingredients in their temple, the timing of ceremonies, and plants for temple decoration. Freshwater, agriculture, and the cyclical birth, death, and rebirth of a plant are recognized and venerated as transformative, and even magical, in the oldest myths, such as the Gilgamesh epic, the tale of Aqhat, and the worship of deities such as Tammuz, Ishtar, and Baal, they wrote. There is evidence of cultural connections between specific cultic traditions and certain plants.

Seasons affect Philistine religious practices

The fact that the wild plants in the assemblages are widespread in the Shephelah may also show that the Philistines used any fresh plants that could be used for decoration.

Frumin, the study’s lead researcher under Weiss’s supervision, studied Philistine plant use in their temples as part of her doctoral project. The team delved into the plant assemblages discovered within the temples’ precincts, uncovering a wealth of information regarding the significance of various plant species in Philistine religious rituals. Through meticulous examination and quantitative and qualitative analysis of the types of plants used, the timing of their harvest, modes of offering, and potential symbolic significance, the researchers pieced together a clearer picture of the Philistine approach to spirituality.

FRUMIN EXPLAINED: “One of the most significant findings is the identification of earliest known ritual uses of several Mediterranean plants such as the lilac chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus), crown daisy (Glebionis coronaria), and silvery scabious (Lomelosia argentea). These widespread Mediterranean plants connect Philistines with cultic rituals, mythology, and paraphernalia related to early Greek deities, such as Hera, Artemis, Demeter, and Asclepios. In addition, plants with psychoactive and medicinal properties in the Philistine temples reveal their use for cultic activities.

The study revealed that the Philistine religion relied on the magic and power of nature, such as running water and seasonality – aspects that influence human health and life.”

An analysis of the temples’ seeds and fruits provided valuable insights into the timing of rituals, with the importance of the early spring for temple rites, and the date of the final utilization of the temples – and their destruction by Hazael of Aram – which occurred in late summer or early fall. The seasonal aspect of Philistine religious practices underscores their deep connection to the natural world and the cycles of agriculture.

Weiss commented, “Our findings challenge previous understandings of Philistine ritual practices and offer a fresh perspective on their cultural practices, and the connections between Philistine culture and broader Mediterranean religious traditions. By examining the plants they used in ritual contexts, we better understand how the Philistines perceived and interacted with the world around them.”

In addition, the study suggests intriguing parallels between Philistine and Aegean ceremonial practices. The discovery of loom weights (an apparatus used for fabric production) within Philistine temples, a common feature in Aegean cult locations associated with Hera, further strengthens the hypothesis of cultural exchange and influence between the two regions.

“These findings open up new avenues for research into the cultural and religious interactions between the Philistines and neighboring regions,” added study co-author Maeir of BIU’s Martin (Szusz) Land of Israel studies and archaeology department, who has directed the excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath for more than a quarter of a century. “By employing advanced quantitative and qualitative analyses of plant assemblages, we have deepened our understanding of ancient cultic practices and their significance in the broader Mediterranean world.”

“This new data indicates knowledgeable activity by temple personnel regarding the use of plants with mood-affecting features. Our method of quantitative and qualitative analysis of total plant assemblage should be highly relevant for analyzing other ancient cults and for the study of the cultural and cultic history of the region and beyond,” Frumin concluded. 





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