Usually when archaeologists dig through the ruins of an ancient site, they hope to unearth some important relics of the past. But last month, researchers sifting through a particular section of the Philistine city of Gath had an unusual goal: finding nothing.
And, it looks like they’ve found it.
What archaeologists were after was a gap in the otherwise massive fortifications of this Iron Age settlement in central Israel, best known as the hometown of the mythical giant Goliath.
Gath, also known today as Tell es-Safi, was one of the main city states of the Philistines until it was conquered and destroyed around 830 B.C.E. by the forces of the Aramean king Hazael.
The Bible recounts that “Hazael fought against Gath, and took it” (2 Kings 12:17), and while there is much debate amongst scholars on how much of the biblical narrative is history, this is one event that most probably did take place. There is plenty of archaeological evidence of the siege and destruction inside and outside the city respectively, explains Aren Maeir, a professor of archaeology from Bar-Ilan University who has been heading the expedition at Gath for 25 years.
But until now researchers had not been able to find traces of where the Arameans breached the Philistine defenses, namely the great city wall, the archaeologist says. Finding where the fatal blow against the once mighty Gath was struck was one of the goals of this year’s summer dig, which was the last one under Maeir’s leadership.
The archaeologists have been excavating at the so-called “water gate” – a narrow access that was used to reach the local well and the small seasonal stream that ran outside Gath.
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“Since this was the lowest part of the city and the access point to its main water source, it makes sense that this would be where the breach occurred,” Maeir told Haaretz during a recent tour of the site.
Like the rest of the city, the water gate was heavily fortified with walls more than three meters thick. The walls were made of mud brick standing on massive stone foundations. In fact, there is evidence that the already impressive fortifications, built in the 11th or 10th century B.C.E., were further strengthened shortly before Gath’s destruction, possibly in anticipation of Hazael’s attack. Around this time, additional defensive structures were added and some of the rooms surrounding the gate were filled with soil, presumably to bolster the structure, says Prof. Jeffrey R. Chadwick, an archaeologist from Brigham Young University in Utah.
“It really tells a dramatic story of the desperation of the Philistines in the face of the Arameans,” says Chadwick, who was heading the excavation effort in this area of the walls.
Completing the dramatic picture is the fact that, just next to the water gate, the impressive fortifications appear to be suddenly interrupted for a stretch of around 10 meters.
“This is where we think the Arameans came through, and we are hoping to confirm this by finding nothing – it’s like Seinfeld doing archaeology,” jokes Chadwick, referring to an episode of the famous sitcom in which the titular character pitches a TV show about, well, nothing.
And indeed, where the ancient city wall should have continued, archaeologists have found mostly empty space. “There are no foundations, no brick walls, it’s like someone worked very hard to take something apart there,” Maeir notes. “It’s a supposition, we cannot fully prove it for now, but it’s a fair assumption.”
Spread over 500 dunams (50 hectares) Gath was located on key trading routes and was once one of the largest and most prosperous cities of the Levant, with a population of more than 10,000. It was this prosperity that likely attracted Hazael, who ruled in the second half of the ninth century B.C.E. over the Aramean kingdom, with its capital in Damascus. Based on the biblical account and the trail of destruction found at Gath and other sites in the region we know that Hazael briefly transformed Aram into a mini-empire, sweeping into the southern Levant and defeating the kings of Israel, Judah and, of course, the Philistines of Gath.
The Bible claims that after vanquishing Gath, Hazael turned to take Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, but the city was spared after the Aramean king was paid off with treasure from the Temple (2 Kings 12:18). Of this last bit in the story we have no extrabiblical confirmation, but what is quite certain is that Hazael’s destruction of Gath was almost absolute.
In past years, Maeir and colleagues have discovered traces of the Aramean siege trench, considered the oldest remains of siege works found so far. Inside the city, pretty much every structure is covered in a layer of ash, smashed pottery, collapsed walls and other signs of the devastation that the enemy wrought once they breached the walls.
Further testament to the desperate defense of Gath has been the recent discovery of an arrowhead made with animal bone. The use of this crude and less effective material has been interpreted as a last resort amid a shortage of raw materials that prevented the besieged Gittites from making the metal weapons typical of the Iron Age.
After Hazael’s conquest, Gath was only briefly repopulated in the late Iron Age as a small settlement, possibly by the subjects of the Kingdom of Judah. But the ruins of its former glory would have likely still been visible at the time.
In fact, Maeir has previously theorized that the city’s massive walls and public buildings may have inspired the legend of Goliath, because ancient peoples often interpreted such large structures as the work of giants.
So, most probably, Goliath the giant was just a myth, and the residents of Gath were run-of-the-mill people, who eventually lost their homes due the ambitions of the imperialist du jour. And now, the possible discovery of the breach in the city walls has added to our growing knowledge of the very human and very terrifying story of the fall of Gath of the Philistines.