The Last Stand of the Philistines: Archaeologists Find Clue to the Fall of Gath

When the Aramean king laid siege to biblical Gath 2,800 years ago, the defenders resorted to desperate measures, including, it seems, making flimsy arrowheads out of bone

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The area of Gath where the bone arrowhead was found. The round structure in the foreground is an oil press
The area of Gath where the bone arrowhead was found. The round structure in the foreground is an oil pressCredit: Ariel David

An unusual discovery made in the rubble of a house in Gath paints a dramatic picture of the last days in this infamous Philistine city, famed as the hometown of the giant Goliath, Israeli archaeologists say.

Inside the home in the lower city, the researchers discovered an arrowpoint made of animal bone, which they believe may have been used as part of Gath’s futile last stand against the conquering army of the Aramean king Hazael more than 2,800 years ago.

Humans of course have been carving projectiles and other artifacts out of bone for hundreds of thousands of years. In and of itself a bone tool, even an arrowhead, is not a unique discovery. But it is a rare and fairly obsolete weapon to emerge in a site from the Iron Age, when, as the very name of the period suggests, you would expect a projectile to be made of deadly metal, not brittle bone.

“In many cultures you have bone projectile points but as you move into a metal-oriented society they disappear,” says Aren Maeir, a professor of archaeology at Bar-Ilan University who leads the expedition at Tell es-Safi, the ancient mound in today’s southern Israel identified by scholars as Gath of the Philistines.

“The common arrowhead in the Iron Age was made of bronze and iron. Here and there you still find bone points, but they are not very common,” Maeir adds. He and his colleagues have published a paper discussing the find in the June edition of the journal Near Eastern Archaeology.

The team’s theory is that the Gittites manufactured the arrowhead from bone when the city was besieged by Hazael’s forces, around 830 B.C.E., because they were short of raw materials to make metal weapons.

Bone workshop discovered at Gath in 2006Credit: Maria Eniukhina

Ye olde Gittite bone shoppe

One element supporting this is that, back in 2006, archaeologists had uncovered a workshop in the nearby upper city that appeared to be entirely dedicated to the manufacture of bone utensils. It was destroyed, along with the rest of Gath, at the time of the Aramean conquest.

While bone tools were still used in antiquity, they were generally produced in workshops that also made wood, ivory and stone objects, given that similar techniques and tools were required to operate on all these materials, the archaeologists note. But in Gath’s workshop, they found only the waste products of bones, hundreds of fragments, originating only from the lower limbs of domestic cattle. The archaeologists found no finished products that were made in the workshop. Even then they suspected that this was an emergency facility set up to produce bone arrowheads, given that bovine metapodials have the right length and shape to be carved into points.

While it’s not possible to prove that the newly-unearthed arrowhead was made in that specific bone shop, the find strengthens the hypothesis that the defenders of Gath turned to making these obsolete weapons because they had to, Maeir says.

“It shows the dramatic moments of the end of the city and the desperate measures they were taking to make weapons that could help in its defense,” he tells Haaretz.

A bone arrowhead was a much less effective weapon than its metal equivalent, doing less damage and shattering easily if it hit any armor. It could still injure an opponent seriously if it hit an unprotected area of the body, and would have been particularly effective if fired by the defenders in swarms, Maeir says.

There is also the possibility, which is entirely theoretical at this stage, that such arrowheads may have been dipped in poison, he adds.

Layer of broken pottery, ash and felled stones at Gath from the destruction of the city by the ArameansCredit: Ariel David
The bone arrowhead found at GathCredit: Maria Eniukhina

Since the bone point had been found within the walls of Gath, wouldn’t that indicate it had been made by the Arameans, not the Gittites? Not necessarily.

Microscopic analysis of the point has shown an impact fracture and striations, indicating it hit a target (as opposed to being simply dropped on the floor). Ostensibly that would support the case that the bone point was Aramean in origin. However: “We understand the Aramean army was a well-organized force that came from afar,” Maeir says. “They probably carried with them enough supplies so that they would not have to resort to making such ineffective weapons.” Likely, therefore, the arrow was probably made by the desperate Gittites and fired at the Arameans, who picked it up and fired it back into Gath. Reusing weaponry in antiquity was a common practice, Maeir says.

Testament to Hazael’s military power are the impressive siege works, including a massive trench and several towers, that archaeologists have found surrounding Gath and dated to the time of the Aramean onslaught.

Jerusalem is saved

Under Hazael, the northern Levantine kingdom of Aram, with its capital in Damascus, briefly expanded into a mini-empire that controlled a good chunk of the Middle East. Among other areas Hazael is known, both from the Bible and archaeological evidence, to have conquered large parts of the northern Kingdom of Israel. According to the Bible, he then “fought against Gath, and took it: and Hazael set his face to go up to Jerusalem.”

An aerial view of the ruins of the lower city of Gath, where the bone point was foundCredit: Maria Eniukhina
Schematic of how to turn a cow leg bone into an arrowhead. Now you too can do itCredit: Maria Eniukhina

The capital of Judah was spared, not because Hazael was defeated, but because he was supposedly bribed with treasure from the Temple.

“And Jehoash king of Judah took all the hallowed things that Jehoshaphat, and Jehoram, and Ahaziah, his fathers, kings of Judah, had dedicated, and his own hallowed things, and all the gold that was found in the treasures of the house of the LORD, and in the king’s house, and sent it to Hazael king of Syria: and he went away from Jerusalem.”(2 Kings 12:18)

Gath was not as lucky, and a layer of destruction dated to the time of the Aramean invasion has been found to cover almost the entire site, signaling that the last-ditch resistance of the Gittites was futile.

Whether or not you believe the biblical story that Gath was the birthplace of Goliath, the giant defeated by David, it definitely was one of the most powerful Philistine cities for centuries, and a focus point of the sometimes peaceful and sometimes hostile coexistence with the neighboring Judahites. 

The city was briefly resettled by the Judahites decades after Hazael’s invasion, but it was destroyed once again at the end of the eighth century B.C.E. when the Assyrians conquered most of the Levant, Maeir says.

The negative portrayal of the Philistines in the Bible has often led them be seen as uncouth barbarians, but decades of archaeological research have shown this picture to be far from reality. They were a sophisticated culture, which probably arose from a mix of immigrants from the Aegean and local Canaanite people at beginning of the Iron Age, and blended influences from Europe and the Levant. Now, a simple arrow point that emerged from the destruction of Gath has painted an even closer, more human portrait of the Philistines: that of a desperate, cornered people simply trying to protect their homes.

David and Goliath: Lithograph by Osmar Schindler, c. 1888Credit: ללא קרדיט

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