ASHKELON (AFP) - With an excavation in southern Israel unearthing a Philistine cemetery for the first time, bones of the biblical giant Goliath's people can finally shed new light on mysteries of their culture.
The cemetery's discovery marks the "crowning achievement" of some three decades of excavations in the area, the expedition's organisers say.
Some of the site's finds were going on display Sunday (July 10) at the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum in Jerusalem.
Almost three millennia since the Philistines were wiped off the face of the earth by Babylonian armies, a US archaeologist was hard at work crouched in one of their funerary chambers at the excavation in the Mediterranean city of Ashkelon.
Brush in hand he delicately extracted from the sandy soil the complete skeleton of a Philistine buried with a terracotta perfume flask, fused to the skull with the passage of time.
"This discovery is a crowning achievement, the opportunity to finally see them face to face," said archaeologist Daniel Master, in charge of the site excavated since 1985 under the Leon Levy Expedition, affiliated with Harvard University's Semitic Museum, among other institutions.
"With these 145 corpses we hope not only to understand their funeral customs, but to collect clues in the bones to understand how they lived, to bring the Philistines to life again," he told AFP.
Bone samples taken from the site are currently undergoing DNA, radiocarbon and other tests to try to shed fresh light on the Philistines' origin.
The first graves were discovered in Ashkelon in 2013 on the site of its ancient Philistine port city, which had 13,000 inhabitants at its peak.
Today the area lies in a national park popular with Israeli families from modern Ashkelon who come for a stroll along the seaside lawns and paths.
Who were the Philistines? The origins of this "sea people" - a term also used to describe their Phoenician contemporaries - remain a mystery.
Their red-and-black pottery suggests they may have come from the Mycenaean civilisation of the Aegean.
"What is certain is that they were strangers in the Semitic region," where their presence between 1200 and around 600 BC is evident on a thin coastal strip running from present-day Gaza to Tel Aviv, said Master.
Traders and seafarers, they spoke a language of Indo-European origin, did not practice circumcision and ate pork and dog, as proven by bones and marks found on them in the ruins of the other four Philistine cities: Gaza, Gath, Ashdod and Ekron.
Beyond the previously scanty archaeological record, the Philistines are known mostly from the Old Testament account given by their neighbours and bitter enemies, the ancient Israelites.
The book of Samuel describes the capture by Philistine fighters of the Ark of the Covenant and the duel between their giant warrior Goliath felled by a stone from David's sling.
From these biblical descriptions of savage marauders comes the modern usage of "philistine" to mean a person without culture or manners.
A few hundred metres from the dig, at its outdoor laboratory, anthropologist and pathologist Sherry Fox told the skeletons' story.
"In their teeth, we can see that they did not have an easy life," she said.
"We see these lines that indicate a growth interruption as the teeth are forming. There were problems in childhood with either fever or malnutrition."
"We also see from their bones that they were hard workers, they practised inbreeding and they used their teeth as tools, probably in the weaving industry," she said softly, holding up a skull.
She said they were "normal size" with no evidence of any Goliath-sized giants.
Master said that, despite similar-sounding names, there is no connection between the Philistines and today's Palestinians.
"The words are similar, but not the people," he said.
"We know here in Ashkelon that these Philistines were completely destroyed by (Babylonian king) Nebuchadnezzar in December of 604 BC," he said.
"Everything that came after was very different and a very different group of people."
The 30 years of excavations at the Ashkelon cemetery come to an end this summer, when the dig will be reburied.