How Archaeological Discoveries Explain the Origins of the Philistines

The mysteries surrounding the ancient Philistines have been explained by archaeological evidence recovered from early settlements. This archaeological evidence suggests that the Philistines had more complicated origins than previously thought.

Feb 26, 2023By Jessica Kenmore, BS Archaeology w/ Geoarchaeology Concentration
philistine excavations guercino samson captured philistines painting


In over 3,000 years of written history, the ancient Philistines have endured a less-than-savory reputation. Still today, the term “philistine” is used to refer to one who lacks cultural refinement or intellectual pursuits. Given their historical reputation as a violent raiding culture, it’s no surprise that there are prevailing negative connotations attached to the Philistines.


The earliest known references to the Philistines were found in reliefs and inscriptions of mortuary temples in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. In these records, they were portrayed as one of the “Sea Peoples” that famously invaded cities along the eastern Mediterranean.


This depiction of the Philistine culture isn’t complete, however. With no surviving texts in the Philistine language, researchers have had to rely on archaeological finds and records left behind by other cultures. With a series of extensive archaeological investigations and collaborations between several Levant specialists, a more complete picture of the Philistine people has emerged.


The Arrival of the Philistines

medinet habu ramses iii temple inscription
Ramses III defeating the Sea People in the Battle of the Delta, as depicted on the north wall of Medinet Habu, 1200-1150 BCE, via Wikimedia Commons


The arrival of the Philistines coincided with the end of a peaceful and economically successful period for  peoples living along the eastern Mediterranean. This prosperous period that preceded their arrival is known as the Bronze Age. As the name suggests, this era was characterized by the widespread use of bronze and thriving trade networks that ran through the Mediterranean.


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By around 1200 BCE, cultures along the eastern Mediterranean were experiencing social and political unrest, which was intensified by long periods of drought. Researchers have recovered evidence suggesting that protracted periods of drought created famine conditions in some parts of the Mediterranean. Predictably, this combination of challenges led to broken trade networks, violent conflict, and competition for resources.


Evidence of these devastating famine conditions can be seen in Ancient Egyptian records. Reliefs and inscriptions from the time of the Bronze Age Collapse depict the invading Sea Peoples traveling with ox carts. This might suggest that at least some of these Sea Peoples were, in fact, migrating agrarian cultures instead of the raiding seafarers depicted in biblical records.


Egyptian records also depict battles between these Sea Peoples and the Egyptians, with the latter conquering the invaders and expelling them from the region. The mortuary temples of Merneptah and Ramses III — both rulers during this tumultuous period — feature steles depicting these battles against the Sea People.


The Creation of Philistia

map ancient philistia pentapolis
Historical Map of the Southern Levant, via Encyclopedia Britannica


According to both Egyptian and biblical records, the Philistines, along with the rest of the Sea Peoples, were expelled from Egypt and allowed to settle on the coast of the Southern Levant. This region came to be known as Philistia, or Land of the Philistines.


While Philistine settlements in the southern Levant are well-documented and supported by evidence, there is archaeology that challenges the historical notion that the Philistines abruptly and violently took control over the area.


During excavations of early Philistine settlements, researchers have recovered evidence of a peaceful migration instead of the hostile colonization depicted in traditional accounts. From early Philistine settlement layers down to the Late Bronze Age, no evidence of destruction has been recovered by these archaeologists. For researchers, these findings give cause to reevaluate traditional scholarly accounts of the Philistines’ arrival.


Conquerors or Peaceful Settlers?

philistine dedicatory inscription panel
Philistine Stele From Temple in Ekron, 7th century BCE, via The Israel Museum, Jerusalem


The deposition of artifacts in ancient Philistine cities shows that they migrated to the area gradually rather than in sweeping military conquests. Adding to the mystery is the low concentration of weapons recovered during excavations, which contradicts their reputation as a warlike culture with a highly organized military. Overall, researchers have been unable to find much evidence to support the Philistines’ reputation as a martial-raiding culture.


Excavations at ancient cemeteries have revealed that Canaanite burial practices continued well after the Philistines settled in the area. There is also evidence that Canaanite domestic traditions continued in the home, and artistic styles prevailed. Canaanite pottery dating to different time periods has been recovered in Philistine settlements, suggesting that they lived together for several generations and gradually blended into one culture.


samson captured by philistines guercino
Samson Captured by the Philistines by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, 1619, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


While evidence does support the idea of a peaceful coexistence between the Philistines and the local Canaanites, it seems this wasn’t the case with neighboring Israelites. Because their territory was limited in size, the Philistines eventually expanded into neighboring Israel, which likely initiated the conflicts depicted in biblical history. According to these biblical accounts, they had the advantage of superior weapons and military tactics, which presented a threat to the neighboring Israelites.


Filling in the Gaps – How the Sociopolitical Climate Influenced the Philistines’ Image in History

merneptah stele inscription
The Merneptah stele, via Wellcome Collection


During the Bronze Age Collapse, there was a power vacuum along the eastern Mediterranean, which led to violent conflicts between several peoples competing for control. There are historical accounts of conflicts involving Egyptians, Israelites, Canaanites, and the Sea Peoples during this time, along with archeological evidence supporting many of the accounts.


Some researchers suggest that the Philistines and the Israelites came to settle in the southern Levant at the same time, making them natural competitors during a tumultuous time in political history. This idea is supported by inscriptions on the Merneptah Stele, which was discovered in a mortuary temple near the Valley of the Kings in Egypt.


merneptah shabti egypt
Shabti of Merneptah, ca. 1213-1203 BCE, via Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


According to Egyptian records, Merneptah ruled over Egypt from 1213 BCE to 1203 BCE, which coincides with the Bronze Age Collapse. During this time of political upheaval, Merneptah led several military campaigns against peoples who challenged Egypt’s power in the region, including the Sea Peoples. Along with descriptions of these battles, the Merneptah Stele contains the earliest known Egyptian record of Israelites.


While there is evidence of Philistines settling in the southern Levant around the time of Merneptah’s reign, the absence of any surviving Philistine documents makes it difficult for researchers to piece together a complete narrative of their political relationships.


 The Mysterious Origins of the Philistines

model early philistine ship
Model of an early Philistine Ship, via Haifa Museum, Israel


According to the biblical record, the Philistines came from Crete, although no evidence has been recovered in Crete to support this. Unfortunately, there are no surviving documents in the Philistine language, and few details are known of their native religion, making them difficult to trace back in time.


Since the 1990s, excavations performed in four cities of the Philistine Pentapolis have yielded evidence that the Philistines were actually comprised of several cultures from the eastern Mediterranean. This evidence is seen in their pottery traditions. In their early settlements, the Philistines used local clay to recreate pottery styles from Anatolia, Cyprus, Greece, and Crete. The continuation of these styles suggests several different cultural lineages rather than just one from Crete.


philistine sacred shrine
Philistine Model Shrine, ca. 9th century BCE, via Israel Museum, Jerusalem


As researchers began to analyze artifacts from later stages of settlement, it became clear that Philistines started blending different cultural styles. A great example of this blending is seen in an altar dating to the 9th century BCE., which combines styles traditional to Cyprus and the Aegean. This suggests that the Philistines began as a multicultural group and that contrary to their characterization as an unrefined people, they did place importance on artistic traditions.


With limited written records and no surviving Philistine documents, researchers have had to rely on archaeological finds to piece together the origins of this enigmatic culture. Many questions remain, but the evidence suggests that the Philistine people were comprised of many cultures from the eastern Mediterranean and blended into the southern Levant gradually.


Some researchers propose that the Philistines were a multi-ethnic group of migrating peoples who split into opportunistic pirate tribes, not unlike the infamous Atlantic pirates of the 17th century CE. This could explain the variety of cultural styles that were recovered during excavations of Philistine settlements, as well as their historical portrayal as unsavory and threatening people.


What Does DNA Tell Us About the Philistines?

burial excavation philistine
Excavation at the Philistine cemetery in Ashkelon, via Smithsonian Magazine


DNA recovered from ancient Philistine cemeteries has offered clues that point to their origins and how they interacted with local populations after they settled in the Levant. The results suggest a much more diverse genetic ancestry than what was previously believed.


Instead of one common eastern Mediterranean genetic origin, DNA collected from early burials show a significant percentage of southern European genetic ancestry.


Researchers compared these results to DNA from later Philistine burials and found that the concentration of southern European DNA gradually decreased, and within 200 years, the Philistines shared genetic profiles very similar to the local population.


This rapid genetic assimilation suggests that the Philistines intermarried with locals early in the settlement period and perhaps relationships between Philistines and Levantines weren’t as contentious as previously thought.


While DNA evidence suggests that the Philistines intermarried quickly, some researchers maintain that even after mixing with the Levantines, the Philistines maintained a distinct and separate cultural identity. As mentioned before, this is suggested by the coexistence of Levantine and Philistine funerary and pottery traditions well after settlement.

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By Jessica KenmoreBS Archaeology w/ Geoarchaeology ConcentrationHaving moved around a lot as a child, I became intrigued by the histories of my many homes. This interest continued, and I eventually became an archaeologist. I hold a BS in Archaeology from Oregon State University. These days, I do less field work and am concentrating more on writing. While I might be doing less archaeological work, my interest in travel and learning is as keen as ever.