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The Pirates of Palestine?

In response to:

The Many Lives of Palestine from the April 18, 2019 issue

To the Editors:

G.W. Bowersock states that “an old though widespread idea that sea peoples invaded the coast [of Palestine] from the west no longer has much to be said for it. In fact, a newly discovered grave at Ashkelon seems to contain the remains of one of the earliest settlers in the area, and it now seems agreed that these people did not come from the sea” [“The Many Lives of Palestine,” NYR, April 18].

I happened to be a staff member of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon for nine years, starting in 1985, and am still working on some of the material (six volumes published). The statement above wipes several lives of careful scholarship off the map (including the work of Trude Dothan, Seymour Gitin, and Lawrence Stager). It ignores the finds at the sites of Ashkelon, Ashdod, Tel Miqne, and others, in which potsherds were found that bear the name of Mycenaean IIIC:1b, the earliest pottery of the invaders from eastern Greece, dated to the twelfth century BCE, who brought their culture with them (including uniquely shaped loom weights, also brought in directly from eastern Greece). In the January/February 2017 Biblical Archaeology Review, on pages 30–31 the very cemetery mentioned by Bowersock is shown in two photographs, described as the tenth–ninth-century-BCE Philistine cemetery, and they are certainly not the earliest settlers in the area (the site dates back to the Middle Bronze Age, about 1900 BCE, and some Early Bronze and Chalcolithic sherds have been found, but no architecture). In my wide acquaintanceship I have never met an archaeologist who disagreed with the sea-peoples concept (for the Philistine pentapolis those would have been East Greeks). When the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar conquered the area, he annihilated and displaced the population at the end of the seventh century BCE, and for the next century it was a desolate place. Then the Persians gave the city of Ashkelon to the Phoenicians. I have studied some of the fish remains discovered at the site and have found species of fish that are only found in the sub-Saharan Atlantic or only in Indonesia. For my money, the site was occupied by some of the greatest seafarers that this world has ever seen.

Egon H.E. Lass
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

G.W. Bowersock replies:

Although I wrote that the idea of the sea peoples “no longer has much to be said for it,” Egon Lass has chosen to say something. He is utterly wrong to claim that my statement wipes away “several lives of careful scholarship.” I warmly endorse his assessment of the lifetime achievements of the late Lawrence Stager and others. In fact I have closely followed the expedition to Ashkelon with admiration for a long time, because I knew very well both Leon Levy, for whom it is named, and Stager, who led the expedition. This has unquestionably been a distinguished enterprise, even without Aegean invaders. For an account of current views, I recommend an article by Ariel David, “Ancient Egyptian Records Indicate Philistines Weren’t Aegean Pirates After All” (Haaretz, July 23, 2017), which includes references to the doctoral research of Shirly Ben-Dor Evian, a curator at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.