Harvard University archaeologist Lawrence Stager has led the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon since 1985, clocking more than 30 years of excavations in a 150-acre site in the ancient seaport 35 miles south of Tel Aviv, reports the Harvard Gazette. Now, a major find related to the little-known Philistines, some of the Hebrew Bible's "most notorious villains," as National Geographic puts it, with Goliath and Delilah (of David and Samson infamy, respectively) among their ranks. To unlock the mysteries of the Philistines, archaeologists needed to find bodies, not just artifacts, but until now human remains have been elusive. "Archaeologists who study the Philistines began to joke that they were buried at sea like the Vikings—that's why you couldn't find them," one archaeologist tells National Geographic. Sunday brought the news that the expedition has for three years been excavating the first Philistine cemetery to be found.
From the time the Ashkelon expedition team first discovered a human tooth in 2013 until this week, when the year's final expedition came to a close, archaeologists have counted at least 145 sets of human remains in several burial rooms, reports the BBC. Most are buried without any objects or ornamentation, though some perfume, food, jewelry, and weapons were unearthed, and the small number of children and infants buried were found covered in a "blanket" of broken pottery. DNA analysis and carbon dating will hopefully shed light on some long-running mysteries about the Philistines' origins and whether they have a connection to the mysterious Sea Peoples who tore across the Mediterranean in the 13th and 12th centuries BC; the remains date to the 11th to 8th centuries. "So much of what we know about the Philistines is told by their enemies," says the expedition's co-director. "We'll really be able to tell their story by the things they left behind for us." (Check out where these Philistine pottery shards were discovered.)