For thousands of years Ashkelon served as a gateway between the lands
of the Mediterranean and the southernmost reaches of the Levant. First
settled in the late Chalcolithic Period (ca. 4000 BCE), it rose to prominence
in the Middle Bronze Age (ca. 1825 BCE), when the Canaanites surrounded
it with a massive rampart encompassing an area of some 150 acres. From
this point on, Ashkelon dominated the region. Over the years it was
also inhabited by many other peoples, including Egyptians, Philistines,
Phoenicians, Romans, Fatimids, and Crusaders. In 1270 CE, the Mamluk
sultan Baybars dismantled its fortifications in an effort to deny crusading
Europeans a foothold in the region, and the long history of ancient Ashkelon
came to an end.
The 1920–1922 excavations of the Palestine Exploration Fund yielded the
first glimpse of the ancient city, revealing finds from its Roman phase. This
was the first licensed expedition conducted under the British Mandate, and
the finds became part of the original collection of the Rockefeller Museum.
Subsequent excavations conducted by the Leon Levy Expedition to
Ashkelon from 1985–2016 systematically outlined the ancient site's
development from the time of its origins to its final days. Following the
vision of founders Lawrence E. Stager, Leon Levy, and Shelby White, the
excavations at Ashkelon have profoundly transformed our understanding
of this fascinating hub of Mediterranean trade. The exhibition celebrates
the successful completion of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon, which
has just finished its final season after thirty years of intensive research.
Middle Bronze Age, 16th century BCE | Silver-plated
bronze alloy and pottery
This exquisite statuette was found in a small building
at the foot of the Canaanite rampart, just outside the
city gate. It was housed in a cylindrical ceramic shrine
and has been identified as a representation of Ba'al
Saphon, the marine storm god.
The yearling bull-calf is made of tin-arsenic bronze
and was produced using the lost-wax technique.
A 1.5 mm thick silver overlay is partially preserved on
the head, legs, and tail and probably originally covered
the entire figurine, evoking the images condemned in
Isaiah 30:22: "And you will defile your graven images
overlaid with silver, and your molten images plated
with gold … "
Late Bronze Age, 13th century BCE | Limestone
This statue dates from the 13th century BCE, when
Canaanite Ashkelon was under Egyptian rule. Depicting
a seated Egyptian officer, it has strong stylistic ties
to the Egyptianized anthropoid clay coffins found
in Canaan during this period. The somewhat careless
execution of the statue suggests a weakened Egyptian
Empire, whose hold on the Levant was rapidly waning
at the close of the Late Bronze Age.
The statue was discovered reused in a Philistine
wall. This disrespect for the Egyptian icon reflects the
tensions between the Sea Peoples and Egypt in the
12th century BCE, when the Philistines settled in a
number of Egyptian outposts in the southern coastal
plain, including Ashkelon.
Iron Age I, 12th–11th century BCE | Pottery
Philistine bichrome ware, named for its distinctive
red and black decoration, marks the second phase of
Philistine settlement at Ashkelon (late 12th – early
11th century BCE). The krater and amphoriskos, fine
examples of Ashkelon's bichrome assemblage, feature
the geometric hallmarks of this artistic tradition.
The Philistines' Aegean heritage finds full expression
in the "Warrior Krater." The vessel combines a traditional
Aegean chariot with a possible nautical scene. The
headdresses appearing on the krater closely resemble
those worn by the Sea Peoples in 12th-century reliefs
from Medinet Habu, Egypt. Kraters decorated with
martial themes were used to mix water and wine
among Hellenic cultures as early as the Bronze Age.
Iron Age II, 7th century BCE | Bronze
The discovery of Ashkelon's situlae, vessels used in
Egyptian libation rites, together with a miniature
offering table provides an unprecedented glimpse into
Egyptian ritual practice. A bronze statuette of Osiris
was discovered nearby. It is almost identical to the
Osiris figurines from Ashkelon published by J. H. Illife,
the first curator of the Rockefeller Museum, in 1936.
Altogether, these cultic items suggest that a
sanctuary dedicated to Osiris, his wife Isis, or both may
have stood near or on part of Ashkelon's late 7th-century
winery. Osiris, god of vegetation and resurrection,
was associated with wine in Pharaonic Egypt.
Persian Period, 5th century BCE | Skeletal remains
The dog burial shown here is one of 970 similar
burials excavated in a Persian Period "dog cemetery"
at Ashkelon between 1986 and 1992. Although the
remains suggest intentional burial, the dogs' resting
places were not marked, nor were grave goods included.
At this time, a flourishing Phoenician community
existed at Ashkelon. In view of an inscription mentioning
puppies (grm) and dogs (klbm) among the personnel of
a temple dedicated to Astart and Rasp-Mukal (a deity
associated with healing) at the contemporaneous
Phoenician site of Kition in Cyprus, it is possible that
the practice of dog interment at Ashkelon was related
to the Phoenician healing cult.
1st century BCE – 3rd century CE, 1150 CE, and 1241 CE |
Marble and pigment
This marble slab vividly illustrates Ashkelon's later
history. Originally part of a Roman table, it was reused
almost a thousand years later as a base for a Fatimid
inscription celebrating the construction of a fortified
tower by the local governor. Three years and five
months after the inscription was written, Ashkelon was
captured by the Crusaders for the first of three times.
During the final Crusader occupation, the heraldic
shields of Sir Hugh Wake (d. 1241) were added. The
knight may have commemorated his rebuilding of
the tower defending Ashkelon's northern wall. Once
the Crusaders departed, Sir Hugh's shields and most of
the surrounding fortifications were torn down.
Thanks to Ashkelon's long history of uninterrupted occupation and
the Leon Levy Expedition's three continuous decades of research at the
site, it has been possible to produce a unique ceramic timeline that
runs from the Bronze Age (fourth millennium BCE) to the Mamluk
Period (1270 CE). This display of pottery sherds echoes Ashkelon's social,
economic, and political development over the longue durée. The similarly
hued pottery produced from Ashkelon's local clay over the course of
the site's long history stands in sharp contrast to the different-colored
sherds belonging to the wares imported from lands near and far.
Three decades of patient excavation and analysis have woven
these broken pots into a colorful tapestry. The resulting narrative
speaks of the rise of Canaanite Ashkelon; Egyptian withdrawal and
Philistine consolidation in the twilight of the second millennium BCE;
the economic might of the later Philistine monarchs and their fall at
the hands of Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar; international prowess and
cultural florescence during the Persian through Roman-Byzantine
Periods; and the city's final centuries as a geopolitical pawn between
Muslims and Crusaders.
The name Ashkelon comes from the Semitic root skl, meaning "to
weigh," also the root of the word shekel. Indeed, since Ashkelon sits at
a crossroads connecting the overland routes of the Arabian spice trade
with the maritime routes of the Mediterranean world, commerce became
the city's raison d'être. The site profited from its advantageous location,
but also became dependent on the trade networks it exploited. In many
periods, the city's population was so large that food had to be imported.
Its harbor remained busy even during stormy weather, the precarious
conditions attested by the remains of ships' cargo found littering the
shallow waters and shores of the ancient town.
It is fitting that excavations at Ashkelon uncovered the oldest
tangible evidence of a marketplace in the Ancient Near East, destroyed
by Nebuchadnezzar in 604 BCE. The city's economic activities are
evidenced by an array of financial instruments, including coins and their
predecessor, hacksilber; scales and weights; and written receipts and
seals attesting to transactions. Although four millennia of occupation
have erased many traces of Ashkelon's former wealth, striking examples
remain, including precious metals, coin hoards, and exotic jewelry.
The people of Ashkelon enthusiastically embraced the Greco-Roman
way of life – a fact made very clear by the site's abundant marble
statuary. Some of the statues depict political personages, such as the
Roman empress Salonina, but most portray mythological figures, such
as Mercury (Hermes), Aphrodite, and Pan. Many of the statues rival
in their artistic and technical quality statues from other parts of the
Roman Empire, leading the art historian Cornelius Vermuele to declare
that Ashkelon's statues are "the finest east of Ephesus and Corinth."
Ashkelon had no native marble deposits, and the raw material
had to be imported from Egypt, Turkey, and Greece. Thus, like so many
of Ashkelon's achievements, the city's long tradition of outstanding
marble artistry also rested on the bedrock of international commerce.
The appreciation for marble, a prestigious material, at Ashkelon
continued into the later periods as well, when it was used to
adorn synagogues, churches, and mosques, and was even found
The recent discovery of a Philistine cemetery – the first of its kind – is a
wonderful capstone for three decades of excavations at Ashkelon. One
of the chief aims of the Leon Levy Expedition was to shed light on the
arrival of the Philistine people and its history, and these burials are
sure to be one of the expedition's most enduring legacies.
The cemetery, dating from the 9th–10th century BCE, was found
2 m beneath the sand dunes north of the tell. Excavations conducted
between 2013 and 2016 have given us our first glimpse of Philistine
burial practices, which included a variety of primary inhumations
and some cremation burials. The cemetery's location along a major
thoroughfare may have had ritual significance for those returning to
the city or setting out on journeys.
Two phases are distinguished in the primary burials based on the
diagnostic juglets of Cypro–Phoenician and red–slipped and burnished
styles. Despite considerable variability in the burials, some overall
trends emerge: burial in an east–west orientation and the use of limited
grave goods, mainly ceramic vessels and, occasionally, jewelry, protective
amulets, and weapons.
Ashkelon: A Retrospecitve
30 Years of the Leon Levy Expedition
July 11, 2016 - June 30, 2018
Rockefeller Archaeological Museum
Curators: Fawzi Ibrahim, Nurit Goshen, Daniel Master
Exhibition design: Michal Aldor
Video editing: Amir Ronen
Translation and editing: Nancy Benovitz, Joseph Kuris, Fawzi Ibraim
Photography: @ Israel Museum, Jerusalem, by Eli Posner
Website Design and Development: The New Media Department, The Israel MuseumWeb design: Haya Sheffer; Development: Avi Rosenberg; Editing: Hanna Caine Braunschvig; Head of the Department: Susan Hazan
Lenders to the Exhibition:
Israel Antiquities Authority
The Hecht Museum, University of Haifa
The Corinne Mamane Museum of Philistine Culture, Ashdod
The National Maritime Museum, Haifa
The German Protestant Institution in the Holy Land
The exhibition was made possible by:
The Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon by Harvard Semitic MuseumThe activities of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon was supported by The Leon Levy Fund and Shelby White.
@ Copyright, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 1995 - 2016