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.

A Calf and Its Shrine

A Calf and Its Shrine

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 … "

Egyptian-Style Statuette

Egyptian-Style Statuette

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.

Philistine Vessels

Philistine Vessels

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.

Egyptian Cultic Paraphernalia

Egyptian Cultic Paraphernalia

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.

Dog Burial

Dog Burial

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.

Marble Slab in Tertiary Use

Marble Slab in Tertiary Use

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.

Timeline׃ Pottery

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.

Economy and Wealth׃ Metals
& Other Precious Materials

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.

דיוקנאות קיסריים

Politics and Religion׃ Marble

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 in cemeteries.

Philistine Cemetery׃ Sand

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 Museum
Web 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 Museum
The 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