The epic battle between David and Goliath is one of western civilization’s best-known and most popular stories. Now, University of Manitoba’s Haskel Greenfield is working with an international team of archeologists to put some historical meat on the bones of the story.
Greenfield and his students have been excavating Tel Tzafit (Tell ess-Safi/Gath) in Tel Tzafit National Park in southern Israel since 2008 when they joined forces with the director of the excavation, Aren Maier of Bar Ilan University.
The site, Greenfield says, is thought to be ancient Gath, the Philistine city that was the home of Goliath, who fought David nearby.
Gath, he adds, was also the city where David took refuge from King Saul.
“The Book of Samuel (21:13) tells us that David pretended to be a madman by scratching his hands on the gates of Gath, and letting saliva run down into his beard,” Greenfield says.
“Gath was not only a Philistine city in the Iron Age, but it has now been convincingly demonstrated that it was an older city that extended deep into the Bronze Age when it was occupied by Canaanites. It was among the largest of the cities in the region even 5,000 years ago,” in the early Bronze Age.
Greenfield went back to Tel Tzafit in the middle of June with seven undergraduate students and five graduate students, as well as his wife and fellow archeology professor, Tina Greenfield, and their children.
Haskel Greenfield has been working on the site with his team along with Israeli, American, Australian, Korean and other teams that come with their professors. Each summer, an average of about 100 professors, students and volunteers are there. The excavation is organized as a large field school where students and volunteers are educated in the archeology of the region and the latest scientific approaches to the archeology.
“We were working on the upper tel [mound] with teams from the United States and Australia,” he says. “The Israeli and Korean teams and some of my students – and one of my children – were digging in the lower city where they were focusing on the Iron Age Philistine occupation. While we and the other teams have been uncovering the walls and houses of the upper city, the expedition had not been able to find the walls for the lower city – until this summer.”
What happened this summer is that a member of one part of the Israeli team, led by Amit Dagan, noticed unusual formations on a surface about 10 to 20 metres to the east of where they and the Korean team have been focusing their efforts for the past eight years.
Test trenches, Greenfield says, revealed a massive fortification wall – six metres wide – that extended farther to the east. The wall continued to a point where there seemed to be a large structure followed by an open space.
“It looks as though we are looking at the edges of a massive tower on the other side of the open space, with extensive fortifications continuing to the east,” Greenfield says. “It’s likely that the space is the gateway to the ancient Philistine city. The significance of this is that if you stand back and look at the walls and towers, you can imagine Goliath, the hero of the Philistines, striding out of the gate for his fateful encounter with David.
“The importance of this find is that it demonstrates that the lower site was enclosed in a massive system of fortifications.”
Greenfield says the entire site – combining the upper and lower cities – covers close to 50 hectares, making it one of the largest fortified cities in the entire southern Levant.
“It was bigger than Jerusalem of that time,” he notes. “Our work here is helping us to understand the importance of the Philistines historically and their dominance in that era.”
The layers at the site probably go back to at least 4000 BCE – before the beginning of the Early Bronze Age, he says. The original proto-Canaanite Early Bronze Age city was destroyed in 2600 BCE and a smaller city rebuilt on the site about 800 years later during the Middle Bronze Age. This grew into a major Canaanite city that the Philistines took over around 1200 BCE.
“We have only dug down to 2800 BCE,” Greenfield says. “We still have another thousand years to go to reach bottom.”
While he would love to uncover a temple or a palace, he says, the modern scientific approach – and his focus as an anthropological archaeologist – is to excavate houses in neighbourhoods in order to study changes in daily life over time.
“We are trying to increase our understanding of daily life in ancient times and how our modern lifestyles evolved,” he says.
He invites readers who may be interested in participating in the dig when it continues next summer to contact him at the University of Manitoba. He notes that readers can consider donating to the university or the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba so that more students can go.