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Archaeology in Israel: Ekron

Tel Mikne, near the traditional border between Philistia and Judah, was identified as the biblical Philistine city of Ekron. The square tel (mound) rises only a few meters above the fertile plain and consists of a small upper tel and a large lower one to the south.

Major excavations were conducted at Tel Mikne between 1981 and 1996, providing much information about the history and culture of Philistine Ekron during the 600 years of its existence (from the 12th to the end of the 7th century BCE), and proof of the identification as Ekron was found in an inscription uncovered in its temple complex.

In the second millennium BCE, Tel Mikne was a large Canaanite city, at first covering all parts of the tel, but later confined to a settlement on the acropolis, where a public building destroyed by conflagration in the 13th century BCE was uncovered. Many of its rooms were used as granaries, as evidenced by jars containing grain and carbonized foodstuffs; one jar contained figs threaded on a string, reminiscent of the biblical lump of dried figs. (1 Samuel 30:12)

Above the ruins of this Canaanite settlement, the 12th century BCE Philistine city was discovered. It was a large, well planned and fortified city which existed for 200 years and covered the entire surface of the tel.

Ekron is one of the five Philistine cities often mentioned in the Bible. The Philistines were of the Sea Peoples who had wandered, at the beginning of the 12th century BCE, from their homeland in southern Greece and the Aegean islands to the shores of the Mediterranean. The Philistines settled along the eastern Mediterranean coast at the time when the Israelites settled in the Judean highlands. Politically independent, they preserved their traditions, which were clearly related to those of the Mycenaean culture. Architectural features and many finds indicate this relationship, especially the early Philistine pottery decorated in shades of brown and black, which later developed into the distinctive black and red decorations on white slip.

During the 12th-11th centuries BCE Philistine Ekron was a flourishing city enclosed by a sturdy, 3-meterthick brick wall. At the center of the lower city was a royal administration center consisting of well-planned, large structures, such as palaces and temples which yielded a multitude of finds.

Of particular interest is a large, well constructed building which covers 240 sq. m. Its walls are broad, designed to support a second story and its wide, elaborate entrance leads to a large hall, partly covered with a roof supported on a row of columns. In the floor of the hall is a circular hearth paved with pebbles, as is typical in Mycenean buildings; other unusual architectural features are paved benches and podiums. Among the finds are three small bronze wheels with eight spokes. Such wheels are known to have served as wheels for portable cultic stands in the Aegean region during this period and it is therefore assumed that this building served cultic functions.

The many artifacts of iron found in this building, including a knife with a carved ivory handle, also underscore the biblical statement on the Philistine monopoly of production of iron weaponry. (1 Samuel 13:19)

According to the Bible, Ekron was assigned to the Tribe of Judah (Jos. 15:45-46; Judges 1:18) and later, to the Tribe of Dan. (Jos. 19:43) But archeological evidence indicates a flourishing Philistine city during the 12th and 11th centuries BCE. When the Ark of the Covenant fell into Philistine hands, they displayed it in the Temple of Dagon in Ashdod and from there took it to Ekron; (1 Samuel 5:10) and after David defeated Goliath in the Elah Valley on the Philistine border with Judah, the Israelites pursued the Philistines to the gates of Ekron. (1 Samuel 17:52)

Ekron was probably destroyed by King David during his campaign against Philistia at the beginning of the 10th century BCE and over the next 300 years, Philistine Ekron was again reduced to the acropolis area of the tel. The prophet Amos prophesied its destruction in the 8th century BCE. (Amos 1:8) In 712 BCE Sargon II, King of Assyria conquered Ekron and immortalized the siege of the city in reliefs on the walls of his palace in Khorsabad.

During the 7th century BCE, Ekron was once more an important city-state and some of its kings are mentioned in the annals of the Neo-Assyrian kings. The city enjoyed economic prosperity under Assyrian rule, evidence of which is the expansion of the lower city and a new quarter to the north. At its peak it covered an area of some 85 acres and was thus one of the largest cities of biblical times. This city was carefully planned and divided into residential quarters, with a separate quarter for the rulers and the elite, and industrial and trade areas.

The economic mainstay was olive oil production and trade. The industrial buildings were built in a dense belt along the inner perimeter of the city walls. A survey has revealed some 115 oil installations, of which only a few have been excavated. The oil factory buildings consist of three rooms and are of a more or less uniform plan: one room for crushing and pressing olives, one for oil separation and storage and a front room facing the street, used for textile production. The factories had a multiple function – four months a year for olive oil production and eight months a year for making textiles.

The process of oil production involved first crushing the olives with a cylindrical stone in a large rectangular stone basin. On either side of the crushing basin stood presses, each consisting of a vat with an upper opening and a capacity of tens of liters, cut into a large stone block. Fiber baskets containing the crushed olives were placed, one on top of the other, on wooden slats which covered the vats. Then the baskets of crushed olives were pressed with great force, using a long, thick wooden beam, one end of which was inserted into a niche in the wall, the other hanging free with large, perforated, square stone weights suspended from it with rope. The oil thus produced flowed into the vat and from there was transferred to jars, where it was allowed to separate from the water residue. A sherd from one of the jars bore the inscription "oil" in black ink. It is estimated that during this period Ekron produced at least 500 tons of oil per annum, making it the largest oil production center uncovered so far in the ancient world.

The culture of the inhabitants was the local Philistine culture, which had absorbed Judahite and Phoenician influences. In Ekron many stone altars were found near the oil presses. Square in shape with a shallow depression in the upper part, they have protruding corners in the Judahite tradition and are reminiscent of the horned altars of the Bible.

At the end of the 7th century BCE the city’s fortunes declined and in 604 BCE, it was conquered and destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon. As the Babylonian army approached the city, residents hid their valuables and some of these hoards were found under the debris of the destroyed houses. One hoard consists of dozens of pieces of silver jewelry, precious stones, cut pieces of silver and silver ingots which served as money in that period.

During the final season of excavations a unique, complete royal inscription was uncovered in the Babylonian destruction layer of the temple complex in the elite zone. This was a very large structure, 57 x 38 m., of clearly Assyrian architectural design, composed of a large courtyard surrounded by rooms. A long hall which probably served as a throne room, as indicated by a raised platform, separated the courtyard from a pillared sanctuary.

The inscription, engraved on a rectangular stone measuring 60 x 39 x 26 cm., was found in the cella, the holy of holiest, of the sanctuary. It reads:

The temple which he built, ‘kys (Achish, Ikausu) son of Padi son of Ysd, son of Ada, son of Ya’ir, ruler of Ekron, for Ptgyh his lady. May she bless him, and protect him, and prolong his days, and bless his land.

The inscription is unique because it contains the name of a biblical city and five of its rulers, two of whom are mentioned as kings in texts other than the Bible. It is the only such inscription found in situ in a securely defined, datable archeological context. The title "ruler of Ekron" is proof of the identification of Tel Mikne with biblical Ekron.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry