Newswise – The enigmatic Philistine culture, which flourished during the Iron Age (ca. 1200-604 B.C.), had a profound impact on the cultural history, agriculture and food habits of the southern Levant. More than a quarter century of excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath in central Israel, considered the biblical Gath of the Philistines and home of Goliath, have provided a unique insight into the world of this ancient civilization. As part of the systematic excavation project of the temple area in the Lower City of Gath, a team from Bar-Ilan University in Israel, led by Prof. Aren Maeir (Archaeology) and Prof. Ehud Weiss (Archaeobotany), supervised the reconstruction of the temple area used in Philistine rituals. Tel Zafit (Gath of the Philistines) is a national park under the auspices of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.

While many aspects of Philistine culture are well documented, the specifics of Philistine religious practices and deities have long remained obscure. The study by Frumin et al. on “Plant-Related Philistine Ritual Practices at Biblical Gath,” recently published in Scientific reportscontributes valuable new data to our understanding of Philistine ritual practices. The discovery of numerous plants in two temples excavated at the site provided unprecedented insights into the cult rituals and beliefs of the Philistines – their temple food ingredients, the timing of ceremonies, and plants for temple decoration.

Dr. Suembikya Frumin investigated the Philistines’ use of plants in their temples as part of her doctoral project under the direction of Prof. Ehud Weiss. Together with Dr. Amit Dagan, Maria Eniukhina and Prof. Aren Maeir, they explored the plant assemblages discovered in the temple precincts and discovered a wealth of information about the significance of different plant species in Philistine religious rituals. Through careful study and quantitative and qualitative analysis of the plant species used, the timing of their harvest, the mode of offering, and the potential symbolic meaning, researchers have created a clearer picture of the Philistine approach to spirituality.

Dr. Suembikya Frumin, head of the Archaeobotany Laboratory at Bar-Ilan University and lead researcher on the study, noted: “One of the most significant findings is the identification of the earliest known ritual uses of several Mediterranean plants, such as the lilac chaste tree (Vitex agnus castus), crown daisy (Glebionis coronaria) and silvery scabious (Lomelosia argentea). The Philistines associate these widespread Mediterranean plants with cultic rituals, mythologies and paraphernalia associated with early Greek deities such as Hera, Artemis, Demeter and Asclepius. Furthermore, plants with psychoactive and medicinal properties in Philistine temples reveal their use in cultic activities. The study found that the Philistine religion was based on the magic and power of nature, such as running water and seasonality, aspects that influence human health and life.”

In addition, analysis of the temples’ seeds and fruits provided valuable insight into the timing of the rituals, the importance of early spring for temple rites, and the date of the temples’ final use—and their destruction by Hazael of Aram—which occurred in late summer or early fall. The seasonal aspect of the Philistines’ religious practices underscores their deep connection to the natural world and the cycles of agriculture.

Prof. Ehud Weiss, director of the Archaeobotany Laboratory at Bar-Ilan University and co-author of the study, commented: “Our results challenge previous findings on Philistine ritual practices and provide a new perspective on their cultural practices and the connections between the culture of the Philistines.” and broader Mediterranean religious traditions. By studying the plants they used in ritual contexts, we can better understand how the Philistines perceived and interacted with the world around them.”

Furthermore, the study suggests interesting parallels between Philistine and Aegean ceremonial practices. The discovery of weaving weights (a cloth-making device) in Philistine temples, a common feature at Hera-related cult sites in the Aegean, further strengthens the hypothesis of cultural exchange and influence between the two regions.

“These results open new avenues for research into the cultural and religious interactions between the Philistines and neighboring regions,” added study co-author Prof. Aren Maeir from the Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archeology at Bar-Ilan University, who has been leading the excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath for more than 25 years. “By using advanced quantitative and qualitative analyzes of plant communities, we have deepened our understanding of ancient cult practices and their significance in the broader Mediterranean world.”

“This new data suggests knowledgeable activity by temple staff regarding the use of plants with mood-altering properties. Our method of quantitative and qualitative analysis of the entire plant composition should be of great relevance for the analysis of other ancient cults and for the study of the cultural and cult history of the religion and beyond,” concluded Dr. Frumin.

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