Tell Abu al-Kharaz (Jordanie): Roving Sea Peoples may have settled Transjordan

Not all scholars convinced by evidence suggesting kin of Philistines migrated as far inland as site associated with Bible’s Jabesh Gilead

Ilan Ben Zion
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Relief depicting Sea Peoples taken captive by Ramesses III at the temple of Medinet Habu. (photo credit: CC BY-SA Rémih, Wikimedia Commons)
New evidence unearthed at an ancient site in the Jordan Valley suggests that the Sea Peoples — a group which includes the ancient Israelites’ nemeses, the Philistines — settled as far inland as the Transjordan, a Swedish archaeologist argues. Not everyone in the archaeological community, however, is convinced by the finds.

The find, made by a team digging at Tell Abu al-Kharaz, also strengthens the ties connecting the Sea Peoples and the Aegean — reinforcing the theory that the Philistines were among a number of tribes of non-Semitic peoples who migrated across the Mediterranean and settled in Canaan in the early Iron Age alongside the emergent Israelites.

Evidence of Sea Peoples inhabiting areas east of the Jordan River would lend credence to a seeming anomaly in the Bible — the location of Philistines far from their historic homeland along the shores of southern Israel in I Samuel 31. According to the book of Samuel, the Philistines raided northern Israel and settled in the abandoned Israelite cities “that were on the other side of the valley, and they that were beyond the Jordan.”

Sea Peoples is the name given by the ancient Egyptians to the populations of a massive maritime migration to the shores of the eastern Mediterranean in the late 13th and early 12th centuries BCE. During the reign of Ramesses III, hordes of seaborne people bore down on the kingdom, were thwarted by the Egyptian armies and settled along the Levantine coast.

Among the names of the groups mentioned in the reliefs of Ramesses III’s mortuary temple at Medinet Habu are the “Peleset, Tjeker, Shekelesh, Denyen, and Weshesh.” Scholars link the name Peleset with the Bible’s Philistines, who established the cities of Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gath and Ekron in the coastal plain of modern Israel and Palestine. Other Sea Peoples settled as far north as Ugarit and Alalakh in modern Syria.


Relief depicting Sea Peoples taken captive by Ramesses III at the temple of Medinet Habu. (photo credit: CC BY-SA Rémih, Wikimedia Commons)
Dr. Peter Fischer of Gothenberg University said his team has discovered pottery and cylindrical loom weights from around 1100 BCE whose design matches that of contemporary material culture from Philistia, Cyprus and southern Europe. His team also unearthed a massive multi-story building 60 meters long, suggestive of strong centralized authority and planning. The cooking pots and everyday items found at Tell Abu al-Kharaz were not imported, Fischer explained in an email, but may be indicative of a migration of Sea Peoples as far inland as the Transjordan.

Tell Abu al-Kharaz, located just opposite Beit Shean on the eastern bank of the Jordan River, is associated by some archaeologists with the biblical city of Jabesh Gilead, the place where the Bible says King Saul fell on his sword in a battle against the Philistines. The site is over 100 miles inland from the Philistine heartland along the Mediterranean coast.

He pointed to one item in particular, a large ceramic jug painted white and decorated with red lines. Such a style, known as bichrome ware, is commonly found at Philistine archaeological sites, and numerous examples of it are on display at the Israel Museum. Fischer argues that the presence of the jug indicates the presence of Sea Peoples — not necessarily Philistines — at Tell Abu al-Kharaz.


A Philistine-style jug from Tell Abu al-Kharaz, Jordan. (photo courtesy of Dr. Peter M. Fischer)

The clay pots and loomweights “appear very suddenly around 1100 BCE (or a little before that date) at Kharaz and existed there for some generations until they were replaced by the wide-spread local type again,” Fischer wrote. “Cooking pot types represent a certain tradition of preparing meals which may have arrived at the site with newcomers.”

Another pot, “a type which is known from the Aegean and Philistine sphere of culture,” also leads Fischer to believe that during the early Iron Age there was an “arrival of a new ethnic group which was strongly connected to the Sea Peoples” at Tell Abu al-Kharaz.

I am not saying that they founded a colony there but they became integrated with the local population,” Fischer explained.

20 487x552A late Bronze Age cooking pot from Tell Abu al-Kharaz. (photo courtesy of Dr. Peter M. Fischer)

Not all scholars are convinced of Fischer’s hypothesis, however.

If I didn’t know better I’d say it’s a forgery, because it combines kind of a Canaanite jug form with a rim that’s not Philistine” and decorative motifs that are “reminiscent of Philistine material,” Dr. Seymour Gitin said after viewing a photo of the Philistine-style jug Fischer published online. Gitin, director of the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, headed the excavation of Tel Miqne, the ancient Philistine city of Ekron.

The cooking jug has Cypriot cognates, he said, but “it’s not something that we find in any of the Philistine cities, like Ashkelon, Ashdod or Ekron.”

If you only have a few pieces, you can’t talk about a Sea Peoples population,” he said.

Dr. Amihai Mazar of Hebrew University said that it was possible that there were small groups of Sea Peoples — not necessarily Philistines — who inhabited northern Israel. He said that during his excavations at Tel Rehov, only a few kilometers west of Tell Abu al-Kharaz, he also found ceramics and loom weights indicative of Sea People migration to the Jordan Valley.

Dr. Eran Arie, curator of Iron Age and Persian Period Archaeology at the Israel Museum, concurred, saying that one or two pieces of pottery do not a Sea People settlement make. Arie, who took part in the extensive excavations of Megiddo, said pottery similar to that found by Fischer at Tell Abu al-Kharaz was found in Iron Age levels at Megiddo as well.

I see nothing Philistine here, aside from that one loom weight,” he said in a phone interview. “Philistine cooking jugs may have influenced the [style of] this jug [from Tell Abu al-Kharaz],” but Philistine pots have flat, not rounded, bottoms, and the soot marks from cooking are found along the side, not the base.

You can’t find one or two vessels and say it’s really Philistine,” he added.