TEL MIQNE, ISRAEL
AT the top of a low, boulder-strewn slope, among clumps of tall thistles, two chiseled rectangular stones lie opposite each other about eight feet apart, each with a hole carved in its center.They are socket stones for the gates of an Iron Age city, but not just for any gates. This is the site of ancient Ekron: It was "to the gates of Ekron," that the Israelite army pursued the Philistines after David had triumphed over Goliath (I Samuel 17:52). Current excavations at Ekron, which today is covered by cotton fields cultivated by local kibbutzniks, are revealing hitherto unsuspected details of the way those Philistines lived. And the discoveries make it clear that for nearly 3,000 years they have been unfairly maligned. As archenemies of the children of Israel, the Philistines were never portrayed in the Bible as anything but unsympathetic - cruel and overbearing like Goliath, or scheming and deceitful like Delilah. Today their reputation is even worse, since a 17th-century German pedagogue branded the Philistines as the epitome of a brutish and uncultured people. But finds at Ekron, and at three other of the Philistines' five cities near the Eastern Mediterranean coast, are proving that "actually, the culture of the Philistines was far above anyone else's in the region when they settled in the 12th-century BC," says Trude Dothan, co-director of the Ekron dig. Ekron is a particularly interesting site, says Ms. Dothan, because it reveals two very distinct periods in the life of the culture that gave its name to Palestine. Moreover, it was completely destroyed by a Babylonian invasion in 603 BC, which means that its remains lie intact just below the soil. "We archaelogists are very cruel," says Dothan. "We like places to be totally destroyed, because that gives us a fantastic view of the moment when they were inhabited." The digs, which have been going on since 1982 - interrupted this year by the Gulf war - have uncovered the city that flourished at the center of the Philistine region until it was sacked at the end of the 10th century BC, perhaps by David himself. An uncommonly large town for the period, with as many as 7,000 inhabitants, it was well planned and carefully divided into industrial, residential, and sacred quarters. The excavations have also unearthed fresh and convincing evidence of the Philistines' Aegean origins, Dothan says. Locally made pottery bears a striking resemblance to Mycenaean ware, with its stripes, zigzags, and bands. Cultic items recall similar artifacts found in Cyprus, and a giant hearth in the largest building yet found in Ekron suggests a Homeric tradition of long story-telling evenings around the fire. On top of these remains, archaeologists have also found evidence of a later style of Philistine life, dating from the 7th century BC, when Ekron was a vassal city-state under Assyrian tutelage. The only Biblical clue to Ekron's raison dtre at that period is found in Hosea 12:1: "And they do make a covenant with the Assyrians, and oil is carried into Egypt." But the olive presses found at the site are far more eloquent. In an industrial belt around the edge of the town, archaeologists have found 108 olive-press installations - rectangular stone-crushing vats flanked by circular pressing jars, boulders with holes drilled through them to act as weights, and the ashes of beams to which the boulders were attached. Ekron was the largest olive-oil producing center in the Middle East, according to archaeologist Nathan Eidlin. He has reconstructed the ancient presses, used them, and estimates that in a good year the town produced 290,000 gallons of olive oil - 20 percent of modern Israel's output - 2,700 years ago. That oil was exported to Egypt, where olive trees do not grow, and traded for luxury goods such as ivory, spices, and cloth, Mr. Eidlin says. Many questions still surround the Philistines, both about their origins and their fate, and the Ekron dig is still under way. But already it is clear, says Dothan, that "Philistine settlements fall into a pattern of very strong cities, well planned, with very, very high technology and material culture." Perhaps it is time to rehabilitate Goliath.