While the initial stage and later stage of Philistine settlements are well-represented in the field of archaeology, the middle stages – in which the Grecian Philistines began to assimilate with the local Semitic people and customs – remain more of a mystery. The find at Tell es-Safi may illuminate that intermediary period.
"There are very important aspects of this dig that are helping us learn things that we didn't previously know," said Linda Meiberg, a Connecticut-born Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania who joined teachers and students from Tel Aviv's Bar-Ilan University working at the site.
Beneath the hard-packed soil is believed to be the ancient city of Gath, one of the five cities of the Philistine Pentapolis, home to such biblical figures as Goliath and Achish. Settlement at Gath ended at about 1000 BCE; the Philistines, likewise, disappeared from recorded history in 600 BCE.
According to Meiberg, the discovery of the inscription supports her group's working hypothesis that after the Philistines settled in southern Israel, they began using the local language as part of adopting some of the area's culture.
"During the process of assimilation, they at some point, perhaps, began speaking the native Semitic language," she explained. "We believe they would have also adopted the writing system. They wouldn't be speaking a Semitic language, but using Indo-European writing."
As for finding artifacts of her own, Meiberg, who did her undergraduate and graduate work at Tel Aviv University, got off to a rough start.
"We weren't finding anything, and I was getting very discouraged because the deeper we would go, it just seemed to be nothing coming out," said Meiberg, who's currently writing a dissertation on the Philistines. "Then to start finding whole vessels, it was such an uplifting feeling, like there's really a point to what I'm doing here."
As she started finding more and more, Meiberg began to notice that she was digging on two sides of a wall, because one side yielded loom weights – used in ancient times to make linens – while the other side was rather bare.
"We found a total of 110 loom weights, which is a fantastic find," said Meiberg.
Because there were so many in one structure, she believes that it may be have been an industrial site, or a perhaps a private residence.
This was the eighth season for the Bar-Ilan group, which works at Tell es-Safi for about one month each summer. Meiberg said that digs such as this one can go on for 15 years.
The latest dig was such a success that upon its completion, Israeli President Moshe Katsav made a visit to the site to see the inscription.
Meiberg saw the visit as evidence of a renewed interest in archaeology: "Politics and security are always at the forefront of headlines and news. Archaeology that wasn't getting much attention now is getting national attention."