Online Review: Book

Ashkelon. Vol. 3, The Seventh Century B.C.E.

Lawrence E. Stager, Daniel M. Master, and J. David Schloen

117.2

Reviewed by Christine M. Thompson

By Lawrence E. Stager, Daniel M. Master, and J. David Schloen (Final Reports of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon 3). Pp. xv + 817, figs. 360, pls. 3, tables 87. Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake, Ind. 2011. $99.50. ISBN 978-1-57506-939-5 (cloth).


The ongoing Leon Levy expedition to Ashkelon has been an epic undertaking, now spanning more than two decades and 1,300 m2 of Iron Age strata alone. In the book under review, the excavators (Stager, Master, and Schloen) have produced a report worthy of their immense commitments and achievements and fittingly honor the contributions of Frank Moore Cross and Benjamin Mazar, to whom the volume is dedicated. The excavators and 24 specialists reveal seventh-century B.C.E. Ashkelon as a thriving commercial and wine-producing center, while thoroughly presenting local phenomena and evidence for interregional connectivity from the perspective of 22 categories of material culture and organic remains. Their efforts culminate commendably in this uniquely coherent and detailed body of work that offers groundbreaking insight into the pivotal place of this Philistine seaport in Iron Age politics and society, including especially its connections to Egypt, Phoenicia, and the Greek world. Readers will be pleased to discover that scholarly rigor gains remarkable dramatic value here; the discussions, more than 700 color photographs, and convincing reconstructions of activities associated with particular structures vividly convey not only the world in which the seventh-century Philistines lived but also the moment of Ashkelon's catastrophic destruction at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, who reportedly turned the heavily fortified city into "a heap of ruins" in the winter of 604 B.C.E. (Babylonian Chronicle [BM 21946, lines 18–20]). This study of the material remains of the seventh century reveals for the first time in comprehensive substance and unifying discussion that we are not witnessing in this proclamation a rare instance of understatement in the triumphal discourse of ancient Near Eastern monarchs.

The interpretative synthesis of evidence in the introductory chapters is efficiently illuminating and successfully orients the reader within the historical setting of Ashkelon on the eve of its destruction (ch. 1), the architecture and stratigraphy of the winery in grid 38 (ch. 2), and the marketplace and quarry in grid 50 (ch. 3). It is from grids 38 and 50 that the pottery and other artifacts discussed in the specialist chapters (4–26) were excavated. The editors effectively capitalize on their complementary expertise in the concluding chapters (chs. 27–8) to make clear and coherent the detailed quantitative and spatial analyses underpinning their reconstruction of the site and its history and usefully locate their arguments and findings within current scholarship.

Citing Mazar's corrected reading of 2 Samuel 1:20 ("The Philistines and the Rise of Israel and Tyre" and "The Phoenicians in the Levant," in S. Aḥituv and B.A. Levine, eds., The Early Biblical Period: Historical Studies [Jerusalem 1986] 65–8, 213–30), Stager shows in the first chapter that the biblical memory of an Ashkelon renowned for its marketplaces is consistent in character with the excavated remains of the port's thriving commercial center, including its specialty shops and a probable "counting house." Rubble from this counting house (Building 234) links commerce and religious activity at the site and so prompts comparisons with neighboring Ekron and Philistia at large (Gitin). From the roof debris of the counting house, excavators uncovered a freestanding incense altar (without horns) that recalls the condemnation in Jeremiah 32.29 of the rooftop rituals of pagans, who offered incense and libations to their deities.

The complex of material evidence for cultic practices at Ashkelon is indeed complex and does not identify a predominant Philistine deity as the targeted recipient of this kind of worship. It does, however, include terracotta figurines that suggest an orientation toward the Phoenician or coastal Levantine cultural sphere (Cohen [citing M. Press, "Philistine Figurines in Philistia in the Iron Age," Ph.D. diss., Harvard University (2007)]). Likewise, rather than reflecting a single or predominant metrological system, balance weights in use at the counting house would have needed to facilitate localized commerce that linked many cultures. Birney and Levine rightly recognize and emphasize the suitability of multiple and convertible standards to the southern coastal or Philistine and Phoenician spheres and identify at Ashkelon the influence of Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Judahite systems. Such evidence combines well with Cross' earlier reading of an ostrakon that located readers and writers of Late Phoenician script in the marketplace (in L.E. Stager, J.D. Schloen, and D.M. Master, Ashkelon. Vol. 1, Introduction and Overview (1985–2006) [Winona Lake, Ind. 2008] 341–42, no. 1.5), which suggested incidentally that they were not strangers to the city's East Street wine shop.

On the subject of alcohol, Stager combines material and textual evidence to demonstrate that wine, not beer, was the Levantine beverage of choice and offers somewhat surprisingly that options included brandy. In identifying the Hebrew word šēkār as grape-based brandy of a type still produced with simple household equipment in today's Mediterranean, he corrects earlier readings of this term as "strong drink" or "beer" and dispels the misconception that its production in antiquity was impossible.

The destruction layer associated with 604 B.C.E. covers the site and demonstrates that Babylonians did indeed reach the innermost part of the city, where fires burned so fiercely that they vitrified mudbrick in the marketplace. Such striking details leave no doubts about the city's utter devastation at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, which appears to have been part of the king's primary objective to weaken Egypt by depriving it of allies.

Our understanding of the close connections between the Egyptians and Philistines is significantly improved not only by the documentation in this volume of trade items found at Ashkelon but also by the identification of evidence suggesting that connectivity involved more than trade, perhaps a special relationship. The relevant material includes the inordinately high proportion of scarabs that make up 72% of the catalogued glyptics (Keel), as well as the quantity of Egyptian amulets (n=151) found at Ashkelon that far outnumber comparanda from other recently excavated sites in the Mediterranean (Herrmann). Ashkelon's alabastra assemblage is also unique in the southern Levant. It is securely dated, contains an unusually large number and diversity of Egyptian imports, and includes an early attestation of the "alabastron" type, which now confirms its exportation from Egypt by the late seventh century (Press).

The significance of these findings is suggested by Stager's compelling observation that other material would have been appropriate to a resident Egyptian enclave and its sanctuary at the site (9–10). These include numerous bronze statuettes of decidedly Egyptian (as opposed to Egyptianizing) deities found at the site, as well as cultic instruments including situlae and an offering table (Bell). The discussion of Ashkelon's Egyptian orientation in the decades prior to Nebuchadnezzar's onslaught is complemented by Stager's assessment of contemporary Ekron, where he identifies Egypt, and not Assyria, as the driving force behind that city's lucrative olive oil industry. This volume persuades us that Egypt's place in seventh-century Philistia is just beginning to be adequately appreciated.

Chapters on weapons and tools increase visibility of local technologies and material preferences. The presentation of the iron implements (Aja) is consistent with the understanding that Philistines could produce thin blades and heavy tools but not cast the metal. Vardi and Rosen point out the dearth of evidence for chipped-stone tools, and Rowan identifies a low frequency of ground-stone tools related to food production, along with a preference for imported basalt.

Chapters 23–6 treat the botanical (Weiss, Kislev, and Mahler-Slasky), faunal (Hesse, Fulton, and Wapnish; Lernau), and microartifactual (Lass) remains. From them we gain a reconstruction of the city's grain supply, as well as evidence of early harvesting and limited access to the sea associated with the Babylonian onslaught. Reports on the faunal material fill in an underrepresented period in Levantine zooarchaeology.

Master makes the needed and solid argument that perforated clay spheres were more regularly appropriate as loom weights than jar stoppers. Park's chapter on beads and jewelry clearly indicates the use of gold, bronze, stone, bone, and vitreous materials for ornaments and observes the absence of Neo-Assyrian influence in jewelry forms.

This volume presents pottery in seven primary groups: local wares, Phoenician, Cypriot, north Syrian, southeastern, Egyptian, and Greek. Particularly noteworthy and perhaps indicative of a special trading relationship known as ḫubūr (Mazar 1986 [65–8]) are connections between coastal Philistia (Ashdod and Ashkelon) and Phoenicia, emphatically attested at these sites in the abundance of imported and locally made red-slipped ware. Walton's discussion of utilitarian and coarse Egyptian wares, which would have been more appropriate as personal possessions than for long-distance trade, reinforces the evidence suggesting an Egyptian enclave at the site.

Waldbaum's very important coverage of Greek pottery merits its own review (ch. 10). Highlights include the identification at Ashkelon of types otherwise unattested in the region, an influx of East Greek forms at the end of seventh century, and the observation that few of the Greek imports (Corinthian included) could date earlier than the late seventh century. She correctly reports that the seventh-century Ashkelon assemblage is one of the largest and most varied in the southern Levant and that its significance to the chronology of early Greek pottery cannot be overstated.

The coverage of pottery spanning 287 pages is as impressive as it is extensive, but it makes up only one part of this enormous third volume of the final report series. In it, the editors fully realize the value of the 604 B.C.E. destruction layer as a time capsule, with its capacity to provide unparalleled insight into the local character and violent end of seventh-century Ashkelon, as well as unprecedented documentation of the city's relationships with other Philistine sites, Judah, Phoenicia, Cyprus, north Syria, Egypt, and the Greek world. The book is filled with information that uniquely addresses existing questions, and it will inspire a host of new ones.

It is a pleasure to report that the publication of this volume is a worthy testament to the generous and loyal support of Shelby White and Leon Levy, Benjamin Mazar, and Frank Moore Cross, as well as to the perennial and monumental investments of the excavators and staff; in it, we have an admirable example of what cooperation, unflagging dedication, and intellectual excellence can achieve.

Christine M. Thompson
Department of Anthropology and Classical Studies
University of Akron
Akron, Ohio 44325
cmthompsonua@gmail.com

DOI: 
10.3764/ajaonline1172.Thompson

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