The story is known to many: the smaller, weaker David stands up to the giant warrior Goliath, and eventually kills him with his sling. Now archeologists think that they’ve just unearthed the massive foundations to the entrance of the biblical city of Gath, Goliath's hometown and, during its heyday, the largest city in the region.
The city was once one of five Philistine city-states – the others being Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashod, and Ekron – that existed in the same region as the modern day Gaza Strip. “We knew that Philistine Gath in the 10th to ninth century [BCE] was a large city, perhaps the largest in the land at that time,” Professor Aren Maeir, of Bar-Ilan University in Israel, who leads the excavations of the city, told Live Science. “These monumental fortifications stress how large and mighty this city was.”
View of the Iron Age fortifications of the lower city of Philistine Gath. Credit: Prof. Aren Maeir/Ackerman Family Bar-Ilan University Expedition.
The university has been excavating the city for decades, with this year marking the 20th expedition to Gath. The site is one of the largest ancient ruin mounds, or “tells,” in the whole of Israel, and has been occupied almost continuously from around 5,000 BCE to the modern day. The last inhabitants of the site were a small Arab village that upped and left in around 1948. This means that the area is completely undeveloped and open to excavation.
With the incredible size of the city and the references in the bible – notably when David fled from King Saul to the city – it’s generally accepted that this must be the ancient site of Gath. Ruled by the Philistines, they were in conflict with the neighboring Jewish kingdoms of Judah and Israel. This could explain why the city had such an impressive gate and monumental fortifications, though even this wasn’t enough to protect the city when it was finally put under siege and laid to waste in 830 BCE.
But the discoveries didn’t stop at the massive gate. The team has also uncovered a temple, evidence of iron smelting, and remains relating to potentially the earliest siege system in the world. Consisting of a 2.5-kilometer-long, 8-meter-wide trench and towers, apparently even this couldn’t halt the city's eventual destruction. More interesting, perhaps, is the pottery that they found at the site, as it seems to have been influenced by their supposed enemies, showing elements of Israelite techniques.
As is often the case, the relationship between the apparently warring groups of people was far more complex and multifaceted than both sides simply viewing each other as enemies. Maeir suspects that the excavation of the gates will keep them plenty busy for at least another few seasons in the field.