Winter 1997

From Ruins to Riches
by Janet Smith

On his hands and knees and covered with dust last summer, Sam Ashkon Randell ('96) reached an archaeological summit when he unearthed the find of 13 digging seasons at Israel's Tel Miqne-Ekron excavation site. He uncovered a large block of stone bearing Phoenician script, which provides conclusive evidence of the identity of Ekron, one of the five capital cities of the ancient Philistines.
"This find will go into textbooks," says Diana V. Edelman, assistant professor of religion, who with four JMU graduates and eight JMU students was among the 130 staff and volunteers who worked at the site near Kibbutz Revadim, about 25 miles south of Tel Aviv.

"The major find of the season, and perhaps of all of our 13 seasons, was the inscription with the name of Ekron and its rulers [which was] found in the seventh century B.C. temple complex," professors Trude Dothan and Seymour Gitin said in a letter to Edelman. Dothan, director of the Philip and Muriel Berman Center for Biblical Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Gitin, Dorot director and professor of archaeology at the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem, are heads of the archaeological team that has been excavating the site since 1981.

The inscription was found in the square supervised by Randell, who graduated from JMU in May 1996 with a B.A. in English and anthropology. Randell, who lives in Falls Church, participated in the project during the summer of 1995 as a student worker and during the summer of 1996 as an assistant area supervisor.

Randell describes the find as truly unexpected. The square where he was digging was part of a strip that had been left untouched during earlier excavations because it was thought to be outside the ruins of the temple that formed part of a monumental building complex under study. "We discovered there was one more room," Randell says. "We weren't at the end of the building, as we first thought."

Excavation of the room had yielded a trove of bowls, ivory and statues which led the archaeologists to determine the room was behind the altar of the temple, Randell says.

Randell's assigned square contained a puzzling feature - a large stone that wasn't in line with the wall of the room. About 2 or 3 inches of the stone was showing when Randell was instructed to keep digging.

As he and the field supervisor, Steve Ortiz of the University of Arizona, worked, Randell recalls "we were calm, but hopeful." Once the stone was unearthed enough to view the inscription, "I was kind of in a stupor," Randell says.

"I was thinking, 'someone inscribed this; this has meaning,'" he says. And while such thoughts were racing through his brain, he also heard Ortiz saying, "You know you're making history, don't you?"

Other workers were called to the square as excavation continued to share and savor the excitement of the find. Although she was working in another portion of the site, Edelman was quickly summoned to the square to verify the inscription as an ancient Phoenician script.

"First she told us we were looking at the stone upside down," Randell recalls. By excavating the stone fully and removing it for study by the project's epigrapher Joseph Naveh of Hebrew University, the name Ekron and the kings Achish and his father, Padi, were found in a five-line inscription on the stone.

The temple complex where the stone was found and the entire city were burned to the ground in 603 B.C. during the campaign of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, according to a news release issued from the excavation project.

The inscription states that Achish, the son of Padi, king of Ekron, built a temple dedicated to a goddess. Achish corresponds to the name Ikausu, who is mentioned in the Assyrian annals of the seventh century B.C. as the king of Ekron.

"The find is significant because it allowed us to identify the building complex as a temple complex," Edelman says. Before the dedicatory temple inscription was found, archaeologists were trying to determine whether the larger complex was a palace or a temple, she explains.

Beyond its value as a marker of the temple, the stone might well help researchers understand more about the Philistines, Edelman says. Scholars know that when they arrived in the coastal plain in circa 1150 B.C., the Philistines had a Greek cultural background. By 700 B.C., however, the inscription shows that their descendants were speaking and writing a Semitic language, indicating they had adapted to the local culture of Canaan, she explains. The stone's inscription might help determine if the later Philistines developed a new dialect rather than completely assimilating into the older culture of the immediate area.

Professors Gitin, Dothan and Naveh are studying the inscription during a planned five-year break from field work. Archaeologists associated with the Ekron site will work on publications during the period.

Through the James Madison University Foundation, JMU is a sponsoring institution of the Tel Miqne-Ekron excavation project. For the past three years, JMU students have worked at the site. The summer 1996 participants besides Randell were JMU graduates Alison French ('96), area supervisor; James Hochmuth ('94), assistant area supervisor; Tori Webdale ('94), area supervisor; and students Matt Frank, Laura Ishmael, Angela Jasper, Paul Johnston, Jill Milosavich, Raymie Poole, Keri Rumerman and Robert Weinig.

Return to Winter 1997 Table of Contents

Return to Montpelier Home Page