The University of Kansas

Digging into the unknown

Ancient gate may be the key to finding Goliath

Eric Welch and KU students helped make a Goliath-size discovery this summer.

A visiting assistant professor of Jewish studies, Welch has spent the last decade uncovering layers of history at Tell es-Safi, Israel. But his team’s most recent discovery — the gate to the biblical city of Gath and home to Philistine giant Goliath — has a distinct significance.

“Everybody knows David and Goliath,” he says. “We know the Philistines are bad guys in the Bible, but who are they? There are legitimate questions about them.”

Welch says, now that they’ve found the gate, his team can hunt for specific clues about the Philistines’ origins, like what language they spoke, what religion they practiced, and even what they ate.

Answering questions like these is just one of many opportunities for archaeologists at Tell es-Safi. Welch says it’s the site of 4,500 years of human occupation —from the initial settlement during the early Bronze Age, through the Crusades, and into modern times. What they discover will provide insights not only into biblical history, but also the rise of urbanism, and early agricultural and warfare practices.

Next summer, Welch will oversee another team of KU students as they dig into 9th century B.C.E. Gath.

“That’s when the Philistine city is actually destroyed,” he says. “What you get in the Bible is one verse — just this little blip. But then we go to the site, and every spot reveals a Pompeii-like destruction as you dig down. We’ll find 30 pots in one day. Everything is just frozen in time from the day the city was destroyed.”

Welch says understanding the history of Israel is important in the context of history.

“Jewish studies is an enormous field; it includes everything from things like this dig that we’re doing to modern constructs of Jewish identity, Holocaust studies, medieval Jewish studies, or Jewish philosophy,” he says. “There are so many different facets to Jewish studies.”

The Gath excavation is a project of Bar-Ilan University, the third-largest university in Israel, near Tel Aviv. Now in its 20th season, researchers within the project have been excavating approximately 100 acres recognized as one of the most important archaeological sites in Israel.