In the twelfth century BCE, civilizations across the Mediterranean came to an end.
The cause of this phenomenon—known to some as the world’s first Dark Age—is debated. Climate change, the ensuing collapse of social structures, and local uprisings all contributed the cultural apocalypse. Yet even as civilizations collapsed, a new group emerged: a shadowy group known as the Sea Peoples. They are almost unknown outside of academic circles, but this migrant group, which travelled the Mediterranean in search of homes and new lives, left a deep impression in the region. We don’t know where they came from, and we don’t know where they went, but over the course of the twelfth century they left enough of a mark to become ancient scapegoats for global catastrophe.
Almost everything we know about the Sea Peoples comes to us from Egyptian inscriptions. According to the Egyptian texts, they set up camp in Syria before proceeding down the coast of Canaan (including parts of modern Syria, Lebanon, and Israel) and into the Nile delta of Egypt. It was in Egypt that the Sea Peoples met their match. They were twice defeated—in 1207 and 1177 BCE—by Merneptah and Rameses III. But, according to the Egyptians, in their wake there was destruction: the great civilizations of the day—the Hittites, the Mycenaeans, the Canaanites, and the Cypriots all crumbled.
Despite their name, they arrived both by land and by sea. They didn’t wear uniforms and ancient images of them show some with helmets, others with feathered headdresses, and others still with skullcaps. They came in waves armed with spears, swords, and bows and arrows. The Egyptians describe them as nine separate groups who worked together in harmony: the Peleset, Tjekker, Shekelesh, Shardana, Lukka, Teresh, Ekwesh, Danuna, and the Weshesh. But it is nearly impossible to ascertain who these groups were because we don’t know where they came from. Suggestions have been made that the Shardana came from Sardinia (note the similarity in consonants) and the Shekelesh from Sicily, and that perhaps the Denyen and the Ekwesh were from the Aegean (Homer’s Danaans and Achaeans).
The Egyptians seem to credit the Sea Peoples with the destruction of civilizations up and down the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, but it’s difficult to find evidence of their activity. This is in part because their pottery looks a lot like Mycenaean (Greek) pottery made with local Levantine clay. Of the nine groups, only one—the Peleset— has ever been positively identified. The Peleset are known to us as the Philistines who, according to the Bible at least, came from Crete. When we think of the Philistines, we think of Goliath and David’s improbable victory over him, but the story of the Philistines is much bigger than that, and the discovery of what is likely an extensive Philistine graveyard has the potential to upend much of what we know about this group.
The discovery came after nearly 30 years of excavating at the city of Ashkelon in Israel. Using radiocarbon dating and pottery analysis, the archaeologists dated the cemetery to between the 10th and 9th century BCE (this would mean that the cemetery dates to the period after the Sea Peoples invaded in the 12th century and belongs to their successors). The cemetery is distinctive in that it contains no infants and included only primary burials. The ancient Israelites, by contrast, practiced secondary burials in which they would gather the bones of the deceased a year after their death and rebury the remains in a communal family grave. In the Bible this is called being “gathered to [one’s] forefathers.” In the past, other burial sites have been identified, and sometimes misidentified, as Philistine. The discovery of the Ashkelon cemetery will force scholars to reappraise those findings. To quote Lawrence Stager, the emeritus Dorot professor of the archaeology of Israel at Harvard University and a co-director of the excavation, some of those earlier claims were “poppycock.”
Eric Cline, Professor of Classics and Anthropology at George Washington University and author of the remarkable 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed, told The Daily Beast, “What is absolutely most important about this discovery is that it represents the first time in a very long time that we might be able to say something more definitive about the Sea Peoples.” He added that while we have Philistine pottery at many sites in the Near East, we have never before had such numerous skeletal remains. “The fact that we’ve got so many skeletons means that we should be able to do DNA analysis as well as strontium isotope analysis, which might allow us to finally talk about where they came from.”
Whatever the Egyptian and Biblical record says about the character of the Sea Peoples and the Philistines, we cannot lay the blame for the Dark Age that followed the invasions of the Sea Peoples entirely on their shoulders. Recent archaeological discoveries suggest that the Sea Peoples were more peaceful than previously believed and that they were in many ways as much victims of cultural collapse as they were violent oppressors. Some of the destruction previously attributed to them may have come instead from local uprisings. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that Hittite civilization declined in part because of climate change. Additionally, declining population rates, economic collapse, and shifts in settlement patterns all contributed to the collapse of civilization in this period. Immigrants, it seems, have always undeservedly acquired a bad reputation.
What we do know about the Sea Peoples is that the cultural, political, and social vacuum that corresponded with their migration allowed new civilizations to emerge and expand. Among them were the Philistines (descendants of the Peleset), the Phoenicians (the remarkably successful sea-faring empire existed before the Sea Peoples but further expanded because of the collapse of neighboring groups), and the Israelites. According to the Bible, the Israelites were successful in conquering Canaan and setting up ancient Israel because Joshua won a decisive victory at Jericho. According to historians like Cline, the Israelite “conquest” may have been less dramatic. He suggests that it was only possible because the Sea Peoples had already eviscerated Canaanite civilization and Egyptian forces had pulled out of the region to fight the invaders at home. As Cline puts it, if it had not been for the Sea Peoples “it is much less likely… that the Israelites would have been able to establish a foothold in the Promised Land.” These people, in other words, played a role in making the political world of the Bible. And now we might finally learn where they came from.