Philistines: people of taste - and such nice crockery

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FAR FROM being the uncivilised brutes of history who did not care about culture, the Philistines had a taste for fine wines, delicate oils and decorative crockery.

Biblical accounts of famous Philistines - such as Goliath, the giant who fought David, and Delilah, who cut the hair and put out the eyes of Samson - have forever associated their name with the uncouth and ill-educated. But that may be about to change.

After 2,000 years of bad press, the Philistines are emerging with a new reputation as a keen trading nation with a love of the good things in life. Marine scientists and archaeologists working off the coast of ancient Philistia - the area around the present day Gaza Strip - believe they have found evidence that the Philistines had an extraordinary appetite for the finest-quality merchandise of the day.

The researchers have found the wrecks of two ships loaded with goods from Phoenicia, a known trading nation operating from what is now Lebanon, which has confirmed that there must have been extensive trade with the Philistines.

Lawrence Stager, an archaeologist at Harvard University, believes the discovery reinforces the findings from other excavations of the ancient cities of Philistia, showing that the Philistines were importing only the best goods.

"They traded with Phoenicia and imported luxury items from Cyprus and the Greek islands of Kos, Samos and Eos. They imported delicate Ionian cups which were egg-shell thin," he said.

Philistine tablewear included elaborately decorated serving dishes and wine pitchers. "They had very fine tablewear, it was really the China of their day," Professor Stager said.

Rather than merely skirmishing with their neighbours, as biblical stories suggest, the Philistines put as much energy into producing the expensive goods - such as olive oil - that made them a cultural oasis in the region.

"The Philistines have been defined mostly by their enemies," said Professor Stager. In the days of Homer when the ships sailed, about 750BC, Philistines were living in large cities with populations of between 5,000 and 15,000 people, whereas their enemies, the Israelities, were living in farming villages of no more than a hundred inhabitants.

There is no record of where the Philistines originally came from, although the ancient Egyptians believed they were pirates who had colonised south- west Palestine from a base in either Caphter or Crete.

And their fate? Most scholars believe the tribe was either squeezed or assimilated into the Assyrian empire to the north and the Egyptian empire to the south.