Sarit Bendavid, a Yeshiva University honors student from Teaneck, just returned from working on archeological excavations in the ancient city of Gath, home of the biblical Goliath.

Under the supervision of Bar-Ilan University’s Prof. Aren M. Maeir since 1996, the excavations made news in July when diggers found positive evidence of a 10th-century BCE Philistine temple. Known as Tel es-Safi or as Blanche Garde during the Middle Ages, this site between Ashkelon and Jerusalem was settled continuously from late prehistoric through modern times. Archeologists have discovered here the world’s earliest known siege system and deciphered Philistine inscription, as well as preserved evidence of various cultures, peoples, and historical events spanning six millennia.

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At a dig in the ancient city of Gath are, from left, Daniella Ahdout, Dena Shayne, Sarit Bendavid, and Rachel Stern, all Yeshiva University students. Their professor, Jill Katz, displays a find. courtesy sarit bendavid

Bendavid and five other Y.U. students participated as part of a three-week course in biblical archeology taught by Jill Katz, adjunct professor of anthropology and archeology at Yeshiva College and Stern College for Women. The schedule included early-morning digs – before the sun got too strong – afternoon sessions of pottery-washing and sorting, nightly lectures, and field trips.

Armed with a trowel, brush, dustpan, and dirt bucket, Bendavid did not make any of the more spectacular finds. But she did uncover such items as a piece of decorative boneware and a ceramic strainer. Sifting through broken mud-brick material and layers of ash, she discovered the base of a jug that had been shattered and burned when the ancient Philistine city of Gath was destroyed, presumably by the Aramean King Hazael in the early ninth century BCE.

“Being at a Philistine site provided us with a different view of history,” Bendavid said. “Usually we learn about the Philistines in the context of Israelite history, where they were ‘the’ enemy of Israel, so it was interesting to work on this site and consider them just like I would any other people.”

Bendavid said she felt she was “digging up the stories of the Bible,” including the well-known battle between the shepherd David and the giant Goliath, which took place in the Elah Valley right below the dig site. The area is also mentioned in the first Book of Samuel’s depiction of the Philistines bringing the captured Holy Ark to Gath and being punished with a divine plague; and the destruction of Gath detailed in the second book of Kings.

It was not only the ancient peoples the young archeologists found fascinating, but also the variety of contemporaries working on the site, which has been active for more than a decade. On the bus ride to the dig early each morning from the kibbutz where the students stayed, Bendavid spoke with some of the 100 participants of many different backgrounds – for instance, an archeology student from Australia, an evangelical Lutheran student from Germany, and a Jewish professor at Bar-Ilan.

Another opportunity for getting to know other participants was during the tedious washing and sorting of each day’s finds, which were then left to dry for two days before evaluation by pottery specialists. Bendavid described suddenly spotting some black and red paint on a shard she was cleaning. A supervisor told her she was holding the bottom of a bowl from the Iron I period, called Philistine bichrome ware. Though any significant finds had to remain in Israel, Bendavid got to keep several ancient fragments that the experts determined unimportant to their research.

“I’ve always been interested in biblical archeology but had no way to be involved in it,” said Bendavid, 21, who is an English literature and history major at Stern College. “I never thought of archeology as a viable professional option, but being here and seeing so many people in the field, I’m considering it now.”

For Bendavid’s firsthand account of her experience, go to My encounter with Goliath