Excavate with a team of professional archaeologists at the
ancient Mediterranean port city of Ashkelon, on the southern coast of Israel!
Each year, Professor Kate Birney of the Wesleyan Classics Department brings Wesleyan students to join the Leon Levy Expedition’s research and excavation team at the site of Ashkelon. Ashkelon was one of the largest and most famous port cities in the ancient Mediterranean, and was continuously occupied from nearly 2500 B.C. until the Crusaders conquered the city in the 12th century A.D. Even today, one can stroll the ruins of the Crusader ramparts and walk through the mudbrick-archway of the 3,500 year old Canaanite gate, preserved to almost 2 stories in height.
The site itself, beautifully preserved in a national park south of the modern city, has been excavated since 1985 by the Leon Levy Expedition – a joint project drawing students and faculty from Wesleyan, Harvard University, Wheaton College and Boston University, headed by co-directors Dr. Lawrence Stager of Harvard University and Dr. Daniel Master from Wheaton College. This intensely productive excavation has been made possible through the generous support of the Leon Levy and Shelby White Foundation. Each year our ongoing work reveals something new about Ashkelon’s ancient past. Come and explore with us!
Read more about the Leon Levy Expedition in the New York Times.
A Brief History of the City
During the Canaanite period (2500-1200 B.C.), Ashkelon was one of the largest commercial centers around the Mediterranean, and it remained a thriving metropolis under varying degrees of Egyptian control until it was conquered by the biblical Philistines in 1200 B.C. Ashkelon was one of five cities in southern Israel where these immigrants from the Aegean settled, and excavations in Grid 38 at the site have revealed a neighborhood of elite Philistine houses dating from the 11th-10th centuries B.C.
The city remained under Philistine control until it was sacked and burned by the Babylonian king Nebuchadezzar in 604 B.C. The intensity of the destruction left us with the beautifully preserved wreckage of the city port and marketplace, where warehouses and merchant shops had collapsed and burned, leaving bodies buried in the rubble.
After a period of abandonment, Ashkelon was reoccupied by Phoenician colonists in the early 5th century B.C., who revived the city’s weakened trading networks and reopened connections across the Mediterranean to the west. Ongoing excavations in Grid 51, just inside the city wall from the port area, are revealing a 5th century B.C. neighborhood of duplexes with front shops lining a street. This neighborhood was intensely occupied and retained its building plan for centuries, throughout the Hellenistic and later Roman periods.
During the Roman and Byzantine periods Ashkelon, an independent city, was renowned for its fine wines, which were shipped as far away as England. King Herod himself initiated a building program at the city during the 1st century B.C., and the elaborate metropolis housed a boule or council house, and a beautifully constructed Roman theatre (for which we have even found ticket stubs!) During the Byzantine period (4th-7th c. A.D.) the city boasted a number of beautiful churches with mosaic floors and private villas. During this time, the city was praised not only for its fine architecture, but was held up as a model of urban planning and zoning regulation for surrounding cities. As the 6th century A.D. architect Julian of Ashkelon proclaimed “Truly, there is a pinnacle for everything, and the pinnacle for greater Syria is Ashkelon.”