Carl Andrews, courtesy Leon Levy Expedition

A daunting slope outside Ashkelon’s northern gate would have dissuaded many an attacker bent on conquest. At bottom center (where the people are clustered) are the excavated rooms of the sanctuary of the silver calf.

The approximately 40-degree slope is not a natural feature but rather an artificial earthwork that was the base of an enormous fortification system throughout much of Ashkelon’s history. The ramparts date to Middle Bronze II (2000–1550 B.C.) and were rebuilt four times in that period alone. The earliest layer of the slope was capped with mudbricks. The later three were capped with rows of rough field stones; tamped earth or mud plaster, about 4 inches thick, covered the stones and gave the slope a smooth exterior surface.

Abutting the Mediterranean Sea in modern-day Israel, Ashkelon was a center, in turn, of Canaanite, Philistine, Phoenician, Roman, Byzantine and Islamic cultures. It was a member of the Philistine pentapolis, or league of five cities, and appears frequently in the Bible. Samson killed 30 men there in a rage (Judges 14:19); David, after he heard of the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, cried, “Publish it not in the streets of Ashkelon” (2 Samuel 1:20); and Zephaniah predicted that “Ashkelon shall become a desolation” (Zephaniah 2:4).

The excavations here are casting new light on Canaanite and early Israelite religious practices and are helping solve one of the most controversial issues in Biblical archaeology: When did the Philistines arrive on the shores of Canaan?