It happened right in the middle of our 2012 excavation season. A car stopped along the side of the road, and a man jumped out and said, “I know where the Iron Age cemetery of Ashkelon is located.”

This is not the strangest thing I have heard in the middle of a dig season, but it was surely a surprise. Our team had been working at Ashkelon for almost 30 years, and I had never even heard a rumor about a cemetery. But the man followed up. His name was Shlomo Piphano, and he had been the Department of Antiquities (now Israel Antiquities Authority) inspector for this area in the late 1980s. He had been tasked with examining a piece of land that was going to be the site of a municipal playground. Everywhere he probed, he found graves 16 inches (40 cm) below the surface. Most contained distinctive black and red imported juglets that only appear in the Iron Age.

At that point, everyone was interested in Shlomo’s story, but modern excavation is complicated. One does not just get a tip one day and start digging the next. Excavation requires careful planning (and layers of government approval). We spent the next year vetting the story, looking for Shlomo’s original report (now lost), and then arranging permission for trial excavation. We returned 12 months later, full of optimism. But, in 2013, everything failed that we tried. Wherever we excavated, we found sterile soil. Shlomo was doubting his own memory; nothing was as he had expected.

One person who did not give up was Ashkelon’s Associate Director, Dr. Adam Aja. Even though Shlomo suggested that the graves would be only 16 inches down, Adam kept digging more than 10 feet (3 m) down. Here, at least, there was a change in the soil color, but it could have been the difference between two natural formations. Nothing we had seen on the way down gave us hope that we were in cultural deposits. Still, Adam continued down, and 16 inches after that, he rediscovered the Iron Age cemetery of Philistine Ashkelon!

It turns out that since Shlomo’s day, to adapt the area for parking, more than 10 feet of soil had been dumped on this spot. Once the wind sprinkled sand over the top, no one remembered what had happened—it all blended in. If it had not been for Shlomo’s tip and Adam’s persistence, this discovery would have been hidden for at least another generation. We never would have started sampling DNA across the site, and we would have missed one of Ashkelon’s greatest discoveries.