UBToday Online Alumni Magazine -Spring 1997
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Alumni Profiles
Pamela Benson -'76
Charles Baxter -'74
Seymour Gitin -'56
Alan Zweibel -'72
Dave Dealney -'77
Jackie Felix -'81
James O. Horton -'64


Seymour Gitin, B.A. 1956

It is hot, dry, dusty. For 13 years, Seymour Gitin, B.A. '56, and his colleagues have been excavating this ancient site in Israel. Each year, filled with anticipation, they have sifted the dirt and stones and rubble, looking for clues to a lost culture. And now, as the dig winds down to its final days, they are painfully aware that the conclusive piece of evidence they seek will probably remain hidden, perhaps for a lifetime, perhaps forever.

For archaeologists, this story begins in the 12th century B.C., when a band of mysterious seafarers landed on what is now the Mediterranean coast of Israel and carved out a nation-state known in ancient times as Philistia, land of the Philistines. Formidable and aggressive, the Philistines were warriors, traders and even industrialists who both terrified and fascinated their neighbors. Over the next 600 years, their culture would flourish twice before vanishing almost as suddenly as it had appeared.

For Gitin, director of the internationally renowned W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem, where he is also professor of archaeology, the story began at UB in the mid-1950s. He was an earnest young student-only 16-when he was inspired by history professors like John Horton and Julius Pratt to abandon pre-law and accounting in order to pursue his first love-studying ancient history, languages and cultures.

His journey took him through a master's degree in Hebrew literature and ordination as a rabbi to a two-year stint as a military chaplain in Alaska, where he survived the great earthquake of 1964. From there he went on to serve a congregation in North Hollywood, California, before resuming graduate studies. In 1970, grants from the Smithsonian and the Ford Foundation sent Gitin to Israel, where he ultimately earned a doctorate in Syro-Palestinian archaeology. In 1980 he assumed his present position as director of the Albright Institute.

Soon thereafter, along with his colleague Dr. Trude Dothan of the Hebrew University, Gitin began excavations at a site believed to be the Philistine capital city of Ekron. Mentioned in both biblical texts and the annals of the Neo-Assyrian kings, Ekron was an important city for most of Philistine history. According to the biblical account, it was here that the victorious Philistines brought the Ark of the Covenant as one of the spoils of a triumph over the Israelites. And while the excavation had already discovered that the city later flourished in the 7th century B.C. under Assyrian rule (as the largest olive oil production center known in antiquity to date), the dig had yet to produce conclusive evidence that the site really was Ekron.

The fictional archaeologist Indiana Jones easily succeeded in finding the fabled ark in his big-screen adventure, but, as the dig entered its final two weeks, real-life archaeologist Gitin was increasingly pessimistic about his chances of such a spectacular find. Then a field archaeologist approached him, saying, "Sy, you'd better come look at this."

Wedged in a narrow space between a temple wall and a bank of unexcavated sediment was a large stone. "We'd turned over hundreds of stones and found no inscriptions," Gitin recounts. "On this one, there were a couple of scratches. That was all." Concluding that the scratches were meaningless, Gitin left instructions that he be called only if an inscription was found. Ten minutes later, he was called back to the same spot. This time when he peered at the stone-which had been partially cleaned-he exclaimed, "Oh, my God!

"There were four very distinct letters incised in a very old script that you could see, popping out of the stone. That was exciting," Gitin says. "We couldn't read it immediately because the stone was upside down and partially obscured by the surrounding sediment, so we couldn't see what we had until we'd excavated the stone and taken it to our base camp. Every half hour, as the moist soil covering the inscription dried, I'd brush off a little more dirt and read another word. It was a very exciting process, deciphering those letters."

The significance of the find became apparent once the inscription was fully uncovered and the word "Ekron" was read. It proved that the site was indeed Ekron of Philistia, making this the first excavation in Israel to produce such written data confirming the identity of a site. Moreover, the inscription included the names of two Philistine kings recorded in the Neo-Assyrian annals, tying the site to a historical, textual source-another first. And because the stone was part of the debris from the destruction of Ekron by the Babylonians in 603 B.C., Gitin and his colleagues were able to date the find precisely. Besides its historical importance, the inscription indicated that the temple in which it was found was dedicated to the king's goddess, Patgayah. A non-Semitic name, it may reflect the Greek or Aegean origins of the Philistines.

According to Gitin, an important stepping-stone to his current success was the education he received at UB. The university, he said, offered an education of superb quality, with a concentration on thinking and learning rather than training for a particular profession. And just as the Philistines flourished under the enlightened role of the Assyrians, Gitin found his vocation under the guidance of what he describes as "one of the best history departments in the country."

In his own work, Gitin strives to find models for today's societies in the cultures of the past. "Our research project can be defined as trying to describe what happens to a culture of immigrants," he says, referring to the Philistines. "We've changed the perception of how ethnic groups develop. We think we know why the Philistines disappeared into history. After 600 years, they were heavily affected by other cultures-Israelites, Judeans, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Assyrians, Babylonians. One of the reasons they survived so long was their flexibility in adopting so much from the cultures around them. But when the Babylonians came on the scene, they destroyed Ekron and exiled the Philistines to Babylon. Once they were separated from their homeland, they had no core culture left, and so they were eventually assimilated. The archaeological data provides a model of how this happened, and it will influence how we think about cultures and how they're affected by each other."

Gitin's work at the Albright Institute is also providing a living lesson in cultural relationships. Acting as a bridge between archaeological communities, the institute provides a unique opportunity for interaction among Americans, Israelis and Palestinians. It has relationships with the major Israeli and Palestinian universities, and with scholars from these institutions, some of whom are fellows of the institute. The Ekron excavation also provided training for many of the Palestinian students who worked in the first excavation of the Palestinian Department of Antiquities. "Nowhere else in the Middle East does this kind of contact happen," Gitin says. "And it's going to develop even further, I think."

Gitin will devote the next few years to analyzing the data he has amassed and publishing the results. Along with enriching our understanding of ancient and modern cultures through his work, he will continue the UB tradition of inspiring young people to follow their intellectual interests-and their dreams.

Blair Boone, Ph.D. '84, is a Buffalo-based freelance writer.

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