The “Gender Agenda” at Tel Abel Beth Maacah- From Classroom to Field in Search of Ancient Women

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Gender Agenda  

In the 2014 excavation season, a pilot program, “the Gender Agenda”, was conducted with the participation of four students from Cornell University and Azusa Pacific University, who took a course in Gender Archaeology (Cornell) and Women in Ancient Israel (APU) in their home university and joined the dig for four weeks as a continuation of their classroom work. The Biblical tradition (2 Samuel 20:14-18) of a “Wise Woman” at Abel Beth Maacah (perhaps a local oracle) was, in a way, part of the impetus to explore gender at our site. 

 This pilot program was generously supported by the Cornell Univeristy and the Center for Judaic Studies of the University of Arizona and was directed by Dr. Naama Yahalom-Mack of the Department of Earth Sciences, Dr. Nava Panitz-Cohen of the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Prof. Lauren Monroe of the Department of Near Eastern Studies of Cornell University.    

Our understanding of life in antiquity is mediated by the physical remains that archaeologists uncover, such as buildings, objects and organic materials, as well as by texts that have survived. Often, these sources present a biased picture that is either the result of the vagaries of preservation or, when speaking of texts, a certain agenda that was chosen to be presented, often at the expense of the social, cultural and ideological reality of that time. This is particularly true of Israel in the Iron Age, the period of the Old Testament, when the Biblical text presents an "official view" of society that is mainly androcentric and focused on the official cult and administration, mostly at the end of the period under discussion. 


As such, various aspects of society and people remain invisible, marginalized or stereotyped, chief among them women. In a sense, we have obtained "history" as "his story". We are not only speaking about identifying women, but also about defining gender relations and the spheres in which this interaction took place. It is the archaeologists’ task to develop tools with which to reveal gender in antiquity. Such tools include gleaning daily realia from the Biblical text, comparison to other texts, and to a large extent, pertinent ethno-archaeological analogies. The latter points us in the direction of women having played a major social, political and religious role within the framework of the household. While we are faced with presentism, i.e., interpretation of the past through the prism of our own modern Western society, that minimizes women who "stay at home", in fact, we must understand that it was very different in antiquity and women were often socially and economically empowered precisely through their roles as pivots in the household and family.

Thus, archaeology can access women and gender relations mainly through the study of the house; we can identify female household tasks as known from ethnographic studies (weaving, grinding, cooking, etc.) within the spatial framework of rooms and courtyards and even public spaces. For example, pot-making is often a female endeavor and thus, identifying whether the pottery was made by women can open windows into economic gender roles. Location of cooking and grinding venues can point to the spaces where women were concentrated in the house – and where they were restricted. Remains of weaving and spinning in a cultic context may suggest women involved in the workings of the ritual.

Within the framework of the “Gender Agenda”, we carefully excavated contexts that are potential for identifying engendered activities (installations, ovens, debris on a floor in a room, etc.), with sediment samples taken for micro-archaeological analysis in order to try to better identify these activities. 

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 Workshops and lectures included introduction to microarchaeology, pottery production and use, residue analysis, female fertility in cult, and the relation between text and context in the Biblical era. Students were introduced to various research tools, such as XRF, infra-red and isotope analysis. The students visited the Center for Women’s Traditional Crafts in the Arab village of Bo’ena Nujeirat in the Galilee and explored gender roles in a traditional and changing society with the local women. 

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