CSTT and Gender #3: Discussing Gender in the Archaeology of the Classical Periods in Israel/Palestine

by Rick Bonnie

Since the early 1980s, gender research has relatively quickly entered the realm of archaeology and gradually developed into its own subject area in the field.[1] To a large degree, however, this shift first took place in archaeological sub-disciplines far removed, so it seems, from Near Eastern, biblical, or classical archaeology. The latter have only very slowly and unfortunately still rather sparingly introduced research on gender roles and identities. To be sure, the field has developed and improved substantially over the last two decades.[2] This is shown, for instance, by the works of such eminent scholars as Beth Alpert Nakhai, Carol Meyers, and Jennie Ebeling, as well as the substantial scholarly interest in the recent workshops on “Gender, Methodology, and the Ancient Near East” organized by Saana Svärd and Agnes Garcia-Ventura.[3]

One notable result is the publication of a special journal issue on “Gender Archaeology” in last year’s Near Eastern Archaeology. Yet, the absence of any article related to the classical periods in this journal issue remains worth noting.[4] Perhaps this has something to do with the old adage that Near Eastern archaeology does not go beyond Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Near East. However, my own experiences with regard to the archaeology of the Hellenistic to Byzantine eras in Israel/Palestine (the period and region I am most acquainted with) are that discussions on gender remain rather invisible in the scholarly literature.[5] In the next couple of paragraphs, I will consider some of the causes for this lack of archaeological discussion on gender roles and identities.

I. Relatively few contexts with sexed bodies

Gendered practices are most often studied in archaeological contexts with sexed bodies, such as funerary contexts of osteologically-sexed individuals, visual representations such as sculpted portraits or mosaic or frescoed scenes, or inscriptions referring to women and men.[6] The reason for this type of evidence seems obvious: when an individual can be securely identified through human remains, figural representations or words, then its context and surrounding finds (e.g. burial furnishings) can tell us a lot regarding gendered practices in the past.

To give one example, based on research by Hilary Cool, that has been discussed by Penelope Allison: while the Roman author Pliny the Elder made clear that jet jewellery was considered a female attribute and male jewellery was frowned upon in imperial Roman society, the evidence from male-sexed funerary contexts in the provinces shows that males frequently adorned themselves with jewellery.[7] This example illustrates how archaeological studies are able to nuance the views derived from textual sources alone. Moreover, such studies are able to demonstrate variation in gendered practices within a single empire, thereby also contributing to discussions on the socio-cultural heterogeneity of imperial populations.

However, it is precisely these types of evidence that are either largely absent or are impossible to be studied in depth. For instance, the extremely restrictive Israeli custom regarding the excavation of tombs and burials,[8] makes a thorough scientific study of funerary contexts almost impossible. Moreover, it has the indirect effect that few archaeologists in the region actually specialize in this particular subject, nor do they focus their attention in the field to this type of evidence (and in fact, for practical reasons, often try to avoid it). On the other hand, for the Hellenistic to Byzantine periods, visual figurative representations in general are relatively rare compared to other regions, which to some degree is caused by the observance of religious regulations. The same holds for epigraphic material with the near absence of building inscriptions for the region, which stands in stark contrast with the evidence from Asia Minor, Italy, Greece or even Britain.

II. A lack of critical theory

Yet it is neither absent nor abnormal in archaeology to focus on gender outside the realm of funerary contexts, visual representations, and inscriptional evidence.[9] Two such reasons for this are (1) that the latter evidence tends to relate primarily to elites, and (2) that they provide a symbolic (perhaps even idealizing) gendering of male and female identity and practice. However, studying gender through material culture without sexed bodies or visual or written representations is challenging and cannot be pursued without theoretical models, comparative research (from different regions, through ethnographic research), and clear methodologies.

This is, however, where I see one of the biggest hurdles for the study of the classical periods in Israel/Palestine, as critical archaeological theorizing has remained rather underdeveloped over the years. Instead, emphasis remains on what sometimes has been called “dirt archaeology,” which highlights mainly practical training and experience in fieldwork and the applied knowledge of material culture (and, more and more, the adoption of novel scientific techniques). This stage of data-gathering through excavation then is frequently confused with a theory-driven analytical stage to make sense of the gathered data, leading to such false claims as excavation provides “hard facts.” Yet, while this particular tradition of scholarship is not necessarily a bad thing, it should be remembered that it has profound implications for how archaeology is understood and conducted.

Thus, up to the late-2000s, it was not uncommon to hear and read about views that are strongly embedded in a cultural-historical approach, in which the interpretation of finds and sites was often dictated through a reading of roughly contemporaneous literary evidence.[10] This approach wrongly assumes some kind of inherent socio-cultural meaning (or significance) to the finds in question, while in reality such meaning in objects is constantly negotiated and can only be accessed through a careful, comparative, and critical study of archaeological context. This not only has strong implications for exploring representations of gender, but also for those of identity and ethnicity in general, which, as a result of the cultural-historical approach, tend to be highly generic in nature.[11] Recently some scholars have started to deconstruct this picture using postmodern theories developed in archaeology,[12] though their work tends to have the unfortunate result of criticizing and minimizing the interpretive strength of material objects.


Gendered assumptions are often brought implicitly into the realm of archaeological interpretation. Male employees at the General Electric Company knits socks and scarves for WWI soldiers. 1918 USA. Image courtesy of Lion Brand Yarn Studio.
III. Dependence on questions derived from literary texts

This brings me to a third observation; that is, much of the archaeology that is done on the Hellenistic to Byzantine eras in Israel/Palestine still tends to be guided by texts and textual research. I am not referring here to how archaeological interpretations still tend to be grounded in our reading of roughly contemporaneous texts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, the rabbinic corpus, and Josephus. Instead, what I mean is that the questions we ask and try to answer through the archaeological remains are almost always framed by our reading and understanding of temporally and geographically closely-related textual sources.[13]

A case in point is much of the archaeological research conducted on first-century Galilee, which often has as its starting point anything related to the historical Jesus, Josephus’s narrative of Herod’s tetrarchy, and the First Jewish Revolt. The same holds for representations of gender at Qumran as studied through the archaeological remains, which has primarily focused on the question of the presence or absence of women as related to the celibate Essene community that is presumed to have lived there.[14]

In short, our questions for archaeological remains in general tend to be framed by those aspects highlighted by the ancient literary sources. The result is a rather narrow and limited archaeology that does not engage to the fullest extent with questions raised by broader humanities, social science, and natural science fields.

IV. Limited excavation reports

The absence of certain types of evidence, lack of critical theory, and dependence on literary texts for asking the “right” questions, as discussed above, all seem to have had a profound impact on how gender has been addressed. Yet the broad strokes with which (Jewish) life in Hellenistic to Byzantine Palestine has often been constructed from archaeological remains also has a significant effect on how data is collected and published. When detailed contextual information and scientific analytical methods are not too often used for the interpretive work done by scholars, this has implications for the degree of precision by which archaeological sites are being excavated and documented and the level of detail with which found objects and structures are being published.

Thus, although the exceptions are becoming more frequent, it is still a common occurrence that excavations and their reporting focus almost solely on a conventional description of stratigraphy, architecture, art, and pottery typology, which then is contextualized in a historical framework. There tends to be an aura of objectivity surrounding these excavations and reports, as if the meaning of the architecture and finds is just a matter of time and is natural to anyone observing them. Yet, anyone who has stood in the field knows that the entire act of excavation is interpretation from the start. The aura of objective, observable facts waiting simply to be rediscovered that hangs over these excavations has the unintentional effect that other research angles and interpretive means are still often disregarded and left unreported. Yet, these other research angles and interpretive means are highly valuable for offering deeper insights into such aspects as gender roles and identities, for instance.

V. What next?

After having sketched out some (there are definitely more) of the causes for the lack of discussion on gender in relation to archaeology of the classical periods in Israel/Palestine, I would like to end with some more practical considerations and recent laudable initiatives in the field.

From isolation to collaboration. One thing is to broaden the discipline and to engage in the ongoing debates in the wider field of archaeology. Obviously this is not an easy task for anyone, as many of us at the same time need to be trained in biblical scholarship, the ancient languages related to it, and other aspects in the study of religion. No, I am not arguing here for a return to the notion of the scholar as a homo universalis. Instead, I argue for more cross-disciplinary collaboration among scholars. Archaeology is interdisciplinary collaboration by definition, and for textual scholars to get the most out of it they should embed themselves in and work together with this community.

Diversity in the scientific community. Archaeology is perhaps, more than any other discipline, defined by its praxis — i.e., traditionally, fieldwork by the tough and adventurous white male archaeologist — and so to truly diversify archaeology means to actively seek a more diverse representation of its praxis. This can be accomplished, for instance, by giving more emphasis to gender balance in field projects, but also by paying active attention to the challenging (and sometimes cruel) realities of archaeological fieldwork.[15] This not only changes our notion of archaeology and archaeologists, it also stimulates new ways of looking at excavations and their findings, as well as instigating new research directions. Too often archaeology is stereotyped and personified by the tough and adventurous white male explorer, equipped with only a trowel and a shovel.

Fortunately, recent initiatives in the field are actively trying to change this image. I already mentioned at the beginning of this blogpost the efforts of a few eminent scholars and recent workshops dedicated to this work. Yet there are others as well. One of them is Trowel Blazers (www.trowelblazers.com), created by Becky Wragg Sykes, Brenna Hassett, Victoria Herridge and Suzanne Pilaar Birch, which is an active research community encouraging the participation of women and other underrepresented groups in archaeology and other geo-sciences.[16] Another laudable effort with similar aims, but more concentrated on the archaeology of the ancient Near East, is the recent “Initiative On The Status Of Women,” led by Beth Alpert Nakhai, within the American Schools of Oriental Research.[17]

Open the discussion on gender. The above initiatives have already done a lot in terms of opening the discussion, activism, and science outreach in relation to women and gender in archaeology. Yet, we should not leave it all up to such initiatives, but also think for ourselves how we can contribute to a change in the field. For instance, try to be aware of potential gender imbalances in terms of cited sources in publications, conference panels or collaboration partners, and do your best to correct this imbalance. The same holds for aspects of science outreach. The most used knowledge source in the world, Wikipedia, is highly imbalanced in terms of gender representation. While there are plenty of events are now being organized in order to correct this, please also take the time to create and edit Wikipedia pages yourself. It is easy and does not take more than a few minutes.[18]

Acknowledgements: I thank Helen Dixon and Raz Kletter for their valuable comments and suggestions on an earlier version. Obviously, any remaining mistakes are mine.


[1] Bibliographical references in this short essay have been kept to a minimum due to space constraints. See M.W. Conkey and J.D. Spector, “Archaeology and the Study of Gender,” Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory 7 (1984): 1–38. For overview, see M.L. Stig Sørensen, Gender Archaeology (Polity Press, 2000); S.M. Nelson, Handbook of Gender in Archaeology (Rowman Altamira, 2006).

[2] For discussion on the field of biblical archaeology, see C. Meyers, “Where the Girls Are: Archaeology and Womens’ Lives in Ancient Israel.” In Between Text and Artifact: Integrating Archaeology in Biblical Studies Teaching, ed. by M.C. Moreland (SBL, 2003), 31–52; B. Alpert Nakhai, “Gender and Archaeology in Israelite Religion,” Religion Compass 1 (2007): 512–28. For classical archaeology, see L. Revell, “Romanization: A Feminist Critique,” in TRAC 2009: Proceedings of the Nineteenth Annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference, ed. A. Moore et al. (Oxbow Books, 2010), 1–10. Revell observes discussions on gender starting from the early 1990s, but all focusing on the Roman West. This appears to relate to the general division in the field of classical archaeology, where the archaeology of the Roman West is in general much heavier theorized than that of the Roman East. Explanations for this division have usually pointed to the former’s closer relationship with prehistoric archaeology and the near absence of written sources. See B.G. Trigger, A History of Archaeological Thought, 2nd ed. (Cambridge University Press, 2006), 216.

[3] For a comprehensive recent bibliography, see A. Garcia-Ventura and G. Zisa, “Gender and Women in Ancient Near Eastern Studies: Bibliography 2002-2016,” Akkadica 138 (2017): 37-68. See also J.M. Asher-Greve and M.F. Wogec, “Women and Gender in Ancient Near Eastern Cultures: Bibliography 1885 to 2001 AD,” NIN: Journal of Gender Studies in Antiquity 3 (2002): 33-114.

[4] Near Eastern Archaeology, vol. 79, no. 3 (2016), ed. by S.L. Budin and J.M. Webb.

[5] See, e.g., D.R. Edwards and C.T. McCollough, eds., The Archaeology of Difference. Gender, Ethnicity, Class and the “Other” in Antiquity. Studies in Honor of Eric M. Meyers (ASOR, 2007). While the word “gender” occurs numerous times in chapters in the section “Neolithic through Persian Periods” (ca. 120 pp.), it occurs nowhere in any of the chapters in the section “Hellenistic through Byzantine Periods” (ca. 260 pp.). A notable exception to the absence of discussion is Cynthia Baker’s study, Rebuilding the House of Israel: Architectures of Gender in Jewish Antiquity, Divinations Series (Stanford University Press, 2002) and E.M. Meyers, “The Problems of Gendered Space in Syro-Palestinian Domestic Architecture: The Case of Roman-Period Galilee,” ed. D.L. Balch and C. Osiek (Eerdmans, 2003), 44–69.

[6] See P.M. Allison, “Characterizing Roman Artifacts to Investigate Gendered Practices in Contexts Without Sexed Bodies,” Am. J. Archaeol. 119 (2015): 104–5., with earlier literature.

[7] Plin., HN 36.141–42. Research by H.E.M. Cool (2002); cited and discussed in Allison, “Characterizing Roman Artifacts,” 105.

[8] Israel’s Attorney General stated in a clarified ruling in 1994 that human remains were not archaeological artefacts. For more information, see R.S. Hallote and A.H. Joffe. 2002. “The Politics of Israeli Archaeology: Between ‘Nationalism’ and ‘Science’ in the Age of the Second Republic.” Israel Studies 7 (3): 84–116.

[9] For discussions, see Allison, “Characterizing Roman Artifacts”; Stig Sørensen, Gender Archaeology.

[10] See Trigger, A History of Archaeological Thought, 211–313, for an overview of culture-historical archaeology in a world context.

[11] For example, deducing from evidence of particular types of finds at a given site, the cultural nature of that site (e.g. “Jewish”) or the presence/absence of a particular sex (e.g. were women present at Qumran?).

[12] For instance, S.S. Miller, “Stepped Pools, Stone Vessels, and Other Identity Markers of ‘Complex Common Judaism,’” Journal for the Study of Judaism 41 (2010): 214–43.

[13] Steve Rosen has called this “the tyranny of texts”. See S.A. Rosen, “The Tyranny of Texts: A Rebellion against the Primacy of Written Documents in Defining Archaeological Agendas.” In “I Will Speak the Riddles of Ancient Times”: Archaeological and Historical Studies in Honor of Amihai Mazar on the Occasion of His Sixtieth Birthday, ed. by A.M. Maeir and P. de Miroschedji (Eisenbrauns, 2006), 879–93.

[14] E.g. J. Magness, The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Eerdmans, 2002). See also Philo, Apologia 14–17; Jos. BJ 2: 120–1; Pliny, NH 5.17.4 [73].

[15] For some of the larger challenges, see R.J. Muckle, “On Sexual Harassment and Abuse in Archaeology,” The SAA Archaeological Record (Nov. 2014): 32-33; E. Scott, “Excavation – Let’s Talk about the Mental and Physical Challenges,” Eleanor Scott Archaeology (2017).

[16] See B. Wragg Sykes, B. Hassett, V. Herridge and S. Pilaar Birch, “Trowel blazers: women have been digging geosciences longer than you think,” The Guardian 20-10-2016.

[17] See http://www.asor.org/about-asor/committees/ad-hoc-asor-committees/asor-initiative-on-the-status-of-women/

[18] For one of the many online tutorials on how to edit a Wikipedia page, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C7yXx3YbcNI.