In a second update from the excavation at Abel Beth Maacah, directed by Robert A. Mullins and Nava Panitz-Cohen, Cornell University professor Lauren Monroe reflects on the lives of the women who once lived at Abel Beth Maacah as well as on how motherhood has changed her experience on an archaeological dig. Read more about Abel Beth Maacah in the Bible here.
In 2 Samuel 20 the wise woman of Abel identifies Abel Beth Maacah as a “mother in Israel.” I have thought much about this enigmatic and multivalent reference in the past few weeks, as for the first time, I am a mother in Israel, spending much of my time on this excavation with our three-year-old son Oliver. While I miss the intensity and excitement of being in the field, it is a rare treat to witness Oliver’s wonder as he takes in the peculiar world of life on an excavation: meals in the kibbutz dining hall with a mass of dirty, tired people talking about the day’s discoveries; learning the proper technique for holding a trowel or patish; taking pleasure in the sound that his little Marshalltown makes as it strikes a stone in area O, where his dad is area supervisor (Yes, O is for Oliver); appreciating the contours of a jar handle or rim and then identifying them on his own in the field.
For the four weeks that we are here, my role as a mother in Israel takes priority over my work as archaeologist and scholar, and I find myself reflecting on the mothers, wives and daughters who may have inhabited Abel Beth Maacah. The other day, while washing pottery (something that Oliver enjoys helping with), I showed him a sherd that preserved the fingerprints of the potter. There is nothing unusual about such a find, but every time I come across one, I am overwhelmed by the sense of connection to the people whose lives produced the remains that our hands touch in the field, and in the lab. From ethnographic evidence we know that often the women who used pottery for food preparation were also responsible for pottery production. Were those the prints of a woman potter? Oliver and I talked about where she might have lived, what kinds of clothes she might have worn, what foods she might have prepared and whether she might have had a little boy like Oliver.
As the point where three of the world’s major religions converge, Israel’s history is one of the richest and most complex in the world. Sift through the archaeology and history of this ancient land in the free eBook Israel: An Archaeological Journey, and get a view of these significant Biblical sites through an archaeologist’s lens.
Oliver and I are not alone on this project in our musings over the life of our imagined woman potter. In the spring semester of 2014 a handful of volunteers at Abel Beth Maacah participated in a course I taught at Cornell University on the archaeology of gender. One student at Azusa Pacific University participated in a comparable independent study there. My course focused on theoretical approaches to studying gender from material remains, and it included the excavation season at Abel Beth Maacah, where these students are being introduced to the various methods of gathering data for the study of gender from material remains. Cornell students received support for their participation in this summer program from the Cornell Kroll Jewish Studies fund. The program was also supported by the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies of the University of Arizona. The field school component of the gender course included a visit to an Arab Women’s Traditional Craft Center in the village of Bo’ena Nujeirat in central Galilee, where students met women whose work includes traditional crafts, and they partook of a meal prepared from raw ingredients, using traditional methods of food preparation (see photo above). They worked with Dr. Naama Yahalom-Mack of the Institute of Archaeology and the Department of Earth Sciences at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, learning how to collect samples for micro-archaeological analysis that can provide information about diet, culinary practices, modes of economic production and how activities were carried out within domestic spaces, as well as other aspects of daily life, based on material evidence invisible to the human eye.
Understanding gender dynamics in ancient times is not just a matter of women’s lives, but rather involves the whole fabric of social life, as lived by men and women together. The archaeology of ancient Israel tends to focus on large scale questions of history and chronology, guided either implicitly or explicitly by the Biblical narrative. The day to day experiences of the people whose lives we are excavating often gets overshadowed by questions of who destroyed their towns, when and under what geopolitical circumstances. That sherd with the fingerprints of the potter might be designated as “non-indicative” and discarded with the mountain of other body sherds, while the tiny fragment of a Cypriot milk-bowl that helps us date a stratum to the Late Bronze Age and provides information about Mediterranean trade and economy is carefully catalogued and published. While the latter is clearly important, one of the goals of our project is to develop and deploy field methods that give voice to the potters, cooks, weavers, husbands, children and grandchildren who inhabited this “mother in Israel.”
For more on women in the ancient world, read “Examining the Lives of Ancient Egyptian Women” by Egyptologist Melinda Nelson-Hurst in Bible History Daily.
Lauren Monroe is associate professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, and serves as the director of the academic program/field school at Abel Beth Maacah. She is the author of Josiah’s Reform and the Dynamics of Defilement: Israelite Rites of Violence and the Making of a Biblical Text (Oxford University Press, 2011) and is currently working in collaboration with Daniel Fleming of NYU on a second book project entitled Between Judah and Joseph: The People of Benjamin and the Development of “Israel.”