Archaeological Views: Missing from the Picture

American Women in Biblical Archaeology

JENNIE EBELING is Associate Professor of Archaeology at the University of Evansville, Indiana. Her research focuses on ancient food technologies and women in Canaan and ancient Israel. She co-directs the Jezreel Expedition.

Women have made important contributions to digs in the Holy Land since the early days of archaeology. Photographs in excavation reports from the late 19th and early 20th centuries attest to large numbers of Palestinian women and girls among the laborers at archaeological digs. Writing in 1902, Frederick J. Bliss and R.A.S. Macalister described the labor pool on their excavations in the Shephelah as largely female: “At first we employed only men and boys, as the women and girls were shy, but after we had gained the confidence of the whole village, the female element predominated.”1

A number of foreign women played a variety of roles on digs in Palestine between World War I and World War II. British archaeologist Dorothy Garrod led a team that included female staff and workers at Mount Carmel in the 1920s and 1930s, and British archaeologists Hilda Petrie, Grace Mary Crowfoot, and Olga Tufnell made important contributions to the excavation and publication of Tell el-Ajjul, Samaria-Sebaste, Lachish, and other sites. Dame Kathleen Kenyon (also British) directed excavations in Jericho and Jerusalem through the 1950s and 1960s. And groundbreaking Israeli archaeologists Ruth Amiran and Trude Dothan worked with Yigael Yadin at Hazor in the 1950s and directed numerous projects in Israel.

These and other archaeologists paved the way for increasing numbers of female students, specialists, and staff on excavations in Israel during the past 50 years.

In contrast, female dig directors from the United States of America are missing in the history of archaeology in Israel until the late 1970s, when Sharon Herbert, of the University of Michigan, directed excavations at Tel Anafa. In BAR’s 2019 Dig Issue, only three of 49 total dig directors and co-directors—a mere 6 percent—are women based in U.S. institutions.a While this is not a complete list of digs in Israel, other sources, such as the American Schools of Oriental Research’s list of affiliated projects and the list of licenses granted by the Israel Antiquities Authority, confirm that only a small percentage of research excavations are directed by women based in the U.S.

Why did it take until the late 1970s for the first American woman to assume a leadership position on a dig in Israel, and why are there still so few women at the helm of digs in Israel today? The answers lie in the history of American biblical archaeology (and biblical studies more generally) and in the institutions that have engaged in it.

Most of the research digs in Israel are currently sponsored or co-sponsored by Israeli universities with archaeology departments. All five Israeli women listed in BAR’s 2019 Dig Issue (i.e., 10 percent in total) indeed represent those institutions. The American institutions that sponsor excavations and/or employ American directors and co-directors of digs in Israel, however, have a different character: Most are seminaries and other private, Christian-affiliated institutions. Of the 17 U.S.-based men (including two Israelis who hold academic positions in U.S. universities) listed as directors or co-directors in 2019, more than half are employed or sponsored by seminaries, Christian-affiliated institutions, or the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. At the same time, none of these institutions is supporting U.S.-based female dig directors in Israel.

While both secular universities and seminaries supported digs in Palestine during the first half of the 20th century, only a few American projects were directed by scholars who were also ordained ministers. This changed dramatically with the rise of the “father” of American biblical archaeology, William Foxwell Albright. While director of the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem (now the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research) in the 1920s and 1930s, Albright directed excavations at Tell Beit Mirsim and Bethel with the sponsorship of the American School in Jerusalem and Pittsburgh-Xenia Theological Seminary. Albright trained and inspired the first generation of American biblical archaeologists, many of whom followed his lead in using archaeological remains to illuminate, if not prove, biblical accounts.

After the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, a number of American biblical scholars and archaeologists who were also Protestant clergymen directed excavations in the Jordan-controlled areas west of the Jordan River, at sites such as ‘Ai (Joseph Callaway), Bethel (James Kelso), Gibeon (James Pritchard), Shechem (G. Ernest Wright), Ta’anach (Paul Lapp), and Tel er-Ras (Robert Bull), many with seminary support. Besides the excavators’ wives, who would work as dig administrators, registrars, and support staff often without compensation and much acknowledgment, few women took part in these projects.

Only with the establishment, in the 1960s, of the first American excavation to use student excavators rather than hired workers—the Hebrew Union College-Harvard Semitic Museum Excavations at Gezer—did American women have the opportunity to learn archaeological field methods alongside men in Israel. More than a decade passed before one of these women—Carol Meyers, Professor Emerita of Duke University and an area supervisor at Gezer in 1964–1967—served as associate director of the Meiron Excavation Project (in 1978). Fast-forward to 2019, and the U.S.-based women directing excavations in Israel are faculty members at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Jodi Magness, at Huqoq)b and Pennsylvania State University (Ann E. Killebrew, at Akko).

One need only look through BAR dig issues from the past decade to see a clear pattern: American women who direct excavations in Israel are supported by secular institutions (most of them large research universities), while many U.S.-based men are supported by private Christian-affiliated institutions.

In his 1995 BAR article, William G. Dever described the passing of the classical era of biblical archaeology in the 1960s and 1970s and the inability of the seminaries and church-related groups, which had once dominated Palestinian archaeology, to maintain a foothold in a now secular and professional discipline.c Archaeologists affiliated with the Israel Antiquities Authority and archaeology departments at Israeli universities surely dominate archaeology in Israel today, but the 2019 BAR dig list reveals that American Christian-affiliated institutions maintain more than a mere foothold in archaeological projects in Israel. This, among other factors, has limited the ability of American women to rise through the ranks in archaeological projects in Israel.2

The photos in BAR’s annual dig issue and the names on the list of scholarship winners clearly show that women participate in digs in Israel each summer. In fact, on some excavation projects, female staff and team members outnumber male staff and team members. This, after all, reflects the trend in world archaeology.3

I call on members of BAR’s informed and educated readership to advocate on behalf of the many qualified, experienced, and talented female archaeologists who have lacked the opportunities and advantages available to their male colleagues. It is time for those American institutions that have so generously and enthusiastically supported male directors and both male and female students on digs in Israel to step up and support female leadership on the projects they sponsor.


1 Frederick J. Bliss and R.A.S. Macalister, Excavations in Palestine During the Years 1898-1900 (London: Palestine Exploration Fund, 1902), p. 4.

a See Robert R. Cargill, “Digs 2019: A Day in the Life,BAR, 45:01.

b See Jodi Magness et al., “Inside the Huqoq Synagogue,BAR, 45:03.

c William G. Dever, “The Death of a Discipline,” BAR, 21:05.

2 Jennie Ebeling, “Where Are the Female Dig Directors in Israel?” The Bible and Interpretation, May 2011 (; Beth Alpert Nakhai, “Factors Complicating the Reconstruction of Women’s Lives in Iron Age Israel (1200-587 B.C.E.),” in Saana Svärd and Agnès Garcia-Ventura, eds., Studying Gender in the Ancient Near East (University Park, PA: Eisenbrauns, 2018), pp. 289-314.

3 Female archaeologists currently outnumber male archaeologists in the United Kingdom, and women are expected soon to dominate archaeology in other European countries as well.


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