Gender Studies: Underground

Faculty, students unearth more than history at new dig site in Israel

By Kathy Hovis

For scholars interested in gender studies, an archaeological dig might not sound like the most obvious research location.

But for some of the faculty and students at the Tel Abel Beth Maacah site in Israel this summer, the experience allowed them to take when they learned in classes last spring and explore the concepts in the field.

Students from Professor Lauren Monroe’s Gender Archaeology class last spring joined with students from Azusa Pacific University, who took a course in Women in Ancient Israel, for four weeks at the dig, which was directed by Nava Panitz-Cohen of Hebrew University and Bob Mullins of Azusa Pacific University.

Student Ellie Reppy works at the dig site.

“We were interested in placing the study of gender and society on equal footing with other chronological questions being explored in the region,” said Monroe, associate professor and chair of the Department of Near Eastern Studies, who co-led the Cornell team at the site with her husband, Chris Monroe, senior lecturer and assistant director of the Cornell Institute of Archaeology and Material Studies. “Often, with the way that data is gathered and material is published, the priority is on the larger historical questions and not on the day-to-day life of a society. So a lot of information gets lost in the course of publication.”

This summer’s dig was only the second season at this site, which sits at the border of Israel, Lebanon and Syria. Though identified as an Israelite city in the Bible, Abel Beth Maacah may have Aramean roots, perhaps as the capital of the Aramean kingdom of Maacah, Monroe said. Although the site is interesting both historically and geographically, it was never excavated until last year.

Because the overall layout of the site is still being unearthed, it wasn’t possible to make detailed discoveries about men’s and women’s spaces or social interactions, Lauren Monroe said. But the group was able to put together some long-term ideas about continuing this work in the coming years. Eventually, archaeologists can use the tools of microarchaeology — soil analysis, residue analysis, wet sifting, etc. — to discover clothing fibers and other items and learn more about the use of space. And examining shards of pottery, which ethnographic evidence suggests were sometimes crafted by women, can help researchers discover more about distribution of labor and gender roles, according to Monroe.

Student Ezra Newman said the dig helped him understand about the painstaking work of archaeology.
“Being on a dig provided me with an opportunity to see and to feel how the ancient Canaanites lived during the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. I was fascinated when I realized that the wall I had been taking down was built thousands of years ago, by someone working in the sun and heat, piling one enormous stone on the other,” said Xinyi Chen ’17, a Near Eastern Studies major. “Suddenly the topics of the lectures, both from Professor Lauren Monroe’s course on monotheism that I took last semester and the various evening lectures, were all so relevant.”

Chris Monroe, a supervisor at one of the dig sites at Abel Beth Maacah, said his area yielded some surprising discoveries.

“We were expecting to find evidence for people we know from 10th century Israel in the Bible: Israelites, Arameans, Phoenicians,” he said. “But very early on we started getting material from much earlier than that, 800 or 900 years before. So that became the focus of our area.”

His group uncovered a group of connected rooms from the Middle Bronze Age, about 1800 BC, as well as burials that may have been on the edge of a cemetery.

“You go out into the field with all kinds of expectations and a research design, but it’s really up to what they left you and where you decide to dig that determines what you find,” he said. “You have to adjust your strategy.”

“I was fascinated when I realized that the wall I had been taking down was built thousands of years ago, by someone working in the sun and heat, piling one enormous stone on the other,” said student Xinyi Chen.

Unusual finds like a series of bowls arranged in a ritualistic pattern, an earring unearthed outside of a building and a ring built into a wall allowed for some interesting conversations, Chris Monroe said.

“I want to make sense of what’s coming out of the ground,” he said. “Which buildings were built earlier, which came later. It’s a constant problem-solving exercise.”

Ezra Newman ’16, a Near Eastern Studies major, said the field course helped him to understand the work of archaeologists.

“People like to quote archaeological findings a lot, and I often wondered where archaeologists got their information from and how they came to certain conclusions,” Newman said. “Now, having experienced everything — from the actual digging, to the collecting of objects, to the washing and sorting of them, to the labeling of them — and through hearing lectures about how the scientific and other types of analysis were done on those specific and similar objects, I feel like I have a much firmer grip on how archaeologists reach the conclusions that they do.”

Next year’s dig dates have already been announced and results of the 2014 season will be presented at the Fall American Schools of Oriental Research meeting in San Diego. More information about the dig is available at or

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