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Where are the Female Dig Directors in Israel?

By Jennie Ebeling
University of Evansville
May 2011

Some of the most well-known and respected archaeologists working in Palestine and Israel in the early and mid 20th century were women. Female archaeologists from Europe such as Dorothy Garrod and Kathleen Kenyon come to mind, as do Ruth Amiran, Trude Dothan, and Clare Epstein in Israel (for the biographies of these and other female archaeologists in the Old World, visit the Breaking Ground: Women in Old World Archaeology website at http://www.
). In addition to these female dig directors, women played important roles as excavators, camp managers, artifact specialists, and more in the early days of Near Eastern archaeology, and still others, such as dig directors’ wives (see further Dever 2004), were active in the field as well. These pioneers serve as inspiration to many archaeologists working today, including myself, and their legacy can be seen in the hundreds of scholars, students and volunteers, both female and male, who continue to flock to Israel each summer to take part in excavations.

Many who seek an archaeological field experience in Israel look to the Biblical Archaeology Review’s (BAR) annual dig issue, where excavation directors looking for volunteers publicize their projects. While perusing the summer projects for this year, I was disappointed to note that fewer than one-third of the excavations planned in Israel in summer 2011 list female directors and co-directors, six out of 22 total projects (27%). Since I knew that this was not a comprehensive list, I consulted the Archaeological Institute of America’s (AIA) online Fieldwork Opportunities Bulletin ( and the American Schools of Oriental Research’s (ASOR) list of 2011 ASOR-affiliated excavations in search of additional dig opportunities (
). These sources yielded eight more total projects, three of them directed or co-directed by women, bringing the number of field projects listed in these three sources for summer 2011 to 29 with eight directed or co-directed by women (28%).i

Many more women than this statistic might suggest take part in archaeological projects in Israel each summer and make important contributions as volunteers and staff members, specialists in material culture and other remains, and authors of chapters in excavation reports. But these women do not get the same recognition that a dig director does. Their names do not appear on site licenses issued by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), calls for volunteers in BAR and elsewhere, grants submitted to funding bodies and, ultimately, the covers of archaeological site reports. Although we in the field know that excavations constitute only a fraction of the work that goes into most archaeological projects, the archaeological dig is undeniably the sexiest part of archaeological research and the aspect of archaeology that attracts the most interest in the field. The director provides the “face” –and often, in our field, the personality – of a dig that is presented in television programs, on the web, and in print. The statistic above suggests that there are many fewer female than male “faces” representing the field of Syro-Palestinian archaeology.

How to explain why fewer than one-third of excavations in Israel are directed or co-directed by women? I had my own ideas about why this is the case, but I was interested in seeking the opinions of archaeologists who have experience directing excavations in Israel. In April 2011, I solicited insights from forty people – twenty women and twenty men – who have directed or co-directed excavations in Israel. These individuals range from university lecturers to senior faculty based in the US and Israel who have directed excavations from the 1960s to the present, and many of them are directing digs in summer 2011. I was overwhelmed by the response, especially from the men: all twenty men responded to my email. Although I unfortunately did not get a response from all of the women, I learned a great deal from the insights of those who did respond. I would like to share some of their insights here along with more statistics that demonstrate the gender gap in archaeology in Israel.

Cultural Factors

After tallying the responses, the most common reasons given for the lack of gender parity in archaeology in Israel were cultural ones, specifically the belief that Israel is a male-oriented society and archaeology in Israel is still male-oriented in many aspects, and the impact of family, specifically children, on a female archaeologist’s ability to participate in excavations.

Several archaeologists gave their opinion of the status of women in Israeli society and how it has impacted women in archaeology. A few described female archaeologists of the past who had to contend with chauvinism in Israeli society despite its ethos of egalitarianism espoused in, for example, the kibbutz movement. Some believe that Israeli society is becoming even more conservative with the growing orthodox population, and that this environment does not support women who want to direct archaeological field projects. Several respondents felt that discrimination against women persists in Israeli archaeology and can be seen in the lack of male archaeologists’ support for female graduate students and the way that female archaeology students are frequently “shuffled off into specialist studies,” like pottery studies, while men are groomed to lead field projects. As Ayelet Gilboa, co-director of the excavations at Tel Dor, notes in a 2007 article, ”processing ceramics has been what the (usually female) assistants do, while the boss deals with the hard-core stuff: stratigraphy, architecture and so forth” (Gilboa 2007: 24). A survey of the articles authored by women published in Near Eastern journals from 1951 to 2005 seems to bear this out, as women were found to contribute many more artifact reports (32%) than site reports (18%) (Bolger 2008: 350). The author of this study, archaeologist Diane Bolger, concludes from this that “the traditional image of the male archaeologist as hunter/conqueror/ adventurer” (2008: 351) and the stereotypical female archaeologist as the housewife stuck in camp, in the lab, or in a museum analyzing artifacts persists (ibid).

Most respondents, both women and men, believe that family is a major factor that contributes to the lack of women in the field. Several gave personal stories of leaving children for up to two months to participate in a field project or choosing to bring them along. The former was often impossible for personal or logistical reasons, while the latter was deemed expensive and difficult to organize if the director’s spouse was unable to come along as well. Nearly all of those surveyed believed that, as in the past, it is easier for men to leave their families behind than women. Although it was suggested that female Israeli archaeologists may have an easier time because they are not forced to choose to leave their children behind in another country, it was noted that it is taxing on both female and male archaeologists in Israel to make arrangements for young children while they are in the field. Although no one surveyed suggested that female archaeologists might decide not to marry or have children so that they may more easily participate in digs, several mentioned the fact that several of the female pioneers in the field never married or had children. It was interesting that the male archaeologists whom I surveyed dwelled much more on this issue than the women, which leads me to believe that the challenges of balancing family with archaeological fieldwork are very real to both men and women.

The Academic and Professional Environment

Other reasons meant to explain the gender disparity relate to problems women face in academia and in the professional environment. Those surveyed discussed the position of women in archaeology in US universities, Israeli universities, and within ASOR specifically.

The PhD is required to secure an academic position in the field, and it is practically mandatory if one wants to plan and execute a field project. Many respondents noted that fewer women than men in the US and Israel successfully complete the PhD and obtain permanent academic positions in the research institutions that encourage and support fieldwork. Several archaeologists noted that women seem to outnumber men in both graduate and undergraduate archaeology programs both in the US and Israel, and various reasons were given to explain the perceived high attrition rate. Cultural factors were seen as important, such as the pressures felt by Israeli women to get married and have children in their twenties. One respondent suggested the best course would be to complete the PhD as early as possible to allow time to find a position and build a family before undertaking a field project. As Gilboa noted in her article, “between the ages of 25 and 35 I was, professionally speaking, extremely unproductive” (Gilboa 2007: 78), and others echoed this statement in their responses. Other factors that impact a woman’s ability to complete the PhD include the tendency for women to focus on artifact and laboratory analyses, which does not necessarily lead to a university position (see also Gilboa 2007: 78). Several respondents discussed at length the issues involved in supporting and mentoring female graduate students so that they can succeed at the highest levels, and criticized members of the “old guard” who groomed many more male students than female students in the 1980s and 1990s especially. One respondent specifically criticized senior female archaeologists for not doing more to mentor younger women, asserting that it was incumbent upon them to recruit women to the field and change these trends.

It is difficult to assess the position of female faculty in the US in the field of Near Eastern archaeology because of the history and interdisciplinary nature of the field; women conducting archaeological research in Israel are housed in US university departments of Anthropology, Archaeology, Art History, Classical Studies, History, Judaic Studies, Near Eastern Studies, and Religion. A study on the status of women in archaeology in the US published in 2000 estimated that 36% of professional archaeologists in the US are female (Wright 2000:18). Based on my knowledge of women teaching in American universities who conduct archaeological research in Israel, I would expect a similar statistic, and I would invite those interested to further research this.

It is much easier to assess the status of female archaeologists employed at Israeli universities. I recently surveyed the websites of the institutes of archaeology at Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, Bar Ilan University, and University of Haifa and found that, among full-time tenured and tenure-track archaeology faculty, there are thirteen women and 38 men, or 34%. The status of women in the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem is better than in the other three universities, as several respondents noted: at Hebrew University, six of the thirteen tenured or tenure-track archaeology non-emeriti faculty are women, 46% ( Still, several noted that senior male archaeologists in Israeli universities do not do enough to encourage women to succeed and suggested that the many female graduate students enrolled at Israeli institutions are unlikely to find academic positions even if they do complete the PhD.

As many of my respondents noted, the statistics I provided them regarding the number of female dig directors advertising in BAR and elsewhere do not reflect the women who lead excavations and surveys on behalf of the IAA, and it was believed by many that there must be a more significant female presence in the IAA than is seen in Israeli universities. There is a great deal of data on the IAA’s website in English (, including lengthy lists of licenses granted by the IAA in the years 2004-2010 and a list of the IAA’s excavations in 2011.ii I counted the licenses issued by the IAA in 2010 and the sex of the holders of the licenses and found that 113 of 419 total licensed projects were directed or co-directed by women, or 26%. In 2009, 115 of 387 licensed projects were directed or co-directed by women (30%) and in 2008, 118 of 391 licensed projects were directed or co-directed by women (30%). These numbers include all licenses, including those granted to men and women representing universities and other institutions. So far on the 2011 list, 22 projects are listed and six of these are directed or co-directed by women, 27%. Although there are many more individual women directing IAA excavations as intuited by my respondents, the proportion of female-led projects is essentially the same – about one-third – whether one looks only at the list in BAR and or on the list of licenses granted by the IAA.

Several discussed the status of women in ASOR as a factor, especially noting the lack of women in senior positions (ASOR has not had a female president in its 110-year history). Women participate in ASOR’s Annual Meeting and serve on ASOR’s Board of Trustees and its numerous committees, but only one woman currently holds an officer position. Although ASOR membership statistics were not available, I tallied the number of papers given at ASOR’s Annual Meetings that listed female authors or co-authors during the past three years from the annual meeting programs and came up with the following percentages: in 2010, 44% of papers were authored or co-authored by women (134/306); in 2009, 39% of papers were authored or co-authored by women (98/254); and in 2008, 38% of papers were authored or co-authored by women (109/289). An average for the past three years shows that 40% of papers presented at ASOR’s Annual Meeting were authored or co-authored by women. Interestingly, Bolger’s study of female authors of articles published in ten Near Eastern journals found that female authors were best represented in the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (BASOR), ASOR’s flagship publication. Although female authorship represents just 12% of articles published in BASOR 1951-2005, 42% of articles published in the journal 2001-2005 were authored by women (Bolger 2008).iii These statistics illustrate women’s active participation in ASOR’s meetings and publications and highlight the lack of female representation among ASOR leadership.

The Legacy of Biblical Archaeology

Several respondents noted the relatively strong presence of female archaeologists working in the “early” (prehistoric) and “late” (classical and Islamic) periods compared to those who work in the biblical period (Bronze and Iron Ages). This may carry over from the early days of archaeology in Palestine/Israel in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when many archaeological projects were run by male scholars trained in biblical studies and focused on prominent tell sites with biblical significance. Although archaeological research agendas have changed a great deal in the past few decades, it does appear that most of the “big digs” in Israel are still directed by men; in 2011, only two of the big digs (Dor and Hazor) are co-directed by women. Some of the women who will be in the field this summer are excavating smaller sites and organizing different kinds of research projects, including the Marj Rabba – Galilee Prehistory Project co-directed by Morag Kersel, the Southern Plain of Akko Project co-directed by Carolina Aznar and Michal Artzy, and The Tel Akko Total Archaeology Project co-directed by Ann Killebrew and Michal Artzy that incorporates conservation, heritage studies, and public archaeology. One wonders how much easier it is to secure funding for big digs with biblical significance than smaller projects with different kinds of goals and strategies, and why it is that male archaeologists are successful at running long-term excavations at major tell site such as Ashkelon, Dan, Dor, Gezer, Hazor, Megiddo, and Rehov.

The Future: Not So Bright

I was surprised by the number of negative responses that I received to the questions “do you think that the situation has improved in the past 25 years” and “do you think it will improve in the future?” Many of those surveyed, especially the women, answered “no” to both questions, and some felt that the situation might even be getting worse. Although there are more professional archaeologists working on projects in Israel than ever before, and many women participate in digs and other kinds of archaeological research, few women are successful at the highest levels: they are less likely than men to complete the PhD, secure a permanent position at a research institution, and direct or co-direct an archaeological field project. What can be done to improve the situation of women in archaeology in Israel going forward?


i There are errors in the CAP-Affiliated excavation list posted online that may affect my count.

ii There are errors and omissions in the IAA’s lists of licenses, including incomplete excavators’ names that may affect these counts.

iii These numbers do not specifically reflect the numbers of papers presented and published by women concerning archaeology in Israel, as participants in the ASOR Annual Meeting and authors of articles published in BASOR represent a wide range of research projects.


Bolger, Diane 2008 Gendered Fields in Near Eastern Archaeology: Past, Present, Future. Pp. 335-359 in Gender Through Time in the Ancient Near East, ed. Diane Bolger. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.

Dever, Norma 2004 They Also Dug! Archaeologists’ Wives and Their Stories. Near Eastern Archaeology 67/3, 162-173.

Gilboa, Ayelet 2007 Archaeological Views: A Career at One Site. Biblical Archaeology Review 33/4: 24, 78.

Wright, Rita P. 2000 Digging Women. Women’s Review of Books 17/5: 18-19.