The Female Marshalltown

Posted in: ASOR, Women of Archaeology
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By: Dr. Nava Panitz-Cohen, Co-director at Tel Abel Beth Maacah
Hebrew University of Jerusalem

My name is Nava Panitz-Cohen. I have my Ph.D. from  the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I have worked for some two and a half decades at field excavations such as Tel Miqne, Tel Batash, Tel Beth-Shean, and Tel Rehov in Israel and have several site reports and articles to my credit. Presently, I codirect the new excavations at Tel Abel Beth Maacah in northern Israel with my friend and colleague, Bob Mullins of Azusa Pacific University in Los Angeles.

When I was asked to write a short piece about my experiences as a dig director as part of the ASOR Women of Archaeology month, my first thought was – would they have asked a male dig director – for example, Bob – to write such a piece? Probably not.  But why is that? I guess because there is supposed to be a fundamental difference between the experiences of men and women when doing this same job. And probably because female dig directors are in the minority, at least in Israel where I work, hearing from a woman about running an excavation is more of a novelty.

At first thought I was somewhat perturbed by this. Why should the experience be different just because we are women? Haven’t we achieved equality in the deepest sense? Are we are not fulfilling the exact same role as a male archaeologist? After all, I’m not the assistant, we are codirectors. Is the job definition different? The issue of gender should not enter into this, but rather questions like: Am I qualified? Am I capable? Am I motivated?

But I know that such an attitude is a utopian and unrealistic attempt to deny the fact that, yes, the experience is different in a number of ways. While I bring to the job my own qualities, personality, and abilities, there are also real and fundamental gender issues beyond my own personal identity that play out in two primary ways:  what society thinks of women in positions of authority and in the wake of that, what we think of ourselves in those roles.

I would like to pursue some of Sheryl Sandberg’s insights on this topic in her interesting and provocative book Lean In. She writes that women are regularly socialized into subordinate roles and in the need to be nice, to be liked. This promotes a nonconfrontational attitude, so that when the time comes to take charge and make tough and sometimes unpopular decisions, women often shy away. There also is the fear of not being taken seriously (what is called in Yiddish the “maideleh” – “the nice little girl”), or even worse, not taking oneself seriously. Yes, low self-confidence. The bane of female authority. Being conditioned to taking the back seat to a man whose job it is to drive (the jeep in the field!). When a woman fails, she agonizes and becomes Lot’s wife, looking back and turning into a pillar of salt, frozen and unable to function. Lot would never have looked back, he would have just continued on his donkey to the next challenge. When a man fails, he reviews, processes, shrugs, and moves on, convinced that he is just fine. And he is.  When all these issues are played out in an excavation, where the essence of fieldwork, with its emphasis on physical strength, tools, logistics, sweat, and real-time hard decision making, are often conceived as male terrain, it becomes even more complicated. Indeed, during the excavation season, I encountered many of these issues and had to constantly develop awareness and to work hard to overcome these inherent gender-generated tendencies.

Luckily, in order to accomplish the goal of directing, there are a number of qualities that most women bring to the directorship, including empathy (which we were also socialized to excel in), organizational skills (running an excavation is a piece of cake compared to juggling family, work, academia, a social life…), perspective, the ability to foster camaraderie and teamwork in a less competitive atmosphere, the ability to delegate and to plan; in short, less control freak-ness and more cooperation and encouragement in order to get the job done.

In summary, I feel that I ought to have something profound to say about my experience that will inspire other women. Maybe I should express my thanks for being given this opportunity. Perhaps a word or two to assuage the guilt of the men who have kept us – or keep us – back in any number of subtle ways. But mostly – how important it is to have more women excavation directors serving as role models and mentors in fieldwork. I spent over 25 years excavating with the best field archaeologist in Israel – Prof. Amihai Mazar  – which immensely enriched my professional ability. I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything in the world. Even so, I wonder how it might have been different if I had worked under a female director. Would it have been easier to incorporate the time in the field away from family with my role as a mother and wife? Would this have boosted my self-confidence and belief in myself? Would I have ventured to direct my own dig sooner? Perhaps. Ultimately, it’s up to us to take charge of our fate and to make the right decisions for ourselves, whether we are men or women.

After my experience during the first season at Abel Beth Maacah, I can say that I learned a lot about myself and have grown both personally and in the sense of gender awareness. I am really looking forward to continuing to meet the challenge of directing an excavation by emphasizing what I like to do and try to do best – to work together as a team, to develop strategy, and focus on the goals without losing perspective of the people and broader issues involved, to nurture but also to lead, to make tough decisions, but also to be liked. Is this typical of a female dig director? Probably yes. And I especially look forward to carrying out this agenda together with my (male!) colleague, Bob Mullins, who is the perfect partner for accomplishing this challenge. Ultimately, each gender brings its strengths (and weaknesses) to the team, and that will ensure the success of our project – through mutual respect and consideration.

Lean in, ladies, and wield a mighty Marshalltown!


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