Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 11 (2011) - Review

Nakhai, Beth Alpert (ed.), The World of Women in the Ancient and Classical Near East (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008). Pp. xviii + 215. Hardcover, $59.00. ISBN 978-1-4438-0030-3.

This collection is comprised of select papers presented in the “World of Women: Gender and Archaeology” section of ASOR from 2000–2007. Taken together, these nine essays focus on reconstructing pieces of women's history in the ancient and classical world from the archaeological record. The primary contributions of the book are in highlighting the important economic and social role that women must have played in ancient societies, and the need for further analysis with specific attention to gender.

The introduction helpfully orients the reader to the lacunae in the field that make this book needful—and which inspired the formation of the ASOR section: an examination of ASOR meeting papers from the 1970s to the late 1990s revealed that “many more papers had been devoted to pigs than to women” (p. ix). This observation reveals a legitimate and ongoing concern for the lack of attention to real women in historical and archaeological inquiry into the ancient and classical Near East. It may overstate the case somewhat, since significant research has been done in recent decades, even if it is not adequately represented in ASOR papers (including, for example, significant monographs and articles by P. Bird, C. Meyers, S. Ackerman, Z. Bahrani, to name only a few). Also included in this introduction is a welcome bibliography of other papers presented at the section that have been published in other venues. The following comments briefly review each essay in turn.

Chapter One, “Dark Men, Light Women: Origins of Color as Gender Indicator in Ancient Egypt,” by Mary Ann Eaverly, analyzes the color stylization in ancient Egyptian sculpture and painting in which men are painted dark brown or red and women are painted white or yellow. The phenomenon has been traditionally attributed to a kind of labor realism: since men would have worked outside, their skin would have been darkened by sun exposure. Eaverly argues instead that “color differentiation is part of the broader ideological framework promoted to support the establishment of pharaonic rule,” (p. 11) one that understood male and female as representing one of the pairs of opposites that constitute and maintain maat-order, balance, and justice. How exactly this constituted an ideological program, how it advanced a view of pharaoh as a guarantor of this equilibrium, will require further explication.

The second essay is among the strongest of the volume. Aubrey Baadsgaard's essay entitled “A Taste of Women's Sociality: Cooking as Cooperative Labor in Iron Age Syro-Palestine,” is an immensely informative and well-documented treatment of ovens in Iron Age Syro-Palestine. The survey's ideological edge revolves around the observation that many ovens have been found in highly accessible and public areas that locates cooking in a central and communal role. This challenges the assumption that women's work would have been private, and emphasizes women's sociality and the prominence of cooking for important communal activities, including religious and historical events.

Chapter Three, “Baking and Brewing Beer in the Israelite Household: A Study of Women's Cooking Technology,” a collaborative piece between Jennie R. Ebeling and Michael M. Homan, similarly examines women's labor and makes broader connections to the cultural significance of the tasks of domestic food production. While the brief discussion of an ancient Israelite beer goddess is too speculative to be compelling, this essay points to important areas for further research, especially the close connection between brewing and baking practices and women's role in their production.

Deborah Cassuto's excellent discussion of loom weights and women's labor, entitled “Bringing the Artifacts Home: A Social Interpretation of Loom Weights in Context,” is a methodological example of where to find women (especially non-royal women) in the archaeological record. She uses comparative ethnographic data and points to loom weights and their distribution in order to track where and in what contexts women would have performed their work in Iron Age Israel.

Chapter Five, “Infant Mortality and Women's Religion in the Biblical Periods,” by Elizabeth Ann R. Willett, brings the ubiquitous ancient experience of birth and infant mortality into dialogue with archaeology and sociology of religion. Her thesis that a woman's household would have been “the center of her religious as well as her economic activity,” (p. 95) is plausible, if it remains somewhat speculative. Ethnographic parallels cited are not always self-evidently apropos: the author gives an example from Athens, in which the mother “cares for the spiritual needs of family members as does the priest in the community's church. Although the husband may be ‘head of the family,’ she is paradoxically its central figure through her association with ‘essential objects’ and hence the sacred dimension” (p. 97). Such a claim needs to be substantiated, and its relevance for the ancient Near Eastern context more firmly established.

Chapter Six “Mut'a Marriage in the Roman Near East: The Evidence from Palmyra, Syria,” by Cynthia Finlayson, is predicated on the notion that marriage is one of the most revealing manifestations of women's social roles. She examines a few examples of funerary portraits in Palmyra, Syria, in the light of Islamic mut'a (temporary or usufruct) marriage practices. Whether these portraits in fact reveal examples of this is not entirely clear, nor is it obvious how such examples might reveal a “matriarchal” form of marriage.

Marica C. Cassis' essay “A Restless Silence: Women in the Byzantine Archaeological Record,” comprises chapter seven. In it, she offers a helpful framework for considering how archaeology contributes to knowledge of women in the ancient world. Her “gendered archaeology” has three uses: 1. Reassessing the privileging of written sources (which usually come from a male elite); 2. Extrapolating from written sources and other artifacts what constitutes “female space”; 3. In the absence of written and clearly gendered artifacts, asking gendered questions can help to include women in archaeological contexts. She then turns to the considering examples of how gendered archaeology contributes to the study of the Byzantine Empire. She critiques scholarly assumptions about what structures are assumed to be “male spaces” (as in the example of her own work at Çadir Höyuk) and argues that evidence for domestic life (including the absence of weaponry, extensive household artifacts, cooking pots, and jewelry) speaks loudly to the presence of a female population at the site. This observation, she notes, “lies at the crux of gendering space. By moving away from traditional androcentric definitions of space, it becomes necessary … to reevaluate our former interpretations of some Byzantine structures” (p. 152). Her approach offers a model for this type of project.

Chapter 8, “Fe(male) Potters as the Personification of Individuals, Places, and Things as Known from Ethnoarchaeological Studies,” by Gloria London, takes the discussion somewhat afield from the ancient Near East, centering largely on modern Cyprus. Her analysis is suggestive for further pottery investigation, as it focuses on differentiation among pottery of a single tradition, which may reveal the hand of particular potters. While it is difficult to disagree that “[t]here is a good chance that both the makers and the users [of ceramics] were women,” the study itself does little to substantiate the speculation.

The book's final essay is the most disparate piece of the collection. Kevin M. McGeough and Elizabeth A. Galway have collaborated in a piece entitled “‘Working Egyptians of the World Unite!’: How Edith Nesbit Used Near Eastern Archaeology and Children's Literature to Argue for Social Change.” In Victorian England, activist Edith Nesbit used a children's story, The Story of the Amulet to subvert the status quo and to promote her socialist agenda. While the article is quite interesting, it is difficult to ascertain its applicability to the theme of women in the ancient and classical world.

On the whole, this collection of essays is insightful, and a welcome contribution to the study of women in the ancient world—particularly non-elite women and their everyday lives. Even the essays with a slightly more speculative tone serve to remind the reader that gender-related questions themselves reveal much both about the ancient world, and about scholarly (often androcentric) biases.

Elaine T. James, Princeton Theological Seminary