BMCR 2009.10.60

The World of Women in the Ancient and Classical Near East

, The World of Women in the Ancient and Classical Near East. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008. xviii, 215. ISBN 9781443800303 £39.99; $79.99.

[List of authors and titles below.]

“Perhaps a decade ago, curious about the extent to which papers on women in the ancient Near East had been presented at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research, I looked into the program books dating from the early 1970s to the late 1990s. What I discovered astounded me: many more papers had been devoted to pigs than to women.” (p. ix).

So begins Beth Alpert Nakhai’s introduction to her edited volume on women in the ancient Near East (hereafter ANE). The nine papers in this short book range from Egypt to Mesopotamia to England geographically, Bronze Age to Edwardian chronologically. All were originally delivered at ASOR panels of the World of Women: Gender and Archaeology between the years 2000 to 2007 (p. xi). Twelve additional papers delivered at these panels and published elsewhere are listed at the end of the introduction.

According to the introduction, the inspiration for this volume was concern over the paucity of papers on Near Eastern women offered at the annual ASOR meetings. As Nakhai states, “Between the 1970s and the late 1990s, almost every paper in which one could use the pronoun ‘she’ was about a goddess (most often Asherah).” (p. ix). Unfortunately, such a statement fails to present the fact that ASOR papers do not reflect ANE scholarship as a whole. To read Nakhai’s introduction, the reader might assume that there has been little to no scholarship done on either women or gender in ANE studies, a fact belied by works such as Sex and Gender in Ancient Egypt, Engendering Aphrodite, Households and Holiness, Missing Persons and Mistaken Identities, Gender in Ancient Cyprus, Women in Ancient Egypt, Women of Babylon, Warrior, Dancer, Seductress, Queen, Images and Gender, Women in Ancient Persia, and Women in Hellenistic Egypt, to name only a scant handful of books, not to mention copious articles that have been published on similar topics. Likewise, Nakhai’s introduction passes over the related topic concerning how much of this work has been done by female scholars, thus giving short shrift to scholars such as Phyllis Bird, Susan Ackerman, Carol Meyers, Gay Robins, Ann Macy Roth, Martha Roth, Lynn Meskell, Nancy Serwint, Diane Bolger, and Peggy Day, to name just a few. In short, Nakhai’s introduction creates an overly negative impression of the state of gender studies in ANE scholarship, which is not a good way to start a book on women in the ANE.

That said, there are a number of articles that are excellent examples of ANE work on women and gender in this volume. Deborah Cassuto’s article on loom weights in context is a fine introduction to how archaeologists are seeking to find common (i.e. non-royal) women in the archaeological record. By considering ethnographic parallels for sex-based divisions of labor as well as literary testimonia for women as weavers in the ancient Levant, Cassuto argues for recognition of loom weights as indicative of women’s space within domestic contexts. By studying where loom weights are typically found and in what kind of assemblages (typically with cooking wares), a picture emerges of what the daily tasks of Iron Age II Israelite women were and where they performed them.

Aubrey Baadsgaard’s article on ovens and cooking is highly recommended for anyone interested in ancient ovens, ancient (and modern) women’s social networks, and cooking technologies. After offering an extensive and well-documented introduction to Near Eastern clay ovens, Baadsgaard gives a broad survey of the location of domestic ovens in Iron Age Israel, specifically considering in what part of the houses, courtyards, or streets they were discovered. By analyzing this spatial distribution, Baadsgaard considers how the placement of such critical cooking apparatus reflects the movement and interactions of women in the process of carrying out their daily chores. As some houses had no ovens, and some ovens were located in public spaces, Baadsgaard concludes that Iron Age Israelite women must have spent a considerable amount of time interacting with women from other houses, forming a female social network that existed side-by-side with the more prominent male community. She says, “According to ethnographic and historic studies of small-scale farming communities, carrying out domestic activities often involves cooperative labor among women. These cooperative relationships, known as ‘women’s networks,’ are rarely noted in public discourse or in historical writings, but nevertheless provide critical social linkages among women.” (p. 19).

Marica Cassis’s article on finding women in Byzantine archaeology should become standard reading for anyone approaching gender archaeology. Cassis constructs a three-point framework for applying gender theory to Byzantine studies: “The first involves a reassessment of the privileging of written evidence over archaeological evidence, a problem endemic to historical archaeology. . . . The second application involves a more theoretical framework of questioning in order to attempt to define what, if anything, constitutes female space. .. . Finally, in the absence of either written sources or clearly gendered and/or identifiable artifacts and spaces. . . gendered archaeology can be used to include women within particular archaeological contexts.” (p. 141, excerpted). In this final point, Cassis turns her article to the case study of her own work at Çadir Höyük, specifically a fortified structure dating to the eleventh century with precursors dating back an additional five centuries. The structure was originally deemed to be either a military outpost or the remains of a monastic settlement; in short, male space. Neither hypothesis was supported by the artifact assemblages, which included cooking pots, animal remains, minor jewelry, and farm implements (p. 151). The interpretation of “farmhouse” seems likely, a space both male and female. All in all, Cassis’s chapter serves as a Byzantine extension of the western Medieval work done by R. Gilchrist.

Other contributions felt like they were only tangentially related to the subject of women in the ANE, a fact highlighted by the contortions the authors seem to go through to make their topics relevant for this book. Jennie Ebeling and Michael Homan provide a fine article on the archaeology of beer brewing in the ANE, part of their continuing work (p. 62). The core of this article considers the artistic, literary, and archaeological evidence for beer-brewing from Mesopotamia to the Levant to Egypt, with a special focus on the archaeology of Israel. The authors show a strong correlation between the production of bread and beer, explain the physical implements used in ancient brewing, offer a convincing argument for the identification of fermentation stoppers, look at modern ethnographic parallels, and discuss the nutritional importance of beer in the ancient diet. However, the authors also had to relate all this to ancient women. To engender the paper, they include somewhat weaker sections on ANE beer goddesses, make an argument that beer brewing was predominantly in women’s hands in ancient times, and end with a statement that control over brewing, like control over baking, empowered ancient women, as they were responsible for providing vital nutrition to their families. Considering the extent to which kitchen duty has not empowered women at any other point in history, I’m not sure if this is really a valid argument. Nevertheless, the article is a good place to begin for anyone interested in the history and archaeology of beer.

A similar kind of disjunction occurs with Gloria London’s excellent article on individualistic styles in the “cottage” pottery industry. As another step in the on-going interest in finding individuals in the archaeological record, London’s article uses primarily 20th-century ethnographic studies to document personalized variety in pottery fabrication, noting where elements of such personalization might occur, who can take such liberties, and what these variations mean to others (e.g. other potters can identify a pot’s maker based on specific stylizations, while non-potters seldom notice these differences). Focusing on details such as, inter alia, rim-construction or combing patterns, London’s ethnographic studies have contributed greatly to analyses of ancient ceramics, notably for ancient Cyprus. The only weakness of the article was the need to connect it to ANE women. London’s subject matter here was modern women, especially Cypriote and Philippine. The focus was on individuality in pottery-making. At best, London could point out that at least in the modern parallels it is mainly women who make pots outside of the industrial sphere, and so it is possible that women were also heavily involved in this industry in ancient times. She says, “There is a good chance that both the makers and the users were women.” (p. 157). This comes across as rather speculative in an article that is otherwise well documented and very well written.

Even the final chapter seems a tad out of place. Here Kevin McGeough and Elizabeth Galway discuss Edwardian-era children’s author Edith Nesbit and how “Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet, with its detailed portrayal of the ancient world, was a safe arena for her to make somewhat controversial arguments about problems she perceived in Edwardian England.” (p. 183). Of course, Nesbit’s “detailed portrayal” would make most modern Assyriologists grit their teeth, not to mention the copious use of E.A. Wallis Budge’s expertise on matters pertaining to ancient Egypt. But considering the 1906 publication of the book, we can hardly hold her dated perceptions against her. The authors do a fine job of placing Mrs. Nesbit in her sociopolitical context and translating her children’s fantasy into political reality. Perhaps more importantly, McGeough and Galway offer a new angle on both reception studies and Orientalist studies, looking not at the western construction of the decadent “Other,” but how early orientalism was manifested in children’s literature. It’s hard to say what, exactly, the chapter has to do with women in the ancient and classical Near East.

Other articles in the book are less successful. For example, Cynthia Finlayson opens her chapter on Mut’a marriage in the Roman Near East with the sweeping statement, “Given the lack of authoritative documentary evidence on women’s daily lives, scholars must look at the physical evidence emerging from the archaeological record and utilize comparative anthropological and art historical approaches to understand the complex roles of women in the ancient and classical Near East (c. 5000 B.C.E.-330 C.E.)” (p. 99). While it is all fine and good to make use of a multiplicity of sources, Finlayson’s lack of “documentary evidence” in effect dismisses such sources as the cuneiform letters and contracts from (e.g.) Nuzi and Karum Kanesh in the Bronze Age, Greek letters and contracts from Hellenistic Egypt, as well as the more indigenous Egyptian ostraca and papyri from sites such as Deir-el Medina. An inaccurate picture of the state of scholarship on women is presented. The rest of the article is less than helpful. The intention is to explore the social position of Syrian Aramean/Arab women in the first through third centuries CE via a study of mut’a marriage, a type of temporary marriage initiated and contracted by the wife. Finlayson’s definition of this marriage custom is heavily predicated upon the work of W. Robertson Smith, a 19th-century scholar whose work on this topic came out in 1903. Although later references appear in her bibliography, within the text Finlayson mainly relies on this more-than-a-century-old book. Attempts to understand this custom are marred by Finlayson’s bizarre terminology, especially her use of the words “matriarchy” and “patriarchy.” On p. 107, for example, she refers to the “economic and political needs of both the patriarchal and matriarchal sides of a family.” Frequent references in the article to early Arab matriarchal customs are thus confusing and refer back to a single work from the 1950s. Finlayson’s historical comparanda are also unhelpful. In discussing the importance placed on women and their reproductive functions in the ancient world, Finlayson gives an inaccurate description of the Spartans (e.g. males were called up from age six for military duty, p. 106) and a faulty description of Biblical Levirate marriage (p. 107). All this leads up to Finlayson’s analysis of two funerary portraits from Syrian Palmyra, which, she speculates, might be analyzed in light of the mut’a marriage custom, although there is, admittedly, no evidence for this.

Also problematic is E. A. R. Willett’s “Infant Mortality and Women’s Religion in the Biblical Periods.” The article begins with a survey of scholarship on infant mortality in the ANE, considering both the material evidence (archaeological and physical anthropological) and the literary data, making use of, in particular, texts concerning child-stealing demons and magical protections against them. The article then veers, and it appears that Willett was trying to show that women were valued in Levantine communities for their religious roles in the protection of infants. She begins with a portrayal of the divine Canaanite mother Asherah, and claims that, “Biblical as well as other Levantine texts indicate that in both Canaanite and Israelite religions, the goddess Asherah served El as personal assistant.” (p. 87). Unless by “personal assistant” Willett means “wife” (a rather 1950s interpretation, I suppose) there is no evidence for this assertion, a fact highlighted by the section in W.G. Dever’s recent monograph on folk religion in ancient Israel,1 (which is listed in Willett’s footnotes), that is dedicated to the history of the interpretation of Asherah in ANE scholarship. Willett’s article ends with a consideration of Judean Pillar Figurines. This section betrays no knowledge of R. Kletter’s 1996 monograph Judean Pillar-Figurines and the Archaeology of Asherah, the standard work on this topic. This oversight may be responsible for certain misunderstandings regarding these figurines, including where they were found and how they were made. In the end, Willett uses her understanding of what the figurines meant to explain how they were probably made: “The meaning of votive figurines leads us to believe that women manufactured them and used them in their homes to protect themselves and their children.” (p. 94). As half of the figurines have mould-made heads, a wholly domestic production seems quite unlikely.

Another difficult article is Mary Ann Eaverly’s “Dark Men, Light Women,” which considers the role of color ideology in the depiction of humans in ancient Egypt. Egyptian convention dictated that human males were typically colored red, while females were yellow (although there are some exceptions). This difference in skin tone, much as with Minoan Crete, is frequently interpreted to represent the different amounts of time that each sex spent out-doors: Males are literally more sun-tanned than the more domestically inclined females. By contrast, Eaverly looks for the ideological basis of this color choice, specifically questioning whether the red/yellow dichotomy is indicative of sexual complementarity and the establishment of ma’at, the Egyptian concept of the organized universe. To this end Eaverly looks at a tomb painting from the Naqada II period (3500-3200 BCE, pre-dynastic) and shows that there is little reason to engender the colors used in the mural. This, Eaverly argues, may be due to greater sexual egalitarianism in the pre-dynastic period. By Dynasty 4, however, state-formation may have induced social changes that included a sexual hierarchy that placed men, especially the king, above women. By this time, the color dimorphism between the sexes was established, and Eaverly claims that the standard colors — red and yellow/white — were considered to be opposites, although she provides no citation for this (p. 10). Plus, both red and yellow might both be indicative of the sun, and thus are similar (p. 11). Furthermore, Egyptian myths show greater sexual equality than those of other peoples, and women were considered to be important in the attainment of an afterlife. Thus, “Male/female color differentiation marks the difference in spheres of activity between men and women, but it also serves to emphasize that the combination of these two opposites through sexual union provides for the afterlife and maintains the stable order of the universe.” (p. 11). The minimal data, lack of Egyptian color theory, and jumps in logic make it extremely difficult to follow how she came to this conclusion.

In the Final Notes of her Introduction Nakhai claims that “The articles in The World of Women in the Ancient and Classical Near East make an important contribution toward combating modern scholarship’s marginalization of women in antiquity.” (p. xv). Several of the articles do indeed provide much admirable information on the women of the ANE, while others highlight women’s more modern contributions to society and technology. Nevertheless, I continue to be concerned about the marginalization of existing works on this topic as presented by the editor and some of the authors.

Beth Alpert Nakhai, “Introduction.”

Mary Ann Eaverly, “Dark Men, Light Women: Origins of Color as Gender Indicator in Ancient Egypt.”

Aubrey Baadsgaard, “A Taste of Women’s Sociality: Cooking as Cooperative Labor in Iron Age Syro-Palestine.”

Jennie R. Ebeling and Michael M. Homan, “Baking and Brewing Beer in the Israelite Household: A Study of Women’s Cooking Technology.”

Deborah Cassuto, “Bringing Home the Artifacts: A Social Interpretation of Loom Weights in Context.”

Elizabeth Ann R. Willett, “Infant Mortality and Women’s Religion in the Biblical Periods.”

Cynthia Finlayson, “Mut’a Marriage in the Roman Near East: The Evidence from Palmyra, Syria.”

Marica Cassis, “A Restless Silence: Women in the Byzantine Archaeological Record.”

Gloria London, “Fe(male) Potters as the Personification of Individuals, Places, and Things as Known from Ethnoarchaeological Studies.”

Kevin McGeough and Elizabeth Galway, “‘Working Egyptians of the World Unite!’: How Edith Nesbit Used Near Eastern Archaeology and Children’s Literature to Argue for Social Change.”


1. Did God Have a Wife? Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel. Eerdman’s Publiching Co. 2005, (pp. 196-208).