Archaeologist moms are provided with a babysitter at Azekah biblical dig

"I really want to send young female archaeologists the message that they can combine career and family and should not give up their dreams,” Tel Aviv University Prof. Oded Lipschits told the 'Post.'

Nitsan Shalom, area supervisor of E3 upper working in the field at the Lautenschläger Azekah Expedition. (photo credit: BENJAMIN SITZMAN / LAUTENSCHLAEGER AZEKAH EXPEDITION / TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY)
Nitsan Shalom, area supervisor of E3 upper working in the field at the Lautenschläger Azekah Expedition.
For many years, Helena Roth, a PhD student in Tel Aviv University’s Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations Department, felt she needed to postpone starting a family.
“As an academic and as a woman, I was very anxious,” she told The Jerusalem Post. “I thought that becoming a mother would take a great toll on my career. I believed I would need to constantly prove myself, and I kept on postponing having children, telling my husband that we would wait until I finished my MA, an academic paper, make more progress… Until I realized I would never feel that it was a good time to pay the price.”
However, in spite of giving birth about a year ago, Roth, 33, is currently working in the field at the Lautenschläger Azekah Expedition, one of the very few academic excavations that managed to open this summer in spite of the coronavirus.
The archaeologist, whose focus is the relationship between economy and society in Jerusalem highlands during the Middle Bronze Age, is part of The Ariane de Rothschild Women’s Doctoral Program, which grants scholarships to outstanding female PhD students from various fields of study at research institutions in Israel. She had worked at the site in the past. This year, the excavation decided to provide her and her daughter, Nina, with a babysitter at the kibbutz where the team is lodged.
Located some 30 km. west of Jerusalem, Tel Azekah was first settled around 3,500 years ago and is mentioned several times in the Bible, including as the battlefield of the legendary fight between the future King David and Goliath, the Philistine giant.
“In the academic world, we have many women in the BA programs; a good number in the MAs and even PhDs,” Prof. Oded Lipschits, director of the TAU Institute of Archaeology and a co-director at Tel Azekah, told the Post. “But when it comes to really starting a career, things get harder. And in archaeology, it is even more challenging because of the need to be in the field, which is not easy to balance out with a family.
“My wife and I raised four children, and we split responsibilities. I know what it means. For this reason, I always thought that when the need would present itself, I would make sure to organize a daycare service to allow young mothers to continue their work.”
In the past year, two archaeologists on the team gave birth, and Lipschits had the opportunity to put his vision into practice, even though the second archaeologist could not travel to Israel to participate in the excavation because of the pandemic.
“I am very happy with this initiative, and we will continue offering this opportunity in the next years,” he said. “I really want to send young female archaeologists the message that they can do both, and they should not give up their dreams.”
Roth said the experience is “fantastic.”
“After becoming a mother, I have realized that my fears were based on the very real experience of many other women,” she said. “But I actually find myself in an environment where the price I was worried to pay is hardly felt. I am still valued as a researcher first, and the support I get is not charity but a recognition of my value.”
“In my wildest dream, I never thought that I could combine parenting and activity in the field. The fact that I can spend half a day on the excavation and explore the questions I’m working on and then go back to my daughter and be a present mother is amazing.” Roth said, adding that she looks forward to taking Nina to the dig in future seasons.
Another special feature of Tel Azekah is that all the area supervisors are women, Lipschits said.
“Very rarely in archaeology [will] you have a team that is dominated by women,” Abra Spiciarich, one of the supervisors, told the Post. “It is incredibly meaningful.”
In the past year, women have often represented the vast majority of the staff at Tel Azekah, she said.
“The field is incredibly male dominated,” she added. “The male-female ratio in the departments of archaeology in Israel and abroad is incredibly unbalanced, and so are the new hires. Having the new upcoming academics being female shows that something might be changing.”
Spiciarich is very close to finishing her PhD on animal bones in Jerusalem during the first millennium. Even when women do manage to start their careers, it is hard for them to get promoted and reach top positions, she said.
When she works in the field, Spiciarich said, she does not feel the problem so much, except for the need to deal with male students who at times do not like to be told what to do by a woman. But the question of whether she is going to find a position in the next one or two years is very present for her.
“Being able to excavate in 2020 in spite of the pandemic and being part of a project that is so supportive of women, including allowing them to bring their children, is incredibly special,” Spiciarich said. “I think this might not happen in any other project in any other part of the world.”