In the 1890s and 1910s, Palestinian village women were a common sight on archaeological excavations, employed to lug baskets of earth from the diggings to the dump. Some site directors thought that women’s more delicate touch made them better at sieving deposits for small finds. The vast majority of these women remain nameless and voiceless, but there are one or two for whom a few details emerge from the mists of time.

One of them was called Heuda, a name deciphered from the scrawling handwriting of the archaeologist Frederick Jones Bliss. The reason that we know anything about Heuda at all is that in the early 1890s she was one of the labourers who worked on the excavations at Tell el-Hesi, an archaeological site not far from Gaza in what was then Palestine. The dig was funded by the Palestine Exploration Fund and directed by Frederick Bliss, a Lebanese-born American scholar. Most of the brute labour was split between men, who hacked away at the earth, and women, who carried the spoil away. Frederick Bliss described his workers’ lives during the excavation thus:

At first most of our workmen were from Bureir, a village six miles from the Tell. Before Ramadan most of the men slept at the camp, digging little shallow graves for a bed, when they covered themselves with their cloaks. The women and girls had the long walk both before and after work. Six miles’ walk before 6.30a.m., and six miles’ walk after 5p.m., with a hard day’s work of carrying earth-piled baskets on the head in between, does not strike one as being an easy life, but more girls begged for work than we could employ.  [Frederick Jones Bliss, “Report of Excavations at Tell-El-Hesy during the Spring of 1891: Excavating from its Picturesque Side. Palestine Exploration Quarterly 23, 4 (October 1891), 282-298]

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Heuda seems to have warranted particular attention because she was a ‘character’ amongst the villagers employed the do the heavy work at Tell el-Hesi. She first appears in Bliss’ letters and publications in the second half of 1891. In a report for the PEF’s bulletin, the Palestine Exploration Quarterly, he describes various individuals from the workforce, including:

Rahama, our messenger to Gaza, a rather fussy man, with eyes of the poorest quality, which however never let the smallest object escape them. His daughter Fatmy worked with her brother Monsur rather than with her father. It was a delicate arrangement, owing to the fact that [Heuda], Monsur’s sweetheart, wasn’t allowed to work with him, but could help her prospective father-in-law. Heuda settled down into a capital worker, though a bolder, wilder girl I never saw. Tall, straight, active, she made a picturesque figure in her slim blue gown, with stripes of figured crimson and her fringed white veil, as she darted, sickle in hand, from trench to trench, cutting down the rich barley before each digger. I was relieved to see the strength of will shown by Monsur in rigidly keeping Ramadan, for he is a gentle youth, and I had feared that his prospects for matrimonial control over Heuda were very frail. Suggesting this to him one day, I was answered, with a smile of mingled scorn and amusement.

Monsur and Heuda’s marriage was further put off after a feverish illness attacked the village, killing Monsur’s father and reducing the young man to “a shadow”. The wedding did eventually go ahead, although Bliss does not give any details. However, the union did not, it seem, go well, and the repercussions went beyond the unfortunate couple themselves, as a common device to avoid paying a bride-price came into play, in which a female relative of the groom marries a male relative of the bride, effectively cancelling out the costs to each family.

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Bliss recounts how this practice led to sadness not just for Heuda and Mansur, but for a second pair, as well as tension on the excavation:

My fear was justified: she proved too much for him and after a brief but stormy union she went back to her people. Now comes in a singular complication. Mansur [paid? – indecipherable] for Heuda by marrying his sister Fatimy to Heuda’s uncle Rizq. Fatimy and Rizq proved a happy couple but when Heuda came home, poor Rizq had to lose his bride who was ordered to her old home to bake and draw water. Admirable business but indifferent romance. Heuda, who had been basketing earth for Mansur before the brawl, walked after her uncle Rizq, within a few paces of her estranged husband, while Fatimy, with easily imaginable rebellion in her heart, filled her basket with the earth dug by her brother Mansur. But she said never a word nor cast a look at Rizq. “She has been well brought up” said her brother proudly.

Like the subaltern described by postcolonial scholar Gayatri Spivak, at no point can Heuda speak for herself. We can reconstruct only this one small part of her life, and that from the writings of a white, upper-class male, who writes about her appearance in terms typical of a masculine, orientalist gaze, and although at times seeing her as a worker in her own right, describes her mostly in terms of her gender and marital status. But we also need to look at the circumstances in which we first encounter these Heuda and Fatimy – not as wives or fiancées, but as labourers, and ones who have actively come seeking cash work when the opportunity arises.

This does not mean to glorify the arrival of colonial labour relations, or the backbreaking conditions under which Bliss worked his staff. But they are women who went out to join a tough workforce, who chose to undertake hard manual labour (probably little different from any other work in their lives), and who we meet and witness as workers first and sexual beings second. They are some of the very few that we even know by name, due to Frederick Bliss’ ongoing curiosity about his employees and their lives.

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More commonly, we meet the women working in these excavations only as a nameless mass. We know nothing of their names, ages, marital situations, loves, hates and ambitions. Indeed, Bliss’ benevolent attitude to them is also atypical, as his successors R.A.S. Macalister and Duncan Mackenzie usually refer to them in disparaging terms, griping about the gossip they see women labourers as bringing with them. Eventually, with an inexorable logic of masculine technological modernisation, women are replaced by wheelbarrows, heralding – according to Duncan Mackenzie – more efficient working practices, and less chatter and romantic tension: “Barrows were introduced as an innovation to take place of female labour and it was found that an able bodied youth with barrows was able to accomplish the work of four women.”



F.J. Bliss, “Notes from Tell El Hesy”, Palestine Exploration Quarterly, 24:3 (1892), 192-196

F.J. Bliss, “Report of Excavations at Tell-El-Hesy during the Spring of 1891: Excavating from its Picturesque Side”. Palestine Exploration Quarterly 23, 4 (October 1891), 282-298

Nicoletta Momigliano, “Duncan Mackenzie and the Palestine Exploration Fund”. Palestine


Written by Sarah Irving, @sarahonline_

Images provided by and used with permission of the Palestinian Exploration Fund. 

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2 thoughts on “Women of the Palestinian Exploration Fund

  1. Ian Glover says:

    A fascinating story, and working in Thailand in the 1980s we found that women worked harder on excavations and were also better at spotting and uncovering delicate small finds.

  2. Margaret Carleton says:

    Interesting read but Gaza is still Palestine. It is the largest open air prison in the world.

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