Musings on Gender, Archaeology, and Pilgrimage in the Late Antique Near East

The monastery of Aaron at Jabal Harun, Jordan (c) Marlena Whiting

Marlena Whiting (University of Amsterdam)

What can a gendered reading (based in feminist critique) of the archaeological evidence for pilgrimage in the Late Antique Near East reveal about women and pilgrimage?

Since the 1980’s, trends in women’s and gender studies have been making an impact in the study of archaeology, particularly challenging narratives that ignore women’s presence in the archaeological record, undervalue women’s contributions to ancient society, or rely on structuralist dichotomies for interpreting ancient gender relations through the archaeological record. Gender archaeology has been influential in fields such a prehistoric archaeology where theory is an important guide to interpretation.

Classical archaeology, and by extension Late Antique archaeology, which often use textual sources as their starting point, is somewhat behind in this regard. Few studies have used gender archaeological theories to understand the presence of women in the archaeological record of Greco-Roman societies, and few excavators explicitly use gender as a guiding principle when carrying out analysis. Studies have mainly focused on the household, where artifacts related to “women’s work” especially textile production, are taken for proxy evidence of women’s presence. However, similar analysis, have not widely been applied households in to Late Antiquity (Cooper, 2009, 191). Synthesizing studies so far have not paid particular attention to the possibility of observing gender archaeologically in a Late Antique phenomenon in which women are known to have been active, namely Christian pilgrimage. There is a large body of pilgrimage-related archaeology, particularly in the Eastern Mediterranean and Egypt, but the gendered aspects of this material have not been systematically investigated.

In this short essay I will explore some of the salient ways in which gender archaeology can be applied to aspects of the material culture of pilgrimage. This includes archaeologically excavated pilgrimage shrines, with particular attention to pilgrim locales that are attached to or located within monastic communities. Monastic communities, which can be presumed to be single-sex, pose interesting problems for structuralist interpretations of gendered space, whereby domestic space is equated with women. Secondly, there are portable, personal, objects associated with pilgrimage the most famous of which are pilgrim tokens and flasks. In most readings of these objects, the “un-gendered” pilgrim is male. Does a gendered reading of these objects and their iconography support this assumption? I will specifically look at the architectural remains and assemblages from the site of Jabal Harun, the 4th-9th century Monastery of Aaron near Petra, Jordan.

From this I argue that a gendered reading (based in feminist critique) of the archaeological evidence for pilgrimage in the Late Antique Near East adds an important layer of information to that gleaned from textual sources regarding women, men, and the performance of pilgrimage.

What is gender archaeology?

Gender archaeology generally refers to the application of feminist critique to archaeological artefacts, analysis, and process, to counteract a (Western) androcentric bias in which the “ungendered”, “objective”, “neutral” valence is consciously or unconsciously male. This bias is inherent in (English) language, for example in the use of “mankind” to refer to all humanity, or “craftsman” when referring to the person who made an artefact unearthed in an archaeological dig. In the absence of the verifiable presence of women (eg, in burials) it is often assumed that the occupants of a site were male. There is then also a tendency to ascribe to those occupants aspects of masculinity inherited from our own cultural stereotypes (agency in public spaces, entrepreneurship, protective or martial character). In a structuralist worldview, the feminine is the opposite of everything that is considered male: submissive, secluded, domestic, nurturing, maternal.

Gender archaeology employs feminist critique to counter these biases. Over time, feminist theory in general has shifted focus, and gender archaeology has followed suit1. In the earliest phases, inspired by what is termed First Wave feminism, scholars attempted to “recover” women, make their achievements visible, to argue against the impossibility of female agency in the public sphere, but also to argue against the undervaluing of women’s activity in the private sphere. From the 1970’s onward, feminist critique based on Second Wave feminism has interpreted women of the past against the backdrop of systemic oppression by patriarchal hierarchies. Marxist and post-colonial feminism similarly see women’s actions as resistance against systemic oppression that is also informed by struggle against capitalist and colonialist regimes. Postmodern feminism relies on theories of sex and gender as socially, culturally constructed entities that are informed and reinforced through performance and embodiment. Gender is thus one factor among many such as age, social class, ethnicity, and religion that impact the “performance” of womanhood, and masculinity as well. Although critics of postmodern feminism accuse it of susceptibility to relativism, it seems a view that is most applicable to the study of Late Antiquity, where all these factors have an effect on an individual’s identity, but are often played out in close proximity to each other, especially at major pilgrimage sites, like Jerusalem.

In the field of Late Antiquity, women and gender have in fact been quite well studied over the past few decades, e.g. from the legal perspective (Arjava, 1996), or the perspective of Christian asceticism (the foundational study being Peter Brown’s The Body and Society [1988; 2008]). Many scholars look at gender, and use archaeology along with textual sources to do so (eg, Davis, 2001). However, a casual Google Scholar search for the key words “gender archaeology late antiquity” yields not one work that specifically employs gender archaeology to understand the material culture of late antiquity. Notably absent are works that apply the types of analysis carried out on the households in the Greek and Roman periods (especially studies by Lisa Nevett, Marilyn Goldberg, Ray Laurence). Traditionally in archaeology there has been a bias against the late antique period (in the 19th and early 20th century, post-Classical structures were often just cleared away), followed by a focus on monumentality, or on monastic and military sites. Few studies are concerned with the non-elite household, or explore gender within that context.

An examination of the table of contents of Housing in Late Antiquity: From Palaces to Shops (2007) contains few specific references to gender, offering instead “ungendered” regional studies and typologies (and a three-article section on bishops’ palaces continues a trend described by classical gender scholars of defining households in terms of the male householder) (Spencer-Wood 2006b: 299). Only the contributions by Özgenel and Kalas even mention women as occupants of houses (is it significant that these two authors are women?). The bibliographic essay by Uytterhoeven (2007: 31-2) has a section on women, mainly works on the Greco-Roman period, not Late Antiquity, and those mainly on law, not archaeology. The exception is Meyers (2003), “The problem of gendered space in Syro-Palestinian domestic architecture”, which while directly addressing gender also raises the spectre of regional diversity of cultural practice, religion, ethnicity, etc., as intersecting with gender to inform the use of space.

Gender bias is particularly evident in the excavation of military sites: women are only presumed to have been present if there are burials or evidence of textile production that “confirm” their presence (Groh and Sedlmayer, 2012, 490; 500). In general, personal objects are thought to be a good indicator of the gender of the owner (Spencer-Wood, 2006a, 85). However, this works less well when an object’s assumed function is thought to be gendered (Allison, 1999). For example, although it seems safe to assume in a household environment that cooking pots are evidence of cooking, our biases lead us to assume that cooking is women’s work, and lead to the inductive leap that cooking pots indicate the presence of women. Loom weights are similarly used as short-hand proxies for the presence of women even in more nuanced gender studies of space, we shall see how that plays out further down. Interpreting whether jewellery is intended for use by a man or a woman must largely be determined by our own aesthetic biases.

Feminization of (early) pilgrimage

Christian pilgrimage in Late Antiquity is an interesting phenomenon from a gender perspective because records survive of so many (named) women who performed pilgrimages of varying degrees of prominence and to various locations. Women can hark back to Helena, to whom the “original” Christian pilgrimage was popularly ascribed, which resulted in the discovery of the relics of the true cross and coincided with the founding during the reign of Constantine of many important pilgrimage churches.

Modern sociologists speak of the “feminization” of pilgrimage, noting that in the Christian tradition today the practice is more popular among women than among men. This is partly because in Christianity pilgrimage is a non-compulsory form of religious worship; and the appealing directly to a shrine’s saint for intercession or experiencing the healing powers of the site circumvents the (male) ecclesiastical hierarchy. For this reason pilgrimage is seen as a marginal form of worship, and as such (or perhaps because of its association with women) is valued less. (Gemzöe, 2009, 150, 156; Jansen, 2012, 8)

In a recent article Rebecca Falcasantos (2017) has observed that a similar phenomenon of “feminization” might be taking place in the scholarly discourse around Christian pilgrimage in Late Antiquity: that the high volume of identifiable female pilgrims, and the apparent rejection of the practice by a large number of patristic authors, has led to scholars over-emphasizing the women taking part, perhaps making it appear a uniquely female habit? For a analysis of patristic authors’ attitudes towards pilgrimage, see Bitton-Ashkhelony 2005. Although the article does not take sufficiently into account other factors that constitute identity beyond gender (social class and education in particular), it does make a valid point. Does scholars’ enthusiasm at having “recoverable” women taking part in pilgrimage overstate their role? Instead of asking “was pilgrimage a particularly female form of worship” we should be asking how was the performance of pilgrimage by men and women gendered, and what other factors played a role? This entails looking not just for a “female” mode of pilgrimage (identified as Falcasantos as highly emotional) but also a “male” mode that contributes to the performance of Late Antique masculinity in concert with social class and ethnicity. We must also be aware that in our reading of ancient texts, the actual presence of women may be grammatically obscured: a masculine plural for a collective group grammatically subsumes any women part of that group. A gendered reading of the archaeological evidence can help answer this question by providing an independent source on the ways in which gendered performance of pilgrimage was enacted and embodied in designated spaces and through portable objects.

Pilgrimage archaeology

What is the archaeological evidence for Late Antique pilgrimage and how might a gendered reading affect our interpretation of that material? For Christian pilgrimage in the period between the 4th and 7th centuries, in the Eastern Mediterranean particularly the Near East and Egypt, there is a great deal of archaeological evidence in the forms of monuments and portable objects. There are pilgrim complexes, shrines, churches, and monasteries. There are eulogiai (tokens, flasks) and votives testifying to pilgrims’ coming and going. Pilgrim tokens, iconography can be read as gendered, this is especially the tendency for tokens bearing scenes from the life of the virgin.

Pilgrimage archaeology is the archaeology of a transient population, unlike domestic archaeology. Identification of pilgrim facilities relies partly on negative evidence: a buildup of artefacts is considered indication of long-term settlement, therefore a space that has a paucity of artefacts may be considered temporary housing for visitors (i.e., the space is frequently cleaned out). Pilgrim accommodation can also be identified by a reduplication of facilities (suggesting one set of facilities for the resident population and one for the guest, usually separated by a mechanism (door or gateway) controlled by the resident population. Also, communal spaces that are too big to be useful for the resident population are identified as pilgrim spaces, on the assumption that the additional space would be filled by visitors. Troels Myrup Kristensen (2012) has recently drawn attention to the importance of voids, of empty spaces, courtyards, or squares, that could be filled up with crowds of worshippers. The importance of non-permanent structures is an important consideration for pilgrimage, and for the gendering of pilgrimage space. It is also important to keep in mind that time as well as space can be used for gender segregation (e.g., men and women having separate times for accessing public baths).

The gendering of Christian pilgrimage spaces has not been the subject of much study, beyond the gendering of spaces within churches (Taft 1998; Mulholland 2014). In a recent article, Wiebke Friese noted of Ancient Greek pilgrimage sanctuaries that while in theory they are “gender-neutral” (ie not automatically segregated into spaces designated for male and women), the non-ritual areas of the sanctuary (eg baths) were where societal gender norms were most likely to be strictly observed, and permanent or temporary structures were used to realize those gender norms (Friese, 2017, 59). The idea that pilgrimage reinforced rather than relaxed societal norms, especially those related to gender, is one that is supported by the literary evidence from Late Antiquity as well.

The archaeology of Christian pilgrimage is closely linked with the archaeology of monasticism. Monasteries were frequently the custodians of holy shrines, and as mentioned above, it is in the differentiation from monastic (domestic) spaces that pilgrim (semi-/public) spaces can be identified. However, monasteries are also representative of fairly atypical communities in gender terms, given that they can reliably be assumed to be single-sex populations (the occasional legendary crossdresser notwithstanding). And yet they possess public and domestic spaces, and domestic crafts typically used as shorthand for the presence of women in family domiciles are carried out there.

Monasteries are generally easy to identify archaeologically; the presence of a chapel for example, distinguishes it from a farmhouse or villa. However, it is much harder to gender these spaces, although we know that female monasteries existed as well as male ones. When a building is identified as a monastery it is usually populated with monks by default. A few examples of archaeologically identified nunneries exist (usually corroborated either by textual sources or by inscriptions). Burials could be another possible source of information but patterns of patronage mean it is equally likely for a woman to be a patron of a monastic community for men as for women. Roberta Gilchrist was able to establish a typology and pattern of gendered space in Medieval nunneries (Gilchrist, 1994). This was thanks to a large number of confirmed identifications as places of female communities. Unfortunately, for the Late Antique Near East there are not yet enough that have been identified to comprise a representative sample from which to build a typology based on generalizing principles. Thus, we also do not know how many potential nunneries have been misidentified as monasteries for men simply because we do not understand what distinguishing features they might be expected to have.

Let us turn to a case study, the monastery and pilgrim complex of Aaron at Jabal Harun in southern Jordan. It should be noted that it is assumed that the resident monastic population was male during the Byzantine period (5th-9th c.) based on Crusader-period texts.

There are clear public and private areas in the monastery, and clear domestic areas particularly related to food production. However, since we reasonably assume that this was a single-sex environment, we must discard overly simplistic dichotomies that suggest that sites of food production are evidence of the presence of women. Instead however, it seems reasonable to assume that areas where food production occurred, which are on the inside of the walled complex and separated from what appears to be the hostel by a large gateway, were part of the private/monastic part of the pilgrim complex.

Personal objects and spatulas from Jabal Harun, From Col. Fig 19, Col. Fig. 20. and Fig. 5 (p. 413), Petra – The Mountain of Aaron, Vol. 2 (2016)

The finds from the site encourage us to recalibrate assumptions about gendered objects and assumptions about what is appropriate for a monastic complex. For example, recent scholarship has emphasized the role of monasteries in the regional economy, whereas previous scholarship tended to follow the idealistic writings on monasticism that emphasized spiritual isolation from secular life. The discovery of a set of commercial weights, dating to the 5th/6th centuries, tends to confirm the active participation in economic life that the monastery would have been part of (Petra – Mountain of Aaron, Vol 2, 392-393).

Let us consider the artifacts excavated at the site that have the highest potential for gendering, mainly jewellery, and that if recovered in any other kind of context would probably be interpreted as evidence for women, but that in a monastic context must give us pause. Objects of personal adornment (even if religious symbols) again contradict assumptions we make about the literary descriptions of monks’ voluntary renunciation of material possessions. For example, three pectoral crosses (analysed by Brigitte Pitarakis, Vol 2, 405-7) were found in or near the pilgrim hostel: were they lost by pilgrims, lay visitors who might be of any gender? This assumes that the function of the pilgrim hostel remained the same throughout the centuries, which is also far from certain. One is bronze dating from the early Byzantine period (4th-7th c.) and the other two are mother-of-pearl and are medieval (probably 13th c.). The bronze cross is of a style common throughout the Near East in the 4th through 7th centuries (examples have been found at Antioch and Qal’at Sim’an), and the mother-of-pearl crosses also have parallels in the Near East and Asia Minor. Some pectoral crosses have been found in funerary contexts. If associated with a sexed skeleton, this might shed light on whether certain styles, materials, or level of elaboration were more popular with men or women, however, at present, these loose finds offer no clues. Other finds related to personal adornment included stone bead and pendants (Vol 2, 378). Like the crosses, they cannot be interpreted purely in light of aesthetics as part of female adornment, especially given that certain types of stone, like rock crystal, had amuletic properties. One object that was recognisably a finger-ring, with a bezel that may once have held an inlay, it might be possible to gender based on size (Vol 2, 377). The external diameter is 1.7cm, making it quite small, so it could have fit a woman.

Two decorated metal pins were identified, one still had a fibre wrapped around its middle and could have been used for securing a garment. The object bears a resemblance to double-ended kohl applicators found elsewhere in the Levant. However, tempting though it may be to link eye make-up with women, one must also recall that kohl serves to reduce glare from sunlight, and as such could be used by either men or women. Indeed, one of the sites that the comparanda come from is Mount Nebo, also a monastery/pilgrimage site.

Several bronze spatulas were recovered from the site. Annette Frölich notes that spatulas are often interpreted as cosmetic implements (and therefore associated with women), but, like many objects, in reality they had multiple uses. In this case they served as tools of medicine and pharmacology. Instead of being indicators of gender, they are ungendered artefacts, and likely testify to the importance of pilgrimage sites as places of healing. They cannot in themselves tell us whether they were used on men or women. (Vol 2, 411-4).

Loom weights were also recovered, although not systematically recorded. What do we make of those? One example comes from the courtyard of the church. Clearly not an ecclesiastical implement, it probably relates to later periods when the church was converted to domestic occupation. Other studies of household space, or of the development of the vicus near a military camp, take loom weights as unequivocal evidence of the presence of women (e.g. Groh and Sedlmayer, 2012, 500; Goldberg, 1999, 149, also Nevett, 1994). Are we to infer the presence of women in this phase, a (non-monastic) mixed gender community taking over the former religious site, or are we to infer that in these lean times the monks were entirely self-sufficient, producing their own cloth rather than purchasing it (or receiving it as gifts)? Is it possible that a loom weight is not a “loom” weight but a flexible-use item that could be used for weighing other things down (or is it just a fragment of a stone with a hole in it?)?

Finding objects in a single-sex environment that otherwise would be easy to assign to either men or women certainly encourages more thought about the flexible uses to which objects might have been put, and encourages to question our own assumptions about gendered behaviour, aesthetics, and divisions of labour. It is certainly consistent with the general trend in Classical Archaeology away from rigid stereotyped understanding of gendered activities and strict typologies of objects.

It would also be instructive to consider pilgrim tokens and eulogiae from a gendered perspective. Because many of these are emblazoned with images it is much more tantalizing to investigate them for symbolism, and their iconography has been extensively studied. In particular, objects with Marian imagery are thought to have appealed to women, with their associations of motherhood and childbearing, although this does seem a somewhat reductive interpretation. There is also an intriguing series of terracotta flasks which in form are similar to the more ubiquitous St Menas flasks produced at Abu Mina in Egypt, but these bear an image of St Thekla on one side (Davis, 1998).

Thekla Flask, now in the Louvre (c)Marlena Whiting

Are we to interpret the representation of this popular female saint as having particular meaning and appeal for female pilgrims? It seems plausible, although the Miracles of St Thekla at her shrine in Asia Minor indicate she also had male devotees. Caution must also be urged, in the light of these Menas flasks with female iconography, against assuming (whether consciously or unconsciously) that all the remaining Menas flasks were used by men. For example, one Menas flask now in the British Museum has an image of a ship on it. Mobility tends to be seen as a male attribute (sailors, merchants), and examples of female mobility as exceptional. However, if pilgrimage is seen as a female activity, perhaps that interpretation should be revised! A ship could equally be an appropriate talisman for either a male or female pilgrim undertaking a pilgrimage by sea as for someone whose profession was related to sea travel.

These musings on the topic of gender, archaeology and pilgrimage appear to have raised more questions than they have answered, and left much ambiguity in their wake. Nevertheless, I think it is an important starting point for considering archaeology, and particularly a gendered reading of archaeology, be it architectural space or material culture, as an important additional source of information on women’s presence at pilgrimage sites in the Late Antique Near East.


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Davis, S.J., The cult of Saint Thecla: A tradition of women’s piety in Late Antiquity (Oxford 2001).

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Jansen, W., ‘Old routes, new journeys: reshaping gender, nation and religion in European pilgrimage,’ in W. Jansen and C. Notermans (eds), Gender, nation and religion in European pilgrimage 2012), 1-18.

Kristensen, T.M., ‘The Material Culture of Roman and Early Christian Pilgrimage: An Introduction,’ HEROM 1/1 (2012), 67-78.

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Meyers, E.M., ‘The problems of gendered space in Syro-Palestinian domestic architecture: the case of Roman-period Galilee,’ in D.L. Balch and C. Osiek (eds), Early Christian Families in Context: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue (Grand Rapids, MI. 2003), 44-69.

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—, ‘Feminist gender research in classical archaeology,’ in S.M. Nelson (ed.), Handbook of Gender in Archaeology (Lanham, MD 2006), 295-329.


Citer ce billet
Whiting Marlena (2018, 12 juin). Musings on Gender, Archaeology, and Pilgrimage in the Late Antique Near East. HospitAm. Consulté le 25 mai 2024, à l’adresse

  1. For an overview, see S. M. Spencer-Wood 2006a and 2006b. []

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