By Bryton Smith
In this special feature of Archaeologists in Action, former OAS officer Bryton A. Smith (OC 2019) interviewed Yeshiva University (YU) archaeologist Dr. Jill Citron Katz over Skype to discuss her career and archaeological interests. Dr. Katz has an A.B. from Harvard University and a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. Currently a professor at YU’s Stern College for Women, YU’s undergraduate women’s college, Dr. Katz is the sole archaeologist on the faculty in the Sociology Department. Bryton first met Dr. Katz in the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project in southern Israel in the summer of 2018 when he was excavating a newly-opened area under her supervision. Interestingly, archaeology was not Dr. Katz’s first passion. Her early focus was history, which evolved into her later and current interest in anthropology, especially archaeology. This later pursuit of anthropology then led her to excavate at two different sites as an undergraduate. Her interest in history started in her early childhood, and as a high school student, she would read beyond the timelines of the syllabi in her history classes, material assigned for later in the terms. However, after tenth grade, Dr. Katz’s initial fascination with the study of the past acquired a more archaeological orientation when she went on a school trip to Greece. After the trip, she started reading archaeological periodicals, specifically Archaeology and Biblical Archaeology Review magazines. In the subsequent phase of her formal education, her archaeological passion rose to a new level as she studied archaeology as part of working toward her Harvard degree. Dr. Katz has field experience in both the U.S. and Israel. During the summer after her first year of college, she participated in an archaeological field school in Flagstaff, Arizona, run by the Museum of Arizona and the University of Arizona. Dr. Katz had decided to excavate domestically at the time to acquire a sense of whether she wished to follow through her rising passion in anthropology and archaeology or to pursue her original interest in history. The archaeological pathway won, and Dr. Katz joined an excavation abroad the following summer under Levantine archaeologist Dr. Lawrence Stager in Ashkelon, Israel. She recalled that her
experience there was more archaeologically-rewarding relative to the Flagstaff excavation since she and other excavation participants excavated a greater quantity of pottery sherds.
In a sense, Dr. Katz’s field archaeology experience in Ashkelon marked the beginning of her current life work centered on ancient Israel. She considers ancient Israel to be her favorite civilization and explained that she has a sense of connection to Israel that is rooted in her Jewish background. Chronologically, Dr. Katz is primarily interested in Iron Age I (ca. 1200-980 B.C.E.). This interest in Iron I Israel, Dr. Katz explained, surrounds the circumstances of the time period: That in the aftermath of the turmoil around the eastern Mediterranean known as the Late Bronze Age (LB) collapse, the land of Israel existed in independence from foreign rulership and new states were forming in the region. Dr. Katz’s fascination with Iron I Israel is also relevant to the question how to relate archaeology to the Book of Judges and, more generally, to the Bible. In her view, Judges’ depiction of the southern Levant in Iron I gives archaeologists and biblical scholars a sense of the era’s culture. Specifically, Dr. Katz elaborates that the text reflects that political power prior to the southern Judahite and northern Israelite monarchies was grounded in kinship and in charismatic figures during challenging periods. When it comes to the broader issue of how to relate Levantine archaeology to the Bible, Dr. Katz sees a close, positive relationship between the two. Her sense of such a positive relationship leads her to neither be a minimalist nor a maximalist toward the Bible, seeing the Bible as one of many ancient texts that is archaeologically-informative because they shed light on past cultures, not because they provide historically-accurate narratives. For Dr. Katz, in her view, what she and other Levantine archaeologists do when they use the Bible to understand ancient Israel is analogous to how archaeologists studying Mayan culture would use Mayan written sources to study the Mayans of
As a professional archaeologist, her fieldwork has remained exclusively in Israel for a couple of reasons, while she maintains an interest in the broader ancient Near East. As a graduate student at UPenn, her advisor, Dr. Richard Zettler, had an interest in the ancient Near East beyond ancient Israel, and she had the opportunity to excavate in Syria under his guidance. However, Dr. Katz declined the offer because her primary focus already was on ancient Israel, and also, she made the decision for religious reasons because of the necessity to perform fieldwork on Saturdays and a lack of kosher food at the excavation site. Nevertheless, as she relayed this account, she added that she is very interested in visiting Syria at some point to see its places of archaeological significance.
In relation to modern Middle Eastern issues such as conflicts and antiquities looting, Dr. Katz said that she considers herself to be lucky in virtue of her ancient Israel focus, as she knows fellow archaeologists who are unable to carry out field archaeology elsewhere in the region because of regular conflicts. Our conversation continued to touch on the issue of looting in relation to the Oberlin Near East Study Collection (ONESC), the collection of ancient Near Eastern artifacts in the possession of Oberlin’s Department of Religion. It is a known fact, as archaeologist Dr. Jeffrey Blakely (OC 1974) under whose supervision I helped to curate the collection in 2017 has explained, some of the artifacts were acquired via the antiquities market in the years immediately following 1967 because the Six-Day War and the following years provided a window of time for tomb looting. Dr. Katz’s thoughts on the looted artifacts in the ONESC now devoid of provenance (locations of origin) and provenience (origins within a site) data are that Oberlin should keep them to promote interest in Near Eastern archaeology.
On personal memories, Dr. Katz touched on her favorite, unexpected archaeological experience. From 2012 to 2015, she supervised excavations in an area in Tell es-Safi, Area P, halfway up the tell (mound). Her particular objective in one of the seasons was to provide data on past plant specimens to Dr. Sue Frumin, a paleoethnobotanist on the Safi excavation staff. The project’s objective was to research “ecological imperialism” to determine whether the Iron I settlers of the city of Gath, the Philistines, introduced foreign plants to the region. Amazingly by accident, Dr. Katz and volunteers working under her direction found sizable stones that, upon further investigation, turned out to be a thick Early Bronze Age (ca. 3600-2000 B.C.E.) wall extending for fifteen meters. Even more specifically, chronologically, the wall dates to Early Bronze Age III (2900-2500 B.C.E.). Such a “great find” has led her to argue about the wall’s purpose. According to Dr. Katz, the wall relates to the essence of Early Bronze Age states: In other words, such a thick and long wall served as a way for the people of Gath to prove the power and capabilities they possessed. Dr. Katz is a singular pioneer and mentor to her YU students and Safi excavation
volunteers. She continues to add valuable information and insights to the body of knowledge regarding ancient Israel by triangulating her expertise, ancient texts, and the data she and her colleagues collect.
For more information about Dr. Katz’s teaching, publications, and research, see her faculty page and the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project’s staff page:
Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Dr. Blakely for clarifying the historical context and timeline of the tomb looting. I would also like to thank Julian Hirsch (OC 2020) for confirming with me that the Religion Department’s collection is now referred to as the Oberlin Near East Study Collection (ONESC).