Digging Tell en-Nasbeh, 1929

Between 1926 and 1935, American scholar William F Badè and his team unearthed the remains of a small town at the site of Tell en-Nasbeh in Mandate-era Palestine. Thought to be the biblical town of Mizpah, the site, which flourished c.1000-586 BC, yielded a great number of Iron Age, Babylonian period, and Persian period artefacts, among them lamps, ceramic vessels, and jewellery.

IMAGE: courtesy of the Badè Museum, Pacific School of Religion

Who did this digging? Besides the American staff, there were local labourers. Their work was seasonal, low-paid, and insecure. Men had a range of roles, while women mainly carried baskets, sifted dirt, and scoured the spoil heap for potsherds. Children also helped with various tasks, including excavating small spaces like tombs and cisterns.

Melissa Cradic and Samuel Pfister have picked through the excavation archives held by the Badè Museum of Biblical Archaeology at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California, to create an online exhibition that highlights the work of these local workers and the Egyptian foremen on Badè’s expedition. Many of the workers are nameless in the records unless credited for a specific task, but we do know the names of the foremen at the site, who were given the title reis (Arabic for foreman).

A number of Egyptian foremen, often from the town of Qift, had worked on excavations under Flinders Petrie and so were experienced supervisors. Badè’s foremen all came from Qift, including his head foremen Reis Berberi and Reis Abd-el Rahman, both of whom had worked for his associate Clarence Fisher at Megiddo (Armageddon). Despite Badè’s praise of their crucial role in his 1934 publication A Manual of Excavation in the Near East, none of the foremen were credited in the list of staff in the final excavation report.

With their previous training, the foremen skilfully performed more delicate tasks, such as clearing tombs and restoring pottery. In this 1929 image, one of the hand-coloured glass slides from the excavation, we see Reis Mahmoud Kureyim, the dig’s pottery-restoration specialist, at work outside the main expedition house El-Maloufiya, where the Egyptian foremen resided. (Local workers came in from their nearby homes and the Americans stayed in the town of Ramallah.) The slides were hand-painted by several different individuals commissioned by Badè for the task, likely starting from 1927. Kureyim is also seen piecing together a large jar with Reis Berberi in a film clip from the excavation, viewable in the online exhibition.

Unsilencing the Archives: the laborers of the Tell en-Nasbeh excavations (1926-1935) can be explored at https://storymaps.arcgis.com/collections/dc601d4d131145f88f828196860b8a44.