By Rachael McGlensey
Half a century is a long time to be an archaeologist- but Nancy Lapp has been working for 50 years and then some. Born in 1930, Nancy has been engaging with the archaeology of Jordan and Palestine since 1957. In recent decades, her primary focus has been publishing volumes on the excavations directed by her husband Paul Lapp, which he was unable to publish himself due to his untimely death in 1970.
Fortunately, photographs do not take nearly as long to publish. Nancy Lapp recently donated the Lapps’ photographic collection to ACOR and over the past six months these images have been steadily digitized and published online by myself as Project Archivist, and my colleague Eslam Dawodieh, Digitization Intern. Given the long timespan of their photographs- from 1957 to 2002- the collection provides valuable insights into the field and how sites have changed over time. Their digitization, metadata creation, and online publication are part of the larger ACOR Photo Archive project, supported by a U.S. Department of Education Title VI grant since 2016. All photos presented here come from the Paul and Nancy Lapp collection at ACOR, unless otherwise noted.
The volumes Nancy has published have been incredibly valuable for understanding the history and archaeology of the Holy Land in Jordan and Palestine. In 1970, Paul tragically died in a swimming accident, leaving Nancy with five children and the majority of his excavations unpublished. This included sites such as Iraq al-Amir, Tell er-Rumeith, Bab edh-Dhra, and Tell Taanach/Ta’anak. She felt a huge responsibility to continue his work, saying “The publication of excavations that take place are an obligation to the academic world, an obligation to the country in which you are working, and an obligation to all those who have supported the work. I knew I must see to the publication of his excavations as I was able” (PTS lecture). A close colleague of Nancy’s confirms her dedication to this work: “I’m not sure I have met many other people who are so wholeheartedly committed to the people and places of Jordan and Palestine…the ethical commitment to publishing the results of research done in the sixties is admirable” (Morag Kersel, personal communication). Nancy’s research and publication of all of this excavation material has enabled countless scholars to use that information in their own studies and further advance ideas and knowledge about ancient society in the region.
Nancy’s contributions have not gone unacknowledged. In 2015, ASOR named their new award for Nancy: The Nancy Lapp Popular Book Award. Although her own excavation volumes might not fall under this category, she said: “They named the award after me because to write a good popular book about archaeology, you have to have done the technical research that lies behind it.”[i] And Nancy has certainly done that.
Nancy’s impact has not just been limited to scholarly publication. In March, she gave a public lecture at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, which is now available online (see below).[ii] As also remarked by Morag Kersel (personal communication), “She had that room full of some 150 people captivated. She’s an amazing storyteller…she had great anecdotes that were also filled with information. I can’t imagine she wasn’t a great instructor in the same way. Her enthusiasm for a life in archaeology came across so easily and so readily.”
Nancy Lapp did not initially set out to be an archaeologist. During her undergraduate studies, Nancy became intrigued by the study of the Old Testament. Her professors, George Ernest Wright and Frank Moore Cross, had studied under influential biblical archaeologist William Foxwell Albright and they encouraged Nancy to do the same. At Johns Hopkins University, Nancy became Albright’s first female student, as well as his secretary. During this time Albright also gained another student, whose mastery of both modern and ancient languages was immediately reported to the other students by an impressed and intimidated Nancy. As recounted in her lecture, this worrisome student turned out to be Paul Lapp, her future husband! They married after their first year together at Johns Hopkins and were described as a team from then on.
In 1957, Paul and Nancy joined the excavations at Tell Balata (biblical Shechem, present-day Nablus) to gain excavation experience. At Tell Balata, Paul was assigned to excavation work, while Nancy was assigned to object registration and pottery analysis, tasks that were at the time often considered ‘domestic’ women’s work. This sort of gender-biased task assignment was the norm when women first began to join excavations, but by the time Nancy entered the field, British women such as Kathleen Kenyon and Diana Kirkbride had been excavating in the Middle East for years with outstanding results. American women had been directing excavations in other areas of the Mediterranean, but Nancy claims that it was perceived as early days for them working in this region. Things started to change in the 1950s and early 1960s, however, and Nancy remembers that “quite a few of my women colleagues had their beginnings at Gezer or places like that,” working in the field under Wright (Interview with author, 2019).
Despite the fact that tasks such as object analysis were often assigned to women and regarded as not as important as actual digging, objects are crucial for understanding a site and its sociocultural settings. The material an object is made from may tell us if it was traded from far away. If we can figure out who used certain objects and who didn’t, it can indicate social stratification. Generations of ‘archaeologists’ wives’ undertaking this work highlight the truth in the phrase “Behind every great man there is a great woman.”[iii] Today, women command respect as archaeologists in their own right. Accomplishing tedious tasks like pottery sorting is now much appreciated, but women are able to choose their own path.
After the Suez crisis in 1956, there weren’t many tourists in the region. Mindful of the sensitive political climate which meant things could change at any moment, Nancy and Paul decided to travel after excavating in 1957 and “tried to see as much as they could as fast as they could” (PTS lecture).
When they weren’t traveling, the Lapps studied and worked at the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem (ASOR; today The W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research), and in 1960 Paul Lapp became Director there. With Nancy helping to share the burden of directorship, Paul instigated numerous digs in the Jordan Valley and West Bank, including work with other institutes – the British, French, and German. Nancy Lapp mentions that learning from the others was very important to them, in this “circle of scholarship,” as E.F. Campbell Jr. also called it.[i] Working at an institution like ASOR also connected the Lapps with some big names in scholarship, including Père Roland de Vaux, Martin Noth, and Kathleen Kenyon, all of whom Paul worked with at various points.
Like many of their contemporaries, Paul and Nancy Lapp identified themselves as biblical archaeologists, and Nancy provided the biblical as well as the present-day names for many of the sites in their photographic collection. But since ‘biblical archaeology’ is not a term used as commonly today, during my interview with Nancy, I was curious to hear Nancy’s thoughts on the reputation of biblical studies and archaeology. Nancy explained:
“This was a constant all through my career, [us] saying that we are not out to prove the Bible. Some churches are, and some archaeologists are, which is what really gets the headlines…But we were trying to understand the Bible, saying ‘Well how do we interpret the Bible, what’s its meaning?’ It’s not a literal book, it’s what the people were after, what people used to explain what they believe. So I would say it [‘biblical archaeology’] does get a bad rap, but it’s understandable too” (Interview with author, 2019).
After Paul stepped down as director in Jerusalem in 1965, he and Nancy continued to work, travel, and raise their children at ASOR. Nancy relates that they initially began taking photographs to record their travels like any tourist. They soon realized, however, that they would likely want to use their photographs for teaching – and use them they did. Many of their 35mm slides are marked up with various series of lecture numbers from multiple uses. Later in life Nancy used their slides to prepare tours she led in Jordan and Palestine.
In 1965, Paul first surveyed and then began excavation at the expansive Early Bronze Age cemetery of Bab edh-Dhra. He directed another season there in 1967, but after 1970 the project was taken over by Walter Rast and Tom Schaub, who was was first Paul’s and then Nancy’s student. That work expanded into what became known as the Expedition to the Dead Sea Plains Project (EDSP), and included several more Early Bronze Age sites southeast of the Dead Sea. David McCreery, former director of ACOR in Amman (1981–1988), was also a student of Nancy’s and assisted at EDSP and other excavations in Jordan. Nancy also assisted with several subsequent seasons of excavations, which is where a large portion of her photographs come from. Through EDSP alone, Nancy has touched generations of archaeologists. Directorship of the project has been transferred more recently to Meredith Chesson and Morag Kersel, both of whom got to know Nancy through this work. Kersel monitors the impact of looting at these sites. Photography is vitally important in documenting such activities and tracking its impact over time, as shown by aerial images of the increasingly pockmarked site of Feifa. The careful process of photography and documentation of artifacts and their contexts by archaeologists lies in direct contrast to the process of looting and deliberate destruction of heritage, which leaves little or no information behind.[v]
Since 1970, Nancy has taught at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and has served as Curator at the university’s Kelso Museum of Near Eastern Archaeology.The impact of a passionate teacher on students is incalculable. But when that passion is put into education through museum exhibitions, this can expand its impact enormously. Creating exhibits on her own excavation material would not only reach invested scholars, but also members of the public, especially if Nancy herself was on hand to provide additional insight. The museum website details its permanent exhibitions, many of which contain material from Paul and Nancy Lapp’s excavations.
Nancy Lapp never set out to be an archaeologist, which makes her dedication to the field all the more admirable. She and Paul “drifted into” the field at a time when such a thing was still possible, but their contributions have had a lasting impact. Between their two lively personalities and in-depth knowledge of sites, they undoubtedly inspired countless students. Their photographs provide a unique insight to both their professional and personal lives, as well as an insider’s look into an earlier era of archaeology.
Rachael McGlensey is Project Archivist for the ACOR Photo Archive Project between January-December 2019. She is from Pennsylvania and recently completed her MA degree in Museum and Artifact Studies at Durham University, UK. Read more about Rachael and her activities at ACOR here.
[ii] Lapp, N. March 2019, “Adventures and Discoveries from Half a Century of Life as an Archaeologist.” Lecture given at Pittsburgh Theological Society, Pittsburgh, PA, March 2019). Avaialble online at: https://www.pts.edu/Archaeology-Lectures, last accessed 20 June, 2019.
[iii] See Cohen, G.S. and Joukowsky, M.S. (eds.), 2004, Breaking Ground: Pioneering Women Archaeologists (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press), for analysis of the historical ‘great man’ narrative, and for biographies of some fantastic women archaeologists.
[iv] Campbell Jr., E.F. 1970. “Paul W. Lapp: In Memoriam,” The Biblical Archaeologist 33 (2), pp. 60-62.