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Where we are with Amarna
Barry Kemp , Chairman of the Amarna Trust, gives an overview of work at this important site, in anticipation of a series of articles that will appear in AE next year.
Amarna(Tell el-Amarna) seems to be famous in the first place because it gives its name to the short period of history when Pharaoh Akhenaten tried to change the official religion of his society – towards monotheism – and introduced startling images of himself and of members of his family: thus the Amarna Period. It is the place where the famous painted bust of Nefertiti was found. It can be claimed (but not proved) that Tutankhamun was born there.
The view from the northern cliffs. The ruined building is the old Pendlebury dig house, site of Mary Chubb’s account of dig life in the 1930s, Nefertiti Lived Here.
Although the Amarna Period is popular amongst people who are drawn to ancient Egypt, relatively few of them go to Amarna itself. Middle Egypt is not well set up for the tourist trade and has a reputation for being a difficult and perhaps even dangerous place to visit. Most people experience the Amarna Period through books and museum objects. Those who do visit it discover that the main places of interest are sparsely distributed across a desert landscape that requires much travel time. It is virtually impossible to visit all the sites in a single day. The most informative of them are the two sets of decorated tombs, one of the boundary stelae and the royal tomb. None is a modern discovery. So even on the ground most people remain unconnected to the archaeology that has been going on there intermittently for a century. I have been directing an archaeological mission at the site for the last thirty years. Its main focus has been the city that lies at the heart of Amarna, but is so ruined that few even of the visitors who make it to Amarna see much of it. The main story it has to tell concerns not Akhenaten himself but the lives of the people who followed him to Amarna and of those who were born and
The tourist experience: racing across the site of the city to the tombs.
died there. Our archaeology is the Amarna Period seen from below. Each of the next six issues of ANCIENT EGYPT will present a part of this view.
1. Amarna’s genesis: how the city came about, through a combination of the king’s vision and chains of loyalty and obligation that affected the lives of thousands of people. Ancient Egyptian society was built around relationships between patrons – the high officials – and clients, the myriad of people who held minor offices or who laboured at skilled and unskilled work. The move of Akhenaten’s officials to Amarna set in chain a major migration of those who had little choice but to follow.
2. The people of Amarna:their physical condition. Until recently we have known little about where most of those who died at Amarna were buried. Now we have a major cemetery and two seasons of excavation. Progress is slow because of the importance and delicacy of the human remains. But already they are telling a startling tale of hardship.
3. Where they lived: what kind of a city was Amarna? Throughout, from residential suburbs to the royal quarter in the centre of the city, Amarna hovered between grand statement and village scale. This came about not so much because Akhenaten was in a hurry, but rather it reflects limits that lay in the
ANCIENTEGYPTDecember 2007/January 2008 The start of the cemetery dig in 2007. The trench of 2006 lies in front. This shallow bank of sand preserves a precious record of Amarna’s population and of the harsh circumstances of their lives.
Egyptian mind as to what cities should look like and what architecture could achieve. The layout of the city bears a marked resemblance to ‘informal’ settlements that spring up around the world today where government control is weak, and this casts an interesting light on the aspirations of government in ancient Egypt.
The end of a rod of glass intended for use in the making of small glass objects. The flat end preserves the mark of the glassmaker's tongs. It comes not from a factory but from déébris scattered amongst small houses.
5. Religion for all? The people and Akhenaten. Akhenaten set his sights on a refined and lofty definition of god. The cult of the Aten that he developed owed much to traditional practices, however. One of these involved the pious gesture of offering food that was subsequently distributed to the living. Akhenaten seems to have taken this to an extreme, which raises the possibility that this aspect of his religion was consciously developed for wider public benefit. For the citizens, both high officials and commoners, the cult of the Aten was not a substitute for the spirits and magical practices that helped to protect home and family. These continued to flourish to the extent that Amarna is the best archaeological source we have for domestic religion in ancient Egypt.
Excavation of the house of Ranefer, to reveal the earlier and smaller house that lay underneath the floors. Even within its short life the city did not remain static.
4. Working with their hands:the city as workshop. The evidence for small-scale ‘cottage’ industry is extensive, and often the evidence suggests that there was little zoning of particular crafts. The whole city can come across as one vast, loosely organised workshop serving the court. The variety of crafts pursued on a tiny scale has been illustrated by the excavation of a group of houses in 2004 and 2005.
Jaws of cattle recovered from the house of the high priest Panehsy, beside the Great Aten Temple. But this was a meat ration intended for whom?
ANCIENTEGYPTDecember 2007/January 2008