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Monday, 24 February 2020

The City of Akhetaten

The blog post for this week is written by Nick Mascall, an Egypt Centre volunteer with a keen interest in the Amarna Period.

In year 5 of his reign, Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten and commissioned many boundary stelae to mark out the formal borders of Akhetaten, his new capital city dedicated to the Aten. These stelae define a rough square with sides of about 20 km (about 12.5 miles) straddling the Nile halfway between Luxor to the south (the traditional religious capital) and Memphis to the north (the traditional administrative capital). Akhenaten claimed that the Aten itself selected the site, which had never held a temple to any other god, or been part of a temple estate, or owned by anyone except, ultimately, the king himself. Many suspect that the deciding factor was the way the mouth of the largest wadi (valley) in the eastern cliffs behind the site framed the rising sun, and reproduced the hieroglyph akhet—the horizon, or portal, and a symbol of rebirth. This wadi would become the site of the royal tombs.

Fig. 1: Painted plaster from the North Riverside Palace (W797)

Royal tombs were one of many things Akhenaten announced that he was going to build here, including two royal residences; one for the Pharaoh, one for the “Great Royal Consort”—which raises interesting questions about the domestic arrangements of the royal family. Other buildings are given portentous but (to our eyes) ambiguous titles, and seem to include what we now call the Great and Small Aten Temples, several others which have not to date been excavated or conclusively identified, and a “Sunshade” for the Great Royal Consort Nefertiti. “Sunshades”, their nature, identity and locations, are among the most contentious topics of Amarna scholarship (which is saying a lot). Apart from the boundary stelae, all the known remains of the city and its many outlying sites are in the desert bay on the eastern bank, surrounded by a wall of cliffs and steep slopes pierced in places by wadi mouths. The known tombs (less than 30) of the city’s elite are cut into this natural barrier in two groups, north and south, and the scenes on their walls are one of the richest resources we have regarding the appearance of the city and its buildings, and the daily lives of its inhabitants.

Fig. 2: Painted plaster from the North Riverside Palace (W801)

The city itself and its major outliers are arranged in a north-south strip along or not far from the river bank, connected by the broad and mainly straight “Royal Road” (a modern name), along which the royal family and the city’s elite rode in two-horse chariots, accompanied by running escorts (fig. 3). The “Central City” contained the gigantic Great Palace (about 200 x 580 metres), the “King’s House”, the two Aten Temples, and offices, storehouses, workplaces and barracks—all government buildings, including the “House of Life” and the so-called Records Office where the tablets known as the Amarna Letters were found. It also had streets of small and medium sized houses for clerks, mid-level government officials and perhaps junior priests and temple servants. Amazingly, almost all of this housing was built, occupied and then demolished and rebuilt on a slightly different alignment. You might be forgiven for thinking that Akhenaten’s builders had too much time on their hands, but there is a small mountain of evidence to show that this was definitely not the case.

Fig. 3: Chariot scene from the tomb of Meryre

The rest of the city consists mainly of housing—many small, closely clustered houses for poor people, and some large houses in large compounds for the elite. Interestingly, if you plot house size against frequency the result is a fairly smooth slope, rather than the stairstep pattern you might expect from a rigidly hierarchical social organisation. Social mobility of a sort seems to have existed at Amarna, and several of the tomb-wall texts praise the king for being willing to promote ‘from the lowest ranks’ on the basis of ability. On the other hand, those texts are also the most concentrated outpouring of extravagant and largely formal flattery which I have ever read.

Fig. 4: Painted plaster from the North Riverside Palace (W808)

Houses also appear to be loosely organised in quasi-feudal clusters, with a large house in a large compound bordered by smaller but still prestigious houses (for upper servants and estate officials?), and then by many smaller houses for the family workforce. All are built of sun-dried mudbricks conforming more or less closely to a standard size, with some stone fittings—more in the higher-status houses. Though it may seem primitive and impermanent, mudbrick works well in the Egyptian climate to this day, is easy and cheap to make, and lends itself to very fast construction. In ancient Egypt, it was used to construct almost every kind of building, excepting high-status tombs and temples, which were built from stone because they were intended to last for all eternity. Curiously and unusually, the main ceremonial parts of the Great Palace were also built of stone, whereas the other two identified palaces at Amarna were built in mudbrick, as usual.

Fig. 5: Painted plaster from the North Riverside Palace, depicting the elbow of the Pharaoh (W02)

Regarding these two other palaces, the North Riverside Palace, lying near the northern extremity of the site, is widely thought to have been where the royal family lived day-to-day, though very little of it survived to be excavated. We have in the Egypt Centre collection a fair selection of painted plaster fragments from its decoration, some of which were brought out for the handling session (figs. 1–2, 4–5). It was a revelation to see these under better lighting, even though I’ve been looking at some of them every week for years now since they are on display in the Amarna case in the House of Life. The other known palace is the North Palace, lying between the North Riverside Palace and the city’s North Suburb (fig. 6). This modest structure (a mere 112 x 142 metres) was clearly intended for the use of a single member of the royal family, perhaps Kiya (a subsidiary royal wife) and then Meritaten, the eldest princess and future queen. As a whole, it is one of the most complete and easily readable plans we have for a New Kingdom palace.

Fig. 6: Reconstruction of the chapel T36.11 at Amarna (by Nick Mascall) 

This unavoidably brief account cannot begin to do justice to the scope, variety and richness of the site. It is not just the most complete and accessible ancient Egyptian city that survives, but because it was built, occupied, and abandoned within 15 to 20 years it is an archaeological snapshot of a New Kingdom city, far easier to interpret than most other such sites that have been overbuilt again and again over millennia. That it was also the centre of one of the most remarkable episodes in Egyptian and world history is just the icing on the cake.

Readers to this blog may be interested in supporting the Amarna Project by donating to their gofundme page, which includes the opportunity to have your name written on a block within the Great Aten Temple!

Bomann, A. H. (1991) The private chapel in ancient Egypt: a study of the chapels in the Workmen’s Village at El Amarna with special reference to Deir el Medina and other sites. Studies in Egyptology. London; New York: Kegan Paul International Ltd.
Frankfort, H. and J. D. S. Pendlebury (1933) The city of Akhenaten. Part II: The north suburb and the desert altars. The excavations at Tell el Amarna during the seasons 1926–1932. MEES 40. London: Egypt Exploration Society.
Kemp, B. J. (2013) The City of Akhenaten and Nefertiti: Amarna and Its People. London: Thames & Hudson.
Pendlebury, J. D. S. (1951) The City of Akhenaten. Part III: The Central City and the Official Quarters. The Excavations at Tell el-Amarna during the Season 1926–1927 and 1931–1936. 2 vols. ExcMem 44. London: Egypt Exploration Society.
Wegner, J. (2017) The Sunshade Chapel of Meritaten from the House-of-Waenre of Akhenaten. University Museum monograph 144. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
Williamson, J. (2016). Nefertiti’s sun temple: a new cult complex at Tell el-Amarna, 2 vols. Harvard Egyptological Studies 2. Leiden; Boston: Brill.

Monday, 17 February 2020

The Mysterious World of Akhenaten

The blog post for this week is written by Marlene McGairl, an Egypt Centre volunteer for over twenty years.

Amenhotep IV, son of Amenhotep III and Tiye, ruled Egypt in the Eighteenth Dynasty. He was a mysterious person known as the “Heretic”. He was strange in his activities and his appearance. Depictions of him in sculpture show him in a hideous, exaggerate style, with long, sharp features and curious feminine characteristics–large hips and bosom (fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Statue of Akhenaten in Luxor Museum

In year 5, he changed his name to Akhenaten and began abolishing the cult of Amun. For political and religious reasons he gave pre-eminence to the cult and worship of the sun-disc, Aten. He founded Akhetaten, the present day Tell el-Amarna. Here, together with his wife Nefertiti and six daughters, he celebrated the cult of the Aten. A new aspect of the Aten is shown with the rays of the sun, each ending in hands which give life to the King (fig. 2). He called himself the First Prophet of Re-Horakhty. After this, he unleashed a violent offensive against most of the gods of Egypt, especially Amun, the “Hidden One”, and his associated deities. He dispatched teams of workmen to disfigure the statues of deities and to hammer out and erase every mention of the word “god” in the plural.

Fig. 2: The royal family offering to the Aten

Akhenaten was fond of his family, with the “Window of Appearance” being a common motif in which the King, Nefertiti, and sometimes their daughters show themselves to the populace and distribute gold rings to deserving favourites below. The beautiful relief in the tomb of Meryre at Amarna depicts the royal family riding in their chariots (fig. 3). Incidentally, from the time of Amenhotep III, customs decreed that only princesses were to be given prominence. It was rare to find even a mention of the prince who was to become Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten. For the moment there was only one god: “Sole Lord, taking capture of all lands every day. As one, beholding those that walk therein”.

Fig. 3: The royal family in their chariots at Amarna

The objects examined this week related to the reigns of Amenhotep III and Akhenaten. Two of them have already been highlighted in this blog and so only require a brief comment. W154 is a fragment of sandstone, originally part of a statue depicting Akhenaten carrying an offering tray. VAD29 is a turquoise blue faience ring bezel with the name of Akhenaten, which was excavated by the EES at Amarna. The earliest object (W230c) we examined contained part of the name Nebmaatre (Amenhotep III), which has a beautiful blue faience paste set within a white matrix (fig. 4). We discussed possible uses for this object, without coming to any conclusion. While it is slightly curved at the back, the curvature does not seem to suggest that it was part of a kohl tube, like other known examples. We know the object was purchased by Sir Henry Wellcome in 1924 from the collection of Richard Bethell, who featured in week 1 of this course. However, the object can perhaps be traced further back to the collection of the Reverend William MacGregor on account of the number (1465) written on the side.

Fig. 4: Faience inlay with the cartouche of Amenhotep III (W230c)

W960 is three fragments of an amphora glued together, which have a wine docket inscribed upon them in hieratic. The inscription apparently reads as “Year 12, (sweet) wine of the house [i.e. estate] of … of the Western River, vineyard supervisor…” (fig. 5). It is likely that this object was excavated by the EES at Amarna, although it has not been linked to the find slips thus far. It is interesting that this wine was produced in year 12 of Akhenaten’s reign since we know that he celebrated his great “Durbar”. During this time, many foreign dignitaries visited Egypt, with copious amounts of wine clearly being drunk. In fact, many wine dockets dating to year 12 are known from Amarna (Wahlberg 2011).

Fig. 5: Wine docket dating to year 12 (W960)

The final object for discussion was the second of four broad collars in the collection, all of which were purchased by Sir Henry Wellcome in 1923 from the collection of Ellinor Frances Berens. In week one of this course, we examined the first of these collars, W11. These collars were allegedly found at Amarna during the 1880s, when the royal tombs were looted by locals. W8 consists of five rows of multi-coloured beads of different types, ending at the front with hanging amulets. The forms derived from flowers (rosettes, cornflowers, lotus-seed vessels, nasturtium seeds); from the animal world (fish baboon, heart, eye); the divine (goddesses holding papyrus sceptres, Bes, and Taweret); and inanimate objects (feather, fan, drop beads, bulla-vessel). Bosse Griffiths (2001, 29) noted that the careful selection of amulets suggests strongly that the collars were destined for the burial of a girl, possibly a princess. To judge from their shape, they lie best in a half circle, as if to be lain on top of the breast of a mummy.

Fig. 6: Broad collar (W8)

Bosse-Griffiths, K. (2001) ‘Bead collars with Amarna amulets in the Wellcome Collection of the University College, Swansea’. In Amarna Studies and other Selected Papers, ed. J. G. Griffiths. Freiburg (Schweiz); Göttingen: Universitätsverlag; Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. 27–30.
Redford, D. B. (1984) Akhenaten: The heretic king. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Reeves, N. (2001) Akhenaten: Egypt’s false prophet. London: Thames & Hudson.
Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge (1924) Catalogue of Egyptian, Greek, Roman & Babylonian antiquities, etc., comprising first and second day’s sale the collection of Egyptian antiquities, formed by the Hon. R. Bethell, third day’s sale the property of Captain Anthony Hamilton ..., part of the collection formed by the late Gustave Natorp, an Egyptian bronze solar boat for processional use, the collection formed by the late Joseph Offord, the property of H. Edwin, a bronze head of Athena wearing helmet, the property of Edward F. Elton and other properties; which will be sold by auction by Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge ... on Monday, 15th of December, 1924, and two following days. London: Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge.
Wahlberg, E.-L. (2012) The wine jars speak. A text study. MA Thesis, Uppsala. Available at:

Saturday, 8 February 2020

The Rediscovery of Amarna: Early explorers, Explosions, and Really Big Pots!

The post for this week is written by Sam Powell, an MA student of Egyptology and an Egypt Centre volunteer, who has previously contributed to this blog.

For week two of the Amarna handling class, we looked at the rediscovery of Amarna, including early visitors and the various excavations that have taken place at the site. I was fascinated to see the differing interpretations of Amarna depending on the interpreter and the assumptions made; for example, one of the earliest European explorers Claude Sicard (1677–1726) viewed the images of Akhenaten and Nefertiti on the boundary stela at Tuna el-Gebel as priests due to his religious background.

Fig. 1: Faience bead (AB70)

We had the opportunity to look at several objects this week, including a faience bead in the form of a double cartouche of Akhenaten (AB70), a flint sickle blade (W1380), some Amarna pottery (EC214 and W176c–d), and a very unusual item (W1077a) that proved to be the favourite of both classes. The faience bead was found by Petrie at Abydos in 1901–1902, with a more complete parallel in the Art Institute of Chicago (X38).

Fig. 2: Flint from a sickle blade (W1380)

W1077a, which is shaped like a giant acorn, is made of pottery. It is slightly damaged at the “stem” and is embossed with a raised pattern. My group had a lot of fun guessing the possible uses of the object (although those in the group who volunteer in the Egypt Centre already knew the answer since we have two on display in the House of Life!). The item is actually thought to be a “hand grenade” dating to the time of the Crusades (Avissar & Stern 2005, 119–121). The vessels would be filled with “Greek fire” before being utilised. At least two of these grenades were found at Amarna by the Egypt Exploration Society.

Fig. 3: Grenade (W1077a)

My favourite objects were definitely the examples of “Palace ware” or “Festival ware” (EC214 and W176c–d). We have quite a few examples of this in the Egypt Centre collection. I’ve become a fan of this particular pottery type in the last few months whilst helping in the stores and spending some time with W193. Back in September 2019, I assisted with the moving the vessel to the new store (see the blog post by Molly Osborne). I was also on site when Phil Parkes and Ashley Lingle-Meeklah from Cardiff University came to assess the vessel for potential conservation. Ashley returned last Friday (31 January) to treat the vessel before transporting it to Cardiff University’s conservation labs where it will be desalinated to remove the build-up of salt on the vessel. She made a fantastic time-lapse video of the process and will be providing us with regular updates—although seeing it dismantled does make me feel a bit ill after we carefully transported it across campus!

Fig. 4: Examining some blue-painted pottery (W176c–d)

The pieces we looked at this week were really beautiful despite their fragmentary form (some of the vessels were huge given the circumference suggested by the sherds), and the colours must have been magnificent when originally painted. The typical colours used are cobalt blue, red, and black, and typically include designs and motifs that reflect nature. This type of pottery has been suggested as being produced at royal residences, or as being made specifically for use during festivals.

Fig. 5: Blue-painted pottery from Amarna (W176c–d)

As always, I am very grateful for the opportunity to include object handling in these classes. It really helps to bring the past to life and allows you to feel connected to the time period you are studying. Thank you once again to the Egypt Centre for these fantastic sessions.

Avissar, M. and E. J. Stern (2005) Pottery of the Crusader, Ayyubid and Mamluk periods in Israel. Israel Antiquities Authority Reports 26. Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority.
 Hope, C. A. (1991) ‘Blue-painted and polychrome decorated pottery from Amarna’. Cahiers de la céramique égyptienne 2: 105–118.
——— (1991) ‘Blue-painted and polychrome decorated pottery from Amarna: a preliminary corpus’. Cahiers de la céramique égyptienne 2: 17–93.

Monday, 3 February 2020

The Amarna Period through the Egypt Centre Collection

This past Thursday, I started my new course entitled The Amarna Period through the Egypt Centre. The ten-week course consists of PowerPoint lectures (first hour) briefly summarising the various aspects of the Amarna Period under discussion, followed by a handling session (second hour) of five–six objects in the Egypt Centre collection (fig. 1). The Egypt Centre has over 300 items from Amarna, many of which were excavated by the Egypt Exploration Society (EES) in the 1920s and 1930s. Over the next ten weeks, this blog will present objects from the classes. While this week’s post is written by me, subsequent entries will be written by different members of the class, some of whom are Swansea University students, Egypt Centre volunteers, and members of the public. As their knowledge and learning abilities vary, the posts will likely present quite different perspectives on the classes. Since these differences and views are valued, the entries will undergo as little editing as possible!

Fig. 1: The class admiring the bust of Nefertiti

For the first session, we had an outline of the course followed by a brief introduction to the major characters of the Amarna Period. Five objects were selected for the handling session, with the full size replica of Nefertiti’s bust being the star attraction. W1011 (fig. 2) was purchased by George Kerferd (1915–1998) sometime around 1960. At the time, Kerferd was Professor of Classics at Swansea and had started a small teaching collection for the Department (Griffiths 2000, 6). The original bust of Nefertiti was discovered on the 6th December 1912 at Amarna by the German excavation team headed by Ludwig Borchardt. Now in Berlin (ÄM 21300), the bust is perhaps the most well-known depiction of an ancient Egyptian woman. However, while it is considered an archetype of female beauty, we cannot be sure that Nefertiti actually looked like this. As with all Egyptian art, representations were idealised and stylised. It seems probable that the bust in Swansea was made from the Berlin original by the sculptor Tina Wentcher (born Ernestine Haim). She produced a number of replicas in the years following World War I and there are now many examples scattered throughout the world.

Fig. 2: Bust of Nefertiti (W1011)

Another popular object during the session was W11 (fig. 3), one of four broad collars in the Egypt Centre collection, which will all be featured over the coming weeks. These four collars were allegedly acquired by Ellinor Frances Berens (1842–1924) in the 1880s, shortly after the royal tombs at Amarna were being pillaged (Blackman 1917, 45–46). They were later purchased by Sir Henry Wellcome in 1924 (lots 66–69). However, the evidence for their having coming from the Amarna tombs remains circumstantial. Broad collars seem to have been a common feature of Egyptian dress, although it is unusual to find collars with the thread still intact. Often dealers made up collars with beads from a variety of sources and of different dates, something that possibly occurred with ours. However, the beads do seem to date to the same period, the Eighteenth Dynasty, which reinforces the idea that the thread is genuine (Bosse-Griffiths 2001). In addition, the thread is linen, which is what the ancient Egyptians used whereas modern forgers tended to use cotton. We have considered having the thread radiocarbon dated, but this would destroy a small part of it. Additionally, if the thread were found to be ancient, this still would not prove that the collars were not made up in Victorian times.

Fig. 3: Broad collar (W11)

W962 is a small fragment of a blue glazed composition throwstick, which is decorated on either side with cartouches of Akhenaten next to wadjet-eyes (fig. 4). Given that the throwstick is made out of a glazed composition (faience), it could not have been functional. Instead, it must have been symbolic or intended for the afterlife. According to Stevens (2006, 18), over twenty fragments of faience throwsticks have been found at Amarna. A complete example in the British Museum (BM EA 34213), which was apparently found by locals in the royal tomb at Amarna, suggests that the end would have had decoration showing a lotus-flower (Martin 1974, pl. 51 [301]. The overall design of the throwstick and decoration upon faience examples changed over time (Pinch 1993, 295). Amarna throwsticks have a more shallow curve than earlier ones, perhaps suggesting that they had ceased to be an object for actual hunting. W962 appears to have been part of the collection of Richard Bethell (1883–1929), which was purchased by Wellcome in 1924 (lot 373). Bethell was Howard Carter’s personal secretary, who assisted in the excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun (Bierbrier 2019, 49).

Fig. 4: Throwstick fragment (W962)

The final two objects are fragments of faience ring bezels, which were part of the EES excavations at Amarna in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1976, the EES transferred a large group of objects from their excavations, including Amarna, to the British Museum, who in turn offered some of them to Swansea in 1978. Ring bezels with cartouches were introduced by Amenhotep III and remained popular until the end of the New Kingdom (Shannon 1987; Shaw 1984). In fact, W1160q contains part of the name Nebmaatre, which is the prenomen of Amenhotep III (Fig. 5). The second bezel, W1060k, has part of the name Neferkheperure-waenre, the prenomen of Akhenaten (Fig. 6). Further searching of the EES object cards from Amarna will hopefully help identify the actual excavation numbers and findspots!

Fig. 5: Ring bezel of Amenhotep III (W1160q)
Fig. 6: Ring bezel of Akhenaten (W1160k)

Bierbrier, M. L. (2019) Who was who in Egyptology. London: The Egypt Exploration Society. 5th edition.
Blackman, A. M. (1917) ‘The Nugent and Haggard Collections of Egyptian Antiquities’. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 4, 1: 39–46.
Bosse-Griffiths, K. (2001) ‘Bead collars with Amarna amulets in the Wellcome Collection of the University College, Swansea’. In Amarna Studies and other Selected Papers, ed. J. G. Griffiths. Freiburg (Schweiz); Göttingen: Universitätsverlag; Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. 27–30.
Griffiths, J. G. (2000) ‘Museum efforts before Wellcome’. Inscriptions: The Newsletter of the Friends of the Egypt Centre, Swansea 5: 6.
Martin, G. T. (1974) The rock tombs of El-‘Amarna. Part 7: The Royal Tomb at El-‘Amarna 1, the objects Archaeological Survey of Egypt 35. London: Egypt Exploration Society.
Pinch, G. (1993) Votive offerings to Hathor. Oxford: Griffith Institute, Ashmolean Museum.
Shannon, E. (1987) ‘Bezels with royal names from the Workmen’s Village 1979–1986’. In Amarna reports IV, ed. B. J. Kemp. Egypt Exploration Society, Occasional Publications 5. London: Egypt Exploration Society. 154–159.
Shaw, I. (1984) ‘Ring bezels at el-Amarna’. In Amarna reports I, ed. B. J. Kemp. Egypt Exploration Society, Occasional Publications 1. London: Egypt Exploration Society. 124–132.
Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge (1924) Catalogue of Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek & Roman antiquities, &c.: comprising the collection formed by H. Griebert, Esq. of Berkeley House, Finchley Road, N.W.; including Egyptian amulets, and figures in pottery, silver and bronze; Greek vases, etc.; the property of Mrs. J. Waugh; the property of Sir Henry Paul Harvey, K.C.M.G.; the Berens collection of Babylonian tablets, the property of Mrs. Randolph Berens, of 14, Princes Gardens, S.W.; a fine Græco-Roman marble head of Heracles from the collection of the late Carl Brownlow at Ashbridge, and other properties, including Roman bronze work, Peruvians and Græco-Phœnician gold ornaments, etc.; which will be sold by auction by Messrs.
Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge ... on Thursday, the 28th of February, 1924. London: Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge.
Stevens, A. (2006) Private Religion at Amarna. BAR International Series 1587. Oxford: Archaeopress.