Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Excavating Amarna September 27, 2006

Barry Kemp tells about recent work and discoveries at the royal city of the pharaoh Akhenaten.

Beginning in November, Philadelphia will host "Amarna, Ancient Egypt's Place in the Sun," a new exhibition at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology that will focus on the royal city of Amarna built by the pharaoh Akhenaten, which was Tut's childhood home. (And, in February, the Tutankhamun exhibition comes to the Franklin Institute.)


ARCHAEOLOGY spoke about recent excavations and discoveries at Amarna with Barry Kemp, who has since 1977 directed the Amarna Project, which includes an expedition of the Egypt Exploration Society in association with the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt. The Amarna Project is supported by the Amarna Trust, a UK registered charity. Kemp is a Professor of Egyptology at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of the British Academy. His books include Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilisation (2nd edition 2005), Think Like an Egyptian: 100 Hieroglyphs, and How to read the "Egyptian Book of the Dead" (forthcoming).

What evidence do we have for why Akhenaten chose this place for his new capital? And because it was created from scratch, how does Amarna compare to other Ancient Egyptian cities such as Karnak, Thebes, and Memphis?

A series of large tablets or stelae carved in the face of the cliffs behind Amarna (and across the other side of the river) record the foundation of Amarna in Akhenaten's own words. He was simply led there by his god, the Aten. That is not a good enough reason for us; we want a more rational explanation (perhaps misguidedly). He called the place "Horizon of the Aten" and it has become fashionable to see the silhouette of the cliffs behind Amarna, cut in the middle by more than one deep valley, as a natural representation of the Egyptian hieroglyph for "horizon," but this may be modern fancy. You can find similar silhouettes at other places. He wanted his city to be on ground that had not belonged to any person or god beforehand. Amarna does seem to have met this criterion. It was also important that it was in the east, the place of sunrise. It happens to be roughly halfway between Memphis and Thebes, but we cannot know if this convenience factor contributed to his choice.

In the New Kingdom Memphis and Thebes and their temples (Karnak in the case of Thebes) were extensively rebuilt, in large part on new ground. Sadly we still know very little about the plans of these cities and so a comparison with Amarna is scarcely possible outside the confines of the temple enclosures.


Image of houses of poorer people, excavated in 2005: Here they not only lived but labored in the tiny spaces on a range of crafts, including making small glass and glazed objects, melting down scrap bronze, and making stone implements. (Courtesy Barry J. Kemp) [LARGER IMAGE]

What happened to the city after Akhenaten's death? Have you found evidence that suggests inhabitants tried to stay there instead of returning to Memphis or Thebes, or was it abandoned completely?

Sufficient written material has been found over the years to suggest that Amarna continued to function as a full city into the reign of Tutankhamun. Earlier excavators also found traces of what had probably been a small shrine with the name of Horemheb in the enclosure of the Great Aten Temple. It was in his reign, however, that the thorough demolition of the stone buildings began, accompanied by taking the stones off the site altogether to be used as building material elsewhere. How the ordinary inhabitants viewed the situation we cannot tell. In many or most cases they would have been tied to the households of the king's officials and so the decision to stay or leave would not have been theirs. Moreover, once the royal administration had left it would have been difficult to keep a significant population supplied. The city had no natural reason to be there. An excavation in 1922, in a part of the site now covered by the modern village of el-Hagg Qandil, close to the river, uncovered buildings and debris that belong to a continuation of occupation into the later New Kingdom. This supplies a valuable comparison to how any other parts of Amarna should look had they been occupied for significantly longer. This part remains exceptional. It must have become a local self-sustaining riverbank village or small town.

Does the abandonment of the city after a single generation increase its value, making it a sort of time capsule compared to cities that were inhabited over long periods?

Yes. This is Amarna's great value to archaeology. Even so, a lot could happen within a single generation. Buildings were changed, rubbish accumulated, giving Amarna the stratigraphic look characteristic of archaeological sites generally. But all the evidence continues to point to a brief occupation. As a result distribution patterns can be analyzed with a greater degree of confidence than is often the case.

Is there evidence of a different social stratification in Amarna as opposed to the previous capital? How did the city's economy differ from other those of other Egyptian capital cities? i.e. were there more/less farmers? more/less bureaucrats? more/less taxes? more/less military?

The question is virtually unanswerable because of the continuing lack of comparative material from other places. The kind of administration that Akhenaten relied upon looks traditional, but it has left virtually no written archives behind that deal with the internal affairs of the country. A major uncertainty is the role of the Aten temples in the city's economy. They were provided with a quite exceptional number of offering-tables--hundreds of them--and it is tempting to see them as part of a major distribution of food to the city. But even if this were so, it would be impossible to make a quantified comparison with the previous period. People have commented upon the prominent place that soldiers have in the scenes that show the life of the king. This fits what seems to be a growing role for the military in the New Kingdom. It should be remembered that the ones who benefited from the failure of Akhenaten's plans were the military and not the priests. The failure opened the way for the takeover of the country by a military family from the Delta, the house of Sety and Rameses. To what extent Akhenaten's reign was pivotal in this development is impossible to say.

The middle- and upper-class houses have been described as more like country estates rather than the town house design found in major cities such as Thebes. What does this more relaxed or leisurely structure say about how Akhenaten ruled?

This picture is probably an illusion. On the one hand, parts of Amarna were densely built-up, even restricting the space occupied by houses of the wealthier people. It was probably also common for the houses to be built upwards, to more than one storey. On the other hand, since Memphis and Thebes themselves expanded greatly during the New Kingdom it is quite likely that they took on a more open appearance than they had in previous eras. But until we have more direct evidence from these places even something as fundamental as this comparison remains largely a conjecture.

Does the archaeology--village planning, house construction, and artifacts--indicate the workmen's lives at Amarna differed greatly from the workmen's lives at Deir el-Medina?

Deir el-Medina is remarkably well documented but only for the Ramesside period. Deir el-Medina of the 18th Dynasty is not well understood. The workmen's village at Amarna bears an obvious close resemblance to Deir el-Medina in layout and the majority of its artifacts, but the extent to which one can project the elaborate social and religious life of Ramesside Deir el-Medina on to the Amarna village is a matter of personal conviction. Can one even reliably project it on to Deir el-Medina itself of the 18th Dynasty? "Workmen's lives" is also a phrase that could encompass most of the people who lived in the city. Their lives are likely to have been dominated by client-patron relationships centered on the houses of "officials" that were frequently embedded amongst the smaller house. This might have given their lives a character somewhat different from those that we are familiar with from Ramesside Deir el-Medina.


This year's excavation was the first in a cemetery of poorer inhabitants at Amarna. They took few things with them. Here the braided hair of one has survived well. (Courtesy Barry J. Kemp) [LARGER IMAGE]

What have excavations in the cemetery where Amarna's poorer inhabitants were buried revealed?

We have only just started. There could be years ahead for the project. The main revelation is that a fair proportion of the hundreds, perhaps low thousands of people who died at Amarna were buried locally, and their bodies were left there when the city was abandoned. In the section we have exposed so far the burials were poorly equipped, with few artifacts, cheap pottery, and probably no mummification. The burial customs of the ordinary people of the New Kingdom are not well documented. Although our cemetery has been robbed (probably not long after the period of burial) it will provide a welcome addition to knowledge on burial customs. There is already a sign that "family" traditions of orientation were developing. But the main bonus lies in the human bones. They represent a real population of people alive at more or less the same time. Many must have known each other in life. The study of the bones that has started will in time give a profile of a New Kingdom urban population that will be hard to better. Already it tells a somber story: of hard and short lives, more so than one would have expected from the capital city at the peak of ancient Egypt's prosperity.

Does the increased focus on new art styles during the Amarna period and the discovery of sculptors' workshops at the site suggest there were more artisans here or a larger part of the city was dedicated to art production than at other capitals? Or could this simply reflect the fact that the archaeological record at other cities was more disturbed by later building over the centuries or may still lie beneath modern buildings?

Again, comparison with other places is impossible. The evidence is not there. Akhenaten inherited the sculptors of his father's reign who were able to work on a large scale to a remarkably high level of sensitivity in hard stones. He benefited from this. On the other hand, it is clear that he had an insufficient number of skilled relief artists. The standard of carving on wall blocks from Amarna varies greatly, some of the work being of poor quality. The number of locatable sculptor's workshops at Amarna is not particularly large. They form part of a broad pattern of evidence to suggest that the whole city was one loosely organized workshop serving the court. It is hard to think that other major cities (and there would have been only a few at any one time) did not have this character. But only more archaeology at other places will help to answer the question.

Elsewhere in Egypt, rising ground-water levels and too many tourists are threatening ancient monuments. What is the situation at Amarna?

There is a modest ground-water threat but not as bad as at many sites. There is continuing interest amongst the local communities to expand cultivation and the local cemeteries, sometimes at the expense of the archaeology. So far the Egyptian government antiquities inspectorate has been generally successful in holding the line. Tourists, when they come to Amarna, are strictly controlled by the police and so have no scope to wander freely. The numbers do not overwhelm the monuments that they do visit. The perception that Middle Egypt warrants extra security precautions for foreign visitors undoubtedly regulates numbers and, in a way, helps to protect the site. On the other hand, an increase in visitors also stimulates all concerned to make sure that the site is not neglected and can have, therefore, a beneficial effect. The new Amarna site museum currently under construction on the riverbank at el-Till is likely to encourage more visitors.


An important part of the expedition's work is repairing the crumbling brickwork of buildings excavated in the last century. Here the rear part of the North Palace at Amarna has seen a program of repair applied to the brickwork, and a replacement of a lost stonework platform (its outline preserved by its foundations). (Courtesy Barry J. Kemp) [LARGER IMAGE]

Currently, conservation and repair work are being done on the crumbled brickwork. Are there plans to do more advanced reconstruction work?

I am not sure what you mean by "advanced." The new museum will contain a full-scale replica of one of the houses, made in modern materials, but that will remain exceptional. Everyone with responsibility for mud-brick sites faces a dilemma. Doing nothing is a quiet formula for destruction to continue. But is restoration better than reburial? In some cases where walls stand to some height in buildings that cover a lot of ground reburial is not feasible and then some basic consolidation is called for. At Amarna there are hundreds of houses exposed by excavation, all crumbling away. I am still not sure what the best solution is, and the scale of any solution that addressed the problem fully would significantly alter the appearance of the site. Yet simply leaving it is not a way to keep the site as it is. The decay is inexorable. It is a constant worry.

What specific research goals are you pursuing at the site today?

The overall research themes of the Amarna Project are:

  • Defining city life--the place of Amarna in the evolution from village to the kind of city that we are familiar with--Amarna as exemplar of the "pre-preindustrial city"

  • Defining material culture--the role of things in people's lives: making them, acquiring them, investing them with meaning, disposing of them

  • Defining spiritual landscape--the grand ideas of Akhenaten on the one hand, and the homely supports of domestic, private religion on the other

Did Akhenaten's actions--changing the religion, promoting new artistic style, and moving the capital--affect the everyday lives of Egyptians?

The lives of the people of Amarna were dramatically changed by the move to a new location, probably not a convenient or inviting one. It was a bleak strip of desert they had to colonize. The impact that his religion had upon them is one of the Project's research themes. At one end lie the Aten temples and their strange obsession with offering-tables. Are they a sign that a greater degree of public benefit was in Akhenaten's mind? The idea is quite attractive but hard to prove, the evidence in part being the archaeological remains of the offering-cult. At the other end is the fact that Amarna is richer in evidence for domestic religious cults and beliefs than other settlement sites of the period (Ramesside Deir el-Medina excepted) and for the most part they were not centered on Akhenaten's ideas.

Perceptions of Akhenaten have varied among scholars, from visionary to deranged tyrant. Has working at Amarna given you insights into the pharaoh's character?

It has always been the city and not the man that has attracted me. But I have been forced to form opinions. I do not think it is possible to know his character. He worked from a vision, of a city and of a new form of cult, so visionary is an appropriate term. I don't see evidence for tyranny. Kings had absolute powers and we have no basis for comparing whether Akhenaten was more or less benign in his treatment of his courtiers and people than other kings. Later kings judged him harshly, but they had agendas of their own. We lack independent witness testimony for his reign, as for others in ancient Egypt. Ancient Egypt is a more impenetrable society than we often like to think.

The evidence for domestic cults and beliefs at Amarna is so widespread as to suggest that the citizens retained a fairly normal profile in this area. The density of the housing and the constant proximity of the houses of officials make it implausible that these beliefs and practices were underground or clandestine.

Tutankhamun has been labeled the "boy king" and long been considered a minor ruler. Yet, during the decade he was on the throne, Amarna was abandoned, the royal burials were removed to the Valley of the Kings, the worship of Amun reestablished, etc. Is there evidence indicting that Tut, or his administration, was more successful or more important than generally credited for?

Your summary is the evidence for his/their success. We cannot credit him/them with less.

What impact (if any) do you think the recent findings in the Valley of the Kings (the embalmer's cache, KV63, and the possibility of "KV64") will have on our current understanding of the downfall and subsequent cover up of the Amarna period?

It depends upon the scope of the individual imagination. In the present stage of knowledge--KV63 is a very recent discovery--I do not see in what way it contributes to our understanding of the history of the time. As for "KV64," its very existence is still hypothetical.

One of the major unresolved and perhaps unresolvable difficulties with the Amarna Period is how to disentangle whatever hostility there might have been to Akhenaten's religious ideas with the dynastic politics of the day. The end of the Amarna Period witnessed the demise of a long established ruling family that was rooted in an even longer Theban ascendancy. It was the end of an era and the start of a new one. The advancement of those who took over might have dictated the agenda of court affairs just as much as dislike of Akhenaten's ideas. The fate of Nefertiti's mummy, even if we know what it was, is not likely to help us here.

Kemp will present more about his work at Amarna in a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania Museum on November 16. For reservations, call 215/898-4890.

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America