A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
A new exhibition tells the story of the pharaoh Akhenaten and his attempt to transform ancient Egypt.
In 1353 B.C., during the later 18th Dynasty, Amenhotep IV ascended the throne of Egypt. His rule was revolutionary in the sweeping changes he sought to impose on ancient Egyptian life and culture. He altered the religion from polytheism to monotheism, allowing the worship of one god, the sun disk or Aten. He also changed his name to Akhenaten, meaning Effective Spirit of the Aten, and built a new capital city called Akhetaten, modern-day Amarna. The University of Pennsylvania participated in excavations at Amarna during the early 20th century and its Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has an extensive collection of artifacts from the site. These form the basis of a new exhibition, "Amarna: Ancient Egypt's Place in the Sun." (See "Excavating Amarna," our interview with Barry Kemp about current excavations at the site).
After a short, informative introductory video, the exhibition opens into four small galleries organized by the show's curators to tell the story of the Amarna period and not to merely highlight the artifacts. The first gallery examines life in polytheistic ancient Egypt prior to Akhenaten. The gallery includes a visual timeline of 18th Dynasty rulers featuring their portraits and busts (using pieces from the exhibit whenever possible) on a stunning backdrop of Queen Hatshepsut's temple. The next gallery features the royal family during the Amarna period. Because the sun disk or Aten had no physical manifestation to worship, art of the period focused on portraits and depictions of the royal family. Upon entering the gallery, one confronts a striking floor-to-ceiling representation of Akhenaten, statues of the family, and partial reliefs. The gallery also includes a comprehensive family tree displaying the relationships between Akhenaten, his daughters with Nerfertiti, and his probable son Tutankhamun. This is very helpful in understanding the dynasty's complex genealogy.
The galleries progress through the period, and the exhibition changes from very angular structures to curved walls and round pedestals to reflect the Amarna art style, which changed from the ancient Egyptian standard of idealized physiques to Akhenaten's curvy and voluptuous figures. To enter the city gallery, one passes a vivid depiction of the desert setting of Amarna and step into Akhenaten's shoes, viewing the break in the cliffs as he did when he saw the Aten rise above them and was inspired to build his new capital city at that location. The gallery includes a variety of objects from the site that had been used in everyday life, such as combs, eye paint tools, floor panels, small vessels, molds, and an unfinished statue. The highlight of the third gallery is an enlightening video featuring digital reconstructions of Akhetaten palaces and temples, real footage of the site as is today, maps, and artifacts not available for the exhibition. The final gallery displays the aftermath of Amarna and his successor Tutankhamun's return to the traditional beliefs. The artifacts reflect both conventional and Amarna art styles, illustrating the transition that took place during Tutankhamun's brief reign. Even though the Amarna period only lasted one generation, there was still a long phase of restoration necessary to eradicate Akhenaten's legacy and reinstate the traditional ways of life.
Among the artifacts featured in the exhibition are a rare unfinished statue from Amarna's artisan district, small ceramic molds, and minor relief fragments. Where there are no artifacts, or only incomplete ones, to illustrate aspects of the Amarna period, the curators use creative displays and re-creations. For example, the exhibition uses a unique medium to display partial reliefs. The fragments are inlaid into a piece of opaque glass and the proposed reconstruction of the relief is etched around the fragment. The result is a stunning representation that is very attractive and informative. The curators appreciate and feature less flashy objects, which often have more significance than their more ostentatious counterparts displayed at art museums.
The objects--more than 100 are on display--are highlighted well and stand out individually. There are clearly written, easy to read signs and descriptions for each gallery and object. Because the University of Pennsylvania Museum is a teaching museum, the curators provide a lot of information, which is divided into sections, some giving broad overviews about the period and exhibition, others giving more detailed information. The object descriptions have very specific data. It is up to the viewer to decide how much they want to learn or read. As I wandered through the exhibition, I noticed some people lingering for a long time at each artifact reading every little detail, while others read the broader descriptions above gallery groupings and moved a bit faster.
Overall, "Amarna: Ancient Egypt's Place in the Sun" is impressive and well organized. I found the design tasteful and the subtle colors relaxing and calming. Whether you know a lot about ancient Egypt or not, it is a worthwhile visit where you spend a quiet afternoon absorbing new information and looking at wonderful things.
"Amarna: Ancient Egypt's Place in the Sun" runs through October 2007. It had some 2,000 visitors on opening day--more than four times the average daily attendance--and though it opened early, people waited in line more than an hour. Those numbers may well increase with the opening of the Tutankhamun exhibition at Philadelphia's Franklin Institute on February 3. For more about that exhibition, see "Tut Talk," interviews with Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, and curator David Silverman of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
Tracy Spurrier manages the Membership Department at the Archaeological Institute of America. She has a degree in archaeology and currently works on excavation projects in Egypt.