Sunday, June 24, 2012

A Report on work recently completed at Amarna, Spring 2012

 By Barry Kemp


Figure 1 (see captions at end of article)
On the last day of March we resumed our fieldwork. The chosen place was the site of the Great Aten Temple, that lies immediately beside the modern cemetery of the village of El-Till. A large part of the temple foundations was excavated by John Pendlebury for the Egypt Exploration Society in 1932, and a report of the findings, both the architecture and the objects, was included in the volume, City of Akhenaten III, published in 1951. The reason why it has found a place on our agenda is that the village cemetery is steadily expanding and threatens to encroach upon what little is left of the ancient building.

Our aim is to make a fresh record of what survives and then to proceed to protect the remains, in part by reburial and in part by marking the principal wall lines and features in new materials, principally limestone blocks. Only in this way will the site gain sufficient respect to escape further losses. The site is a large one and the project will take several years to accomplish. The result should be, however, of great interest to visitors, who will be able to see the scale of Akhenaten’s building and its extraordinary layout, that included hundreds of offering-tables set out in rows in long open courts.

The Ministry of Antiquities was represented by inspectors Mohammed Wahaballah Abdelaziz and Shimaa Sobhy Omar. The archaeological team comprised Mary Shepperson and Marsha Hill at the stela site, and Miriam Bertram, Delphine Driaux and Anna Hodgkinson at the temple entrance.


Figure 2
The first week was spent in removing quantities of village rubbish that had come to cover the front of the temple, that lies beside the asphalt road that links the villages of El-Till and El-Hagg Qandil and is all too convenient an open space for dumping. The re-excavation began on April 7th and ended on May 17th. On the 20th, our building team took over and began the combined task of reburial and marking out the wall lines. Their last day was June 10th.

The main temple occupies only a small part of a huge enclosure that is marked by the line of a brick wall that runs back for 800 metres (Figure 1). Almost lost in the distance, and largely hidden by modern tomb enclosures, are other parts of the temple. They include the place where fragments of a purple quartzite stela bearing an extensive list of offerings have been found in the past, as well as fragments of what was probably a statue of Akhenaten. We made this place, too, an object of fresh investigation.

From Pendlebury’s plan we learn that the front of the temple included a pair of mud-brick pylons and several structures immediately inside that preceded the principal stone building. One of these he labelled the ‘Altar’. Little of this was visible when we began, being buried beneath spoil heaps and deposits of dust, sand, rubbish and animal manure that had accumulated since 1932. The removal of these deposits revealed that much of what Pendlebury saw in this part is still present and not much changed. We concentrated our work on the northern of the two pylons and the northern half of the entrance between them, and on the ‘Altar’, an impressive set of foundations made from gypsum concrete for a stone building that contained a columned hall and so is unlikely actually to have been an altar. By the end of the re-excavation the ‘Altar’ foundations lay completely exposed, as did the brick threshold between the pylons, but only a small part of the north pylon itself was visible (Figure 2). The large Pendlebury dump that lies on top had to be removed as a conventional piece of excavation, with all the spoil passed through sieves, and this was a slow process. In view of the number of pieces of broken sculpture and inlay fragments that we recovered (Figure 3), it is a justifiable procedure, but half of the spoil heap still remains to be removed.

Pendlebury had determined that this part of the temple had seen more than one major alteration in its layout, the pylon belonging to a later and grander phase. Our own re-clearance around the pylon has shed more light on this process of enlargement.

The purpose of the building remains uncertain. In three of the pictures of the House of the Aten in tombs at Amarna (two in the tomb of Meryra, one in the tomb of Panehsy), seemingly just inside the outer entrance to the temple, stands a separate building (shown duplicated in the case of one of the Meryra scenes). The details differ in each case. The Panehsy version gives prominence to a throne, whilst one of the Meryra versions includes a Window of Appearance. It looks, therefore, like a tiny palace, something needed everywhere that the king visited.


Figure 3
The last three weeks of the season were devoted to making the outline of the building permanently visible. By the time the excavation finished, the gypsum foundations of the building were exposed, covering a rectangle measuring c. 14 x 25 m. The foundations had varying depths, reflecting the downward slope of the ground towards the south. This created a common level for the tops of the foundations, except for the part north of the columned hall, that was 20 cm lower.

One possible course of action was to bury the entire construction in sand and leave it otherwise unmarked. This is likely, however, to have perpetuated the impression that the site does not deserve the respect to which it should be due and, in the longer term, to have encouraged further encroachment on the temple precinct. I therefore adopted the plan to build the foundations up to a common level and then to lay over it a single course of blocks that would reproduce the foundation plan. All intervening spaces would be filled with sand and, eventually, the front part would be likewise buried in the sand fill that is needed to recreate the ground level of the temple in its final phase.

I engaged a team of builders from El-Till who have done this kind of work for us before. Using new limestone blocks laid over a bed of sand that separates them from the ancient foundations a new foundation layer has been laid over all except the rear two strips of gypsum foundations (Figure 4). These and other exposed ancient surfaces have been protected with sand. The final step when we resume will be to lay a single course of new stones over all wall lines, and to recreate in the same course the column foundation pattern. All intervening spaces will then be filled with sand, leaving a low platform, one block in height, over which the plan of the building will be unobtrusively visible.


The stele site stands in front of the sanctuary of the Great Aten Temple, south-east of the modern cemetery.

The site was excavated in the 1930s by the Egypt Exploration Society under John Pendlebury, who found a large T-shaped depression to the north-west of the entrance to the sanctuary. The EES expedition excavated within this depression down to gypsum plaster foundations about 50cm below the surface level. It was concluded that this was the foundation for a stone platform, which held a large round-topped stele depicted in Amarna tomb reliefs.

This season, the stele depression was re-excavated so that these foundations could be recorded. In addition, the area around the edges of the depression, enclosing an area of 25m x 25m, was excavated in order to gain further evidence for the use of this area within the temple. A further aim was the recovery of fragments of the stele, which was made from a distinctive purple quartzite, in order to add to what is known of the stele from fragments already held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. 

Figure 4
The excavation has revealed two phases of architecture (Figure 5, Figure 6): an early phase (Phase 1), consisting of a small mud-brick platform surrounded by large posts and other ephemeral architecture, followed by the main temple phase (Phase 2), for which the architecture of Phase 1 was levelled and replaced with a stone platform sunk into a foundation pit.

Phase 1
A rectangular mud-brick foundation (6.30m x 4.50m) lies on the eastern side of the stele depression, with the remains of two brick bases on its northern side; probably marking the end of a short staircase up to the mud-brick platform. An area of hard-packed floor surface survives at what would have been the foot of these stairs. Deep, narrow pits were found forming three sides of a rectangle surrounding this mud-brick platform. Two pits flanked the end of the staircase. The dimensions of these pits, which were filled with occupation and mud-brick debris, suggest that they probably held tall wooden posts or flag poles.  On the western side of the stele depression, the eroded desert surface was found to be cut by many small features. These include a shallow N-S ditch, circular depressions to hold vessels, and a large number of small pits and post-holes. This area appears to have had a number of uses, probably concerned with the preparation and dedication of offerings, and to have been the site of small-scale wooden architecture, such as fencing, shades or screens.   On both the eastern and western sides of the stele depression, the Phase 1 architecture appears to have been levelled. The mud-brick platform was destroyed down to the last course of bricks, the deep post pits were filled up with mud-brick debris, and the small pits, ditches and emplacements seem to have been deliberately packed full of mud material: the ground was prepared for the Phase 2 architecture.

Phase 2
A large rectangular depression was dug with a narrower extension on the south side to form a T-shape. At the bottom of this, traces of gypsum-plaster foundation were found around the edges. The foundation appears to have been wider than its preserved extent, but much has been lost when the blocks were removed, and more destroyed by the EES excavations. Block impressions suggest a large platform of limestone blocks was built in the depression, with the southern extension representing a staircase leading to the top of this.   On top of the construction debris from this platform, a rectangle of mud-brick paving was laid to the north, looking towards the Northern Entrance Pavilion that straddles the temple enclosure wall. Mud plaster was used to level the area to the south and west in preparation for a gypsum plaster floor, a fragment of which survives south of the staircase foundation. Finally, a rectangular gypsum plaster foundation was built to the south-west of the main platform, probably to hold a seated statue of the king. The cut for this foundation truncated the Phase 1 features below.

Figure 5
One of the aims of this season was the collection of fragments of the stele which sat on top of the Phase 2 stone platform. All fragments of purple quartzite within the excavation area were examined and those with worked faces were retained for future study. Many small inscribed fragments were recovered; generally these had small hieroglyphs in registers, as seen on the larger fragments held by the Metropolitan Museum, but some figurative elements were also found, including a very small fragment with a carved eye, possibly of a royal princess. Small fragments of a diorite statue were also found.

Incense was a common find on site, and fragments were found in almost all the ditches, pits and post-holes of Phase 1. Some was in a raw form as lumps, but it was more commonly found in a processed form as tiny curving rods resembling red glass. In general, very few finds were recovered from the excavated material, indicating that the stele area of the temple was largely kept clear of rubbish and debris.


During the same period, the expedition house played to host to visiting scholars and to the annual anthropology field school from the University of Arkansas. Alan Clapham completed his study of the plant remains from the Stone Village excavations, now the subject of a major publication that we hope will go to press during the summer. Willeke Wendrich returned to continue her study of basketry and matting from the excavations, examining the material used to make the cheap mat-like coffins in the cemetery. Rainer Gerisch, in addition to looking at further charcoal samples, surveyed the remarkable new growth of plants in the desert wadis that had been brought to life following the heavy rains of last year. Alexandra Winkels began a study, including microscopic examination, of the gypsum that was widely used at Amarna, especially in architectural foundations. Marc Gabolde copied and transcribed a large group of hieratic dockets, many from the Central City. His colleague at Montpellier University, Jean-Pierre Patznick, began a study of small stamped clay sealings and the clay seal impressions on jar stoppers from various parts of the site. Kristin Thompson and Marsha Hill made further additions to the catalogue of sculpture fragments, concentrating on the new material from Great Aten Temple but also including revisions to the existing catalogue of material made in earlier seasons.

Figure 6
The University of Arkansas field school, led by Jerry Rose, processed a further 41 skeletal individuals. The now familiar sombre picture of life at Amarna emerged again, marked by high mortality amongst the young and frequent healed fractures and signs of metabolic problems. As an extension to the study of the human remains, Jolanda Bos made an initial assessment of what should be done with the many samples of human hair that have been recovered from the cemetery. One of her preliminary observations is that the ‘fat cones’, of which a likely example was found in 2010, might not have been uncommon in the graves.

A major task that the cemetery excavations have created is the conservation and consolidation of the remains of several decorated wooden coffins, and preparing them for possible public display in the future. Supporting this work is the subject of our current appeal via the Justgiving web site. Julie Dawson and Lucy Skinner devoted much time and patience to the task, one which is due to continue for some time yet. To aid this work, we have an appeal on the Amarna Justgiving website:

A significant development in the general way that the expedition runs is the increasing involvement of personnel from the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities. Some are local inspectors who attend field training sessions, but we were also able to invite to the anthropology field school three Egyptian bone specialists.
For the most recent work we received generous support from the Amarna Trust and its supporters, from the Amarna Research Foundation and from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Egyptian Art Department. But we are now undertaking a considerable spread of work at Amarna, involving longer periods of time at the site.
We have an extensive programme planned for the autumn, that will see a further two months of excavation at the South Tombs Cemetery. To help us to carry it through, I greatly hope that you will continue to support us.

Barry Kemp, 20 June 2012


Figure 1, along the temple axis, viewed to the east. At the bottom is the edge of the gypsum concrete foundations for the Platform Building, Pendlebury’s ‘Altar’. The ground between here and the southwards extension of the modern cemetery is occupied by the barely visible foundations of the Long Temple, the main part of the House of the Aten and originally filled with offering tables. The site of the stela excavations lies beyond the modern tombs.

Figure 2, pylon and platform building, viewed to the north. At the left edge can be seen the partially removed Pendlebury spoil heap that lies over the remains of the mud-brick pylon. The electricity pylon stands closely beside it.

Figure 3, quartzite inlay fragment, no. S 7531, recovered from the old spoil heaps. It probably belongs to the hand at the end of an Aten ray. Photo by Gwil Owen.

Figure 4, marking the outlines of the Platform Building at the end of the season, viewed to the south. The aim is to build the foundations back up to a common level with new blocks laid over a thin bed of sand. The final step will be to lay over these a second layer that represents the original plan and then to fill the intervening spaces with sand.

Figure 5, the stela site, viewed to the south. Archaeologist Mary Shepperson cleans sand from the gypsum foundations for a rectangular pedestal, exposing at the same time ephemeral traces of an earlier phase of pits and mud structures.

Figure 6, aerial view of the stela site, north being towards the top right corner. Beside the T-shaped foundation for the stela is an earlier mud-brick base surrounded by deep post-holes, not all of them yet excavated. Photo by Gwil Owen.


The work at Amarna is supported directly by two institutions: in the UK by the Amarna Trust, and in the USA by the Amarna Research Foundation. In both cases, donations are tax deductible.

Amarna Trust:

Donations can be made directly to the treasurer:
Dr Alison L. Gascoigne
Lecturer in Medieval Archaeology
University of Southampton
Avenue Campus
SO17 1BF
+44 (0)2380 599636

or to the Trust’s bank account:

Bank: Nat West
Address: High Wycombe branch, 33 High Street, High Wycombe, Bucks,
HP11 2AJ
Account name: The Amarna Trust
Account number: 15626229
Branch sort code: 60-11-01
IBAN: GB66 NWBK 6011 0115 6262 29

or by electronic transfer through Paypal or Justgiving, available on the website (where a Gift Aid form is downloadable)

The Trust sends out a free newsletter twice a year, Horizon, to anyone who sends me a postal address. It is also available as a downloadable pdf file from our two web sites.

Amarna Research Foundation

The Amarna Research Foundation, Inc. is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization incorporated under the laws of the State of Colorado. It has been approved by the Internal Revenue Service as a charitable organization, and contributions to the Foundation are tax exempt.

The Foundation receives donations and runs a membership list. See where a membership form can be downloaded.

The Foundation publishes a regular newsletter, The Akhetaten Sun, available to members.

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