Understanding Amarna: An interview with Barry Kemp

In the first of our anniversary blogs, Prof. Barry Kemp, Director of the Amarna Project, sits down for a question-and-answer session on the experience, challenges and rewards of leading fieldwork at Amarna over the past 40 years.

What prompted you to start work at Amarna? How did you envisage the project in the beginning?
In 1969 I was asked by Peter Ucko, then a lecturer in anthropology at University College, London, to offer a paper to a conference he was organising on the theme of ‘Man, settlement and urbanism’, to be held in December 1970 at the Institute of Archaeology in London. By that time I was already on the teaching staff of Cambridge University. In the course of writing the paper I looked for the first time seriously at Amarna as a purely archaeological site and started to see its potential for taking further a study of ancient Egyptian urban society. There was, at the time, a widespread sense of optimism that ran across all aspects of life. It was a thrilling time to be alive. It affected archaeology, something caught by the phrase ‘The New Archaeology’, and I wanted to follow this up at Amarna itself. The optimism centred on the prospect of using more carefully considered models of how societies function with, in the background, the realisation that techniques of all kinds were being developed that had possible applications in the humanities, including computing. The ultimate goal was to find regularities (arising largely from physical remains) in human societies which would approach the status of laws. The papers of the conference were published in a fat volume two years later. If I re-read the paper now — it covers a far wider scope than Amarna — I see the extent to which I have spent the rest of my academic life exploring the implications of what I said then, and that the expectations I had then have been realised to only a modest extent. This has been a general experience. ‘The New Archaeology’ generated debates which have permanently changed the way that archaeology is thought about at a serious level. Yet the limits on how we interpret archaeological evidence seem insurmountable outside the old combination of imagination and as wide a reading as possible of how human societies work. There is no magic key, from technology or from formal logic.

Around that time, as a consequence of the 1967 war between Egypt and Israel that simmered on for some years, Amarna was not accessible even for visiting. I gained experience in working in Egypt from participating in the work of the Pennsylvania-Yale expedition to Abydos and then, when that was closed down for security reasons, at Malkata. Malkata introduced me to the archaeology of settlement at a period close in time to Amarna and encouraged me further to think of working there. When the security restrictions were lifted a few years later, I approached the Egypt Exploration Society to ask if they would support a survey of Amarna. They did, and I carried out a first survey season early in 1977.

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Sunrise at the Small Aten Temple. Photo: G. Owen.

What have been your strategies for approaching the site, especially as regards fieldwork?
One is not a free agent in this. I began excavation at the Workmen’s Village in 1979 because it was an isolated piece of the city, not too large and offered an unusual degree of preservation that extended to organic materials. It seemed an ideal place to get started. Having decided, at the end of the 1986 season, that further work was most likely to repeat what we had already found, I planned to continue by examining a fairly narrow east–west strip across the main part of the residential city to provide a basis for comparison with the Workmen’s Village. A first season was completed in 1987. Whilst doing this, we learnt that local farmers were taking the first steps to destroy Kom el-Nana in the course of turning it into agricultural land. As a result, in 1988, we transferred the excavations there, partly to record the site in case it was lost and partly to affirm, for the benefit of the local communities, that it was actually an archaeological site. (It had not been officially claimed by the Antiquities Service, as it was then named.) Shortly after the 1995 season a serious anti-government (and initially anti-foreigner) uprising developed in Middle Egypt which meant the suspension of work for a couple of years. Even when we resumed we were obliged, by the strong police unit billeted with the expedition, to confine our activities to a single part of the site. This was the Small Aten Temple and adjacent ground, which represented a separate strategy which also commenced in 1987.

By this time I had come to appreciate that research through survey and excavation was not all that could and should be carried out at Amarna. The older excavations had uncovered and recorded more or less all of the palaces and temples (only Kom el-Nana has been left untouched) and their walls and foundations had remained exposed to the elements. Sooner or later someone was going to start a programme of cleaning and protection. In every case one could be sure that the original excavations had not exhausted their archaeological potential, that ‘cleaning’ really meant re-examination and recording as if the site was being excavated for the first time. It made sense to bring these sites within the remit of the expedition. Consequently the year 1987 also saw a start being made at the Small Aten Temple and on a programme to record, to protect and to present this building to the public. This side to the expedition has continued and represents a parallel strategy of equal weight.

To continue further would be to furnish a brief history of the fieldwork. It is enough to illustrate that the history of the current expedition has been a balancing of different needs and of compromise brought about by outside factors.

When you began work at Amarna, what were your immediate priorities, in terms of research questions but also logistics? Were there other research themes that emerged as the project developed?
The priority at first, at the Workmen’s Village, was to establish a basic method of working and tradition of local employment, and, on a very limited budget, to make the expedition house inhabitable. The underlying reason for being there at all was to explore in what ways newly recovered archaeological evidence could help to build up a picture of life in the city. One theme that developed from this was exploring the boundary between what the state provided and what people did to satisfy their needs beyond this. That is a theme that has easily transferred itself to the work as it continued subsequently in other parts of the city, and is a theme of universal applicability. In this I feel that we have gained a great deal of illustrative evidence.

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The dig house in 1985 – an expanded version of the house occupied by the German excavators in the early 20th century, itself a rebuild of an Amarna Period house.

What has been the most challenging part of the site to excavate?
The challenges have been about equal though varied. The most frustrating has been Kom el-Nana. It has two periods: of the time of Akhenaten and of the early Christian Period in the form of a small monastery. Excavation of areas of the latter has brought results which make sense, not least because early monasteries have been widely examined at other sites in Egypt. The Amarna Period remains, on the other hand, are frustrating to interpret because mostly they comprise formal buildings designed to be a sun-temple for Nefertiti (this much is clear from a few hieroglyphic fragments found there). Reduced to their foundations by erosion there is hardly any evidence for how they were used, what purpose they served, beyond the stark outlines of their plans. It has been hard to write a narrative that goes beyond a description of walls and this has held me back from completing a report, although one could say that a boring report is better than no report at all.

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Work underway at the Amarna Period bakeries at Kom el-Nana in 1990. Photo: G. Owen.

Which aspect of fieldwork itself do you most enjoy? What kinds of data and methodological approaches do you naturally gravitate towards in trying to make sense of the site?
I enjoy the whole process from start to finish, including writing up. By the time I began, urban archaeology in Britain (and I am sure in other countries) had moved away from an older ad hoc style of working towards a systematic framework of detailed stratigraphic recording and the recovery of as wide a range of evidence as possible. Manuals had been published and some of the archaeologists who joined the Amarna team early on had experience, especially of working on rescue excavations in London. The way that the excavations at Amarna are carried out owes much to them, and to others who have continued to contribute their experience. The big difference is that this kind of archaeology in the UK is done by professional archaeological units who have paid staff, especially for all the work that follows the end of the excavation. That is largely outside our finances and we have to rely very largely on unpaid or only partly paid people. Full study and publication consequently takes a lot longer.

Much of the material that comes from the excavations requires specialist study. So the data that occupy my time consist primarily of records of architecture, stratigraphy and artefacts. I am keen to see what experts make of bones (human and non-human), plants, insects, charcoal and so on but, in the end, the excavations are a provider of material for others to work on.

What kind of rhythm does a long-term research project of this kind have in terms of fieldwork, publication, fundraising and other commitments? Has this changed over the course of the project?
Two major changes happened almost simultaneously. For many years the expedition was one of several run and funded by the Egypt Exploration Society which was given an annual grant from the British Academy to distribute for research as it thought fit. Unfortunately, this block grant was withdrawn around 2005/6. I retired from my university teaching post at the end of 2007. In order to maintain the expedition, a small group of us established an independent charity, the Amarna Trust, registered with the UK Charities Commission and this took over responsibility for the funding of the expedition, which now runs under the name of the Amarna Project although affiliated to the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research in Cambridge. As part of this re-organization we established a base in Cairo. The main long-term effects have been the continuation of the project, more time spent at Amarna, and more time available for writing up and raising funds. In all of these a great contribution has been made by the assistant director, Dr Anna Stevens. Part of the challenge of fund-raising is that the public can be inspired by discoveries being made through excavation, yet at the same time continuing excavation adds to the amount of material to be processed, stored and written up. It is a hard balance to maintain.
In the 1970s, one of the aspects that set the work at Amarna apart from the fieldwork of Petrie, the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft and the Egypt Exploration Society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the application of far more rigorous excavation techniques. Over the past 40 years, archaeology has of course continued to develop in technology, methodology and thematic perspectives. How this has affected work at Amarna?

If one compares what is done now with what was done by the previous expeditions the big difference is in the nature of the expectations of what can be derived from excavation. This has given rise to a simple development that has dramatically changed what is done: we sieve everything that is dug from the ground and aim to record as much as possible of what is retrieved. Sieving, even with agricultural hand sieves of fairly coarse mesh, increases the amount of potentially useful data by the hundredfold. This in itself requires one to focus on areas of the site which are a tiny fraction of the areas that used to be normal for a season’s work. This great increase in intensity of focus allows for far more detailed examination and recording of all aspects of the areas chosen for excavation, where one is hoping to reconstruct a three-dimensional model not only of walls and other structures but also of the fill that is removed and is bound to contain valuable information in itself. It is from sieving that much of what is recovered provides the raw material for expert analysis. Some areas of expertise – insect remains and bird bones, for example – require even smaller samples of soil to be examined with ever finer sieves.

Technical advances since the expedition began have been helpful to varying degrees. The most important has been that of computing, beginning with word-processing and spread sheets. These started to become available in the 1980s. At this time we acquired and took to the expedition house an Olivetti ‘comportable’ computer, very heavy with its cathode-ray tube display and with a tiny resident memory so that the usable programs had to be loaded each time from the original ‘floppy discs’. Around the same time we were lent, by the late Ian Mathieson, a professional surveyor, an electronic distance measurer. It is much harder than one might think to measure long distances with an acceptable degree of accuracy and, for this reason, surveyors had devised systems to average out the inevitable errors. Suddenly distance measurement became accurate to less than a centimetre. We now have, thanks to a donation from the Amarna Research Foundation, USA, our own electronic total station which offers accurate surveying possibilities far beyond what we actually need. I remain impressed, however, by the powers of human observation. We still do all of the detailed planning by pencil on tracing film rather than use imaging techniques. Planning by hand is an interactive process with the site itself. An accustomised eye starts to detect recognisable patterns which can then be clarified by sensitive further removal of soil which, in the dry conditions of the desert, is normally done by brushing.

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Taking a creative approach to site photography – Barry Kemp and Gwil Owen at Kom el-Nana.

A huge area of exciting possibilities has opened up through laboratory analysis of materials found in excavation, including those that might contain DNA remnants. We have no access to this world of research unless the equipment is sufficiently portable to be brought to Amarna. The reason is that it is a basic rule of the Ministry of Antiquities that nothing from the site can be removed unless to an authorised research centre within Egypt, and this latter possibility is fraught with administrative hurdles. It is to be expected that, as time passes, miniaturised analytical equipment will become increasingly available and thus, in theory, can be brought to Amarna. But this is, of course, of little use unless it forms the basis of a project the funds for which cover the costs of professional researchers.

What aspect of Amarna do you most enjoy writing about?
I actually love it all, even Akhenaten.

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Boundary Stela U inscribed with Akhenaten’s foundation texts, royal statues at its base. Photo: B. Kemp.

Why do you think that the Amarna Period has such a powerful hold in the modern imagination?

There is just enough information to give us a sketchy outline of a royal-family drama which seems heavy with doom, in which women and premature death play important roles, and in which bold new ideas are thwarted by entrenched and conservative interests. It is a heady mixture, given extra glamour by the Nefertiti bust, Tutankhamun’s tomb and the possibility that Akhenaten’s ideas are mixed up with Moses and the origins of monotheism.

Abundant sources from the ancient world show that personal dramas, especially within families and royal courts and usually centring on jealousy and thwarted ambition, are constants in human behaviour. But as soon as we move to consider wider ideas which arise from the way that a society sees the world and its place within it then continuity with the past and our ability to relive it with a reasonable degree of reliability become questionable. This applies particularly to Akhenaten’s ideas, the consistency with which he pursued them and the nature of the reaction to them. The more closely one looks at the evidence the more it appears inconsistent, and this is an important message in itself. Akhenaten speaks and acts with his own sense of clarity but this is not quite a clarity that matches our own experiences. Explaining Akhenaten becomes the building of a chapter in the development of human consciousness which had not yet taken the form that we encounter in the Classical world and later in the ‘west’. I feel we have a long way to go before we have developed the verbal tools to chart this process properly.

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Akhenaten shown on a sculptor’s trial piece from the Central City. Photo: G. Owen.

Akhenaten is such a divisive figure – characterisations of him range from visionary to tyrant. Based on what you have witnessed of his actions at Amarna, where do place him on this spectrum? What impact did he have on the people of Amarna?
He certainly had a vision and pursued it vigorously. The question reduces itself to, was he a king who treated his subjects more arbitrarily and cruelly than previous rulers? He made much of the claim to be ‘living on Maat (a combination of truth and righteousness)’ which some of his officials claim, in their tombs, meant paying more attention to following a path of good rather than bad conduct. The Aten itself was ‘the prince of Maat’. The intolerant attitude which he displayed towards the cult of the god Amun does not seem to have been extended much further. There is far too much evidence from Amarna which shows general reliance upon traditional gods when seeking protection from harm in the home and in personal behavior to support the idea that Akhenaten considered this as ‘thought crime’ which was to be punished. That attitude belongs to a later world.

The ongoing cemetery excavations have revealed a state of health and well-being amongst the people of the city which belongs to a population which, in modern terms, has been exploited, with hard labour starting at a young age and a poorly balanced diet. It is surprisingly hard to find adequate comparative evidence from the period to show if this was normal or worse than normal. If we suppose the latter then the question arises, how could a king committed to the pursuit of righteousness allow this to happen especially since kings had long ago been given the role of ‘herdsman of mankind’.

Are we perhaps seeing the effects of a major disruption to society consequent upon uprooting the main royal city and re-creating it somewhere else, and in a place of rather harsh conditions? Would life have settled down and conditions improved had the city lasted for much longer?

I am reluctant to judge him on a moral scale.

You have adopted a wide-ranging publication strategy for presenting fieldwork results – from the Amarna Reports series, to excavation monographs, preliminary reports in the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology and more recently to on-line presentation of data. What challenges have you faced in meeting the commitments of archaeological publication? What lessons might be learnt from this long-term experience?
The challenge is time and money, the latter mainly to engage expert analysis and to provide publication assistance. The appearance of word-processing in the 1980s and then a range of programs for ‘desk-top publishing’ and the wider digital revolution are a boon with a down-side. They give us more power, to the extent that we can prepare finer-quality print and illustrations for publication; the down-side is that all the work involved also falls to us and is time-consuming. In this ‘one-man band’ climate it is hard to maintain the business-like timetable that we would like and which would do better justice to the results of the expedition’s work.

Do you see aspects of an ancient city like Amarna still reflected in the world around us?
The question leads on to the wider one of how we relate to the ancient world in general and to the long history of human development. It has been at the back of my mind for a long time, entwined with a somewhat angry feeling that humanity can’t get it right, can’t find a way of living that is less destructive. I am intrigued by the way that much of the city grew by the kind of informal process that today creates informal settlements and townships largely outside the control of governments but involved the whole of society from the poor to the vizier. It represents communal effort on a scale of involvement that could not happen now. It was possible because land, although it had a value, was not seen as a commodity to be hoarded and made the subject of profit. There were no property developers, who are a product of capitalism. I accept that capitalism is a vehicle for industrial development of enormous power but is, at the same time, a vehicle for greed to a highly destructive extent. I do not see Amarna or ancient Egypt as a whole as a society of lost Arcadian values. But the checks and balances that were there limited the scale of excesses of human weakness that subsequent periods of history have seen run out of control.

We tend often to think of Amarna as a single-phase New Kingdom site, but of course it has a more complex history than that. What does Amarna tell us of the different ways that people have interacted with natural and built landscapes in the Nile Valley over time?
Amarna and the Amarna Period came and went in a trifle of time. We have tried to explore subsequent history in the area but it is difficult, in large part because, with a few exceptions, the communities who came later occupied sites on the river bank which have either been destroyed or buried beneath modern villages (whose history is itself hard to follow back beyond the end of the eighteenth century when they were mapped by the Napoleonic expedition). The exceptions are desert communities of Christians who, over a couple of centuries or so of enthusiasm for a different way of life, created places of retreat separate from their home villages. We have explored this period partly through excavation of the monastery which occupies part of Kom el-Nana and partly through surveys especially around the North Tombs which were re-used as dwellings at this time. But what came after their abandonment? When, for example, did the local village of El-Hagg Qandil develop and when did Hagg Qandil himself live? So far we have found no sources to tell us.

Today, Amarna means many different things to different people. What are some of the ways in which you see people engaging with Amarna? How do you think we can find a better balance towards meeting their needs, and those of the archaeological site?
Much interest surrounds Akhenaten and more especially Nefertiti, and even Tutankhamun even though he probably never reigned from Amarna. The interest can be direct, regularly manifested in filming by television film crews, or more diffuse as people visit parts of the site for meditation and celebration. In the latter case, our work of cleaning and making more intelligible the Small Aten Temple has unintentionally created a more obvious focus. This might be repeated as the similar project to clarify the outline of the Great Aten Temple proceeds.

Only relatively small numbers of people are involved, however. For the broader public we plan to continue to make more of the public buildings more amenable to viewing, especially those in the Central City. Beyond this is the Visitor Centre, a large and handsome building constructed by the Ministry of Antiquities to designs by the English firm, Mallinson Architects. It is intended as a first stop for visitors, to provide them with background to their visit, and as a place of education for local communities, especially from schools. There is already much illustrative material in place, but more needs to be done to give it a more professional-looking appearance. This in turn is a further requirement for outside funding.

The Amarna Visitor Centre at its opening in early 2016. Photo: M. Mallinson.

In the past, too, the occupants of Amarna must have seen the city itself in different ways. Is it possibly to build-up a multi-perspective picture of ancient Akhetaten through the surviving remains?
Only to a very limited extent. Perspectives are only really revealed by written sources, preferably informal ones, and even then only partially. I am not sure that the huge archive of written material from Deir el-Medina allows this particular question to be answered satisfactorily. This is because the ancient Egyptians did not express personal reflections on their surroundings to any extent. For Amarna we have only one written source that reveals a person’s attitudes, and that is the pair of letters (found in a tomb at Thebes in the 1920s) written by a man named Ramose to his family. If we had more sources like this we might well understand better how people reacted to the conditions of the day, but papyrus has survived in only a few scraps at Amarna. Yet even Ramose’s two short letters are primarily concerned with family matters and do not really tell us what it was like to be at Amarna.

What do you see as the ‘big questions’ that remain unanswered about the site?
How to keep what is left of the site reasonably safe is the biggest. The main cause of loss is local expansion of fields, cemeteries and houses and indiscriminate dumping of rubbish. The local authorities, especially the staff of the Ministry of Antiquities, remain vigilant and active in protection but it is a battle that can never end. The main role of the expedition here is to maintain an obviously active presence which underlines that the site is important to the outside world, especially in cleaning, strengthening and clarifying key ancient buildings. An appearance of neglect encourages careless public treatment.

As for research questions, one that is elusive yet central to our interest in the past generally is how to define and then to measure something that we might call the ‘quality of life’ of the inhabitants of the city, something that, to have meaning, would need to be compared with that of other societies of different times and places. A shadowy outline of what a definition would look like hovers in one’s mind yet is hard to pin down and pursue as a goal of gathering evidence. We have made a huge advance in the gathering of evidence on public health through the cemetery excavations which began in 2006, but we still lack wider benchmarks to allow the results to be put into a wider perspective.

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Satellite image of the southern end of the Main City, surrounded by modern fields, housing and cemetery.

Why is it important that we try to understand Amarna, a city that is now so disconnected from most of us in time, place and culture?
Primarily because it is one fragment of the continuum of knowledge about how human societies function, a fragment which in some respects – its archaeology and the ideas which led to its creation – is well documented. The disconnection lies mainly in that the first two thousand years of ancient Egypt’s existence document a society which had learnt to function reasonably well and on a fairly large scale but had formed only a limited capacity for abstract reflection (something which in hindsight looks like a cushion against all that the human mind is capable of). It forms a chapter in the history of consciousness. Amarna, as place and as history, shows this society pushing at its limits but then being arrested in its striving. It all provides something on which we can contemplate.

In dealing with Amarna, one of the underlying conundrums – whether we’re looking at the city’s urban fabric, or the experiences of its people – is in knowing how typical it was of other Egyptian cities. How might we better contextualize the city?
Partly by keeping an eye on what is being done at other sites (the newly created city of Per-Rameses — Qantir — is an obvious parallel to Amarna) and partly by thinking, reading and writing about the processes which give life to cities at any time or place. I am particularly intrigued by the process of self-organization.

Leading on from this, are there ways in which we might better connect Amarna to the rest of Egypt and the world beyond?
Cities, where so many people live and crowd together, are inevitably places of challenge to peaceful co-existence by communities and, in the case of individuals and families, to the making of a satisfactory life. The myriad ways that the challenges are met are at the centre of human history and their variety deserves to be explored across time and geography. Amarna is part of this continuum, both making its contribution and drawing explanatory ideas from what is a worldwide phenomenon.

The term ‘Amarna’ also stands for the ideas that Akhenaten brought into play. Commonly these are judged from a point of view that at least tacitly accepts that he was promoting a ‘religion’ (a word that I have learned to discard for the ancient world, at the very least) in a way that presaged the development of intolerant monotheism. But the thinking of the ‘West’ has been shaped by a far wider range of ideas, expressed in Greek philosophy and then the Renaissance, which have given Europe its character just as much as Christianity has, and outside the ‘West’ the shaping has been done by an even greater variety of perspectives. Fitting Akhenaten into a wider history of knowledge and thinking about the nature of existence is a challenge that can also only be met by wider reading. I wish I had time to pursue this further.

These are philosophical considerations. Of a more practical kind is the question, how can we use the large store of material found in the course of the excavations to educate the public about the life of the city? The obvious answer is a site museum. We have given much thought and time to this in the past, when, for a moment, it looked as though the Amarna Visitor Centre might include displays of some of the material that is kept in the large storerooms attached to the expedition house. It proved impossible to develop this in practice but the vision remains. The Visitor Centre (still unfinished at the start of 2017) has educational displays in the form of wall panels and replica artefacts. But they cannot convey the variety of material that exists or the way that we extract information from it, even when it is fragmentary.

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The Workmen’s Village in 1979, before excavations at the site recommenced.

Do you have a favourite part of the site?
Not really, although I can think with particular fondness of the Workmen’s Village and the fieldwork done there between 1979 and 1986. At that time Amarna was far more isolated and undeveloped than it is now. Apart from a couple of worn-out tractors there were no vehicles, the electricity supply to the whole of the east bank had not yet arrived, and the only way to reach Amarna was by felucca. So there was a greater sense of adventure in doing anything there. And the site itself had a particular challenge, that of finding order in chaos. It had been extensively turned over by looting in the fairly recent past and had been, by natural processes, far more deeply buried in sand and rubble than much of the rest of Amarna. Also, because of its isolation, you realise that the totality of the activities of the community which lived there have left a mark of some kind on the ground although more often than not what those activities were cannot now be reconstructed. (The same is true of the Stone Village although the fieldwork there developed much later.)

Amarna is one of the most extensively explored sites in Egypt. Why should archaeological work there continue?
Across a huge swathe of the humanities people continue productive research on closed sets of sources, usually written: the Hebrew Bible, the plays of Shakespeare, the works of Greek philosophers. The research is productive because as generations pass people think a little differently, see the sources in a new light, often building on wider advances in how we understand the products of the human mind. And so it is with archaeology. Excavation, unless it has totally destroyed a site, is never properly ended. Not only do techniques of recovery and analysis improve, the kind of explanatory narrative that underpins what is being done also changes in keeping with the times. If we excavated on the scale of the past then the site would be largely exhausted (and much evidence thrown away or destroyed). The small-scale but intensive examinations which are done today – and they are sometimes re-examinations of areas exposed in the past – should continue to be fruitful because the eyes and the minds of the excavators are themselves not the same as those of their predecessors. We are all fated in time to appear old-fashioned, and that is good.

Can you describe for us a typical ‘street scene’ in ancient Amarna?
Firstly, the scale. The housing areas, although they could be quite large (the ‘Main City’ had a length of around two and a quarter kilometres; one and a quarter miles), resemble a series of village districts. Most houses are quite small, fairly low and closely but irregularly spaced, offering multiple gaps rather than ‘streets’ for access within the neighbourhoods. Here and there the tops of larger, taller houses, of more than one storey are visible behind their own enclosure walls. (A tomb painting at Thebes shows such a wall with a wavy outline at the top.) Some surfaces are a dusty white but the overwhelming colour is the drab, grey-brown of plastered mud. In the bright sunshine of most days the city offers a patchwork picture of light and shade although here and there the tops of trees are visible and patches of green vegetation can be seen through open gateways in the compound walls of the larger houses. The air is not necessarily clear. Smoke from fires rises from open spaces, which are often tiny courtyards, and on a still day hangs in the air. Some of the smoke rises in thick plumes, from pottery kilns which, along with cooking ovens, small-scale bronze-working and glass and faience production are a normal part of domestic life.

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Reconstruction of an area of housing in the Main City, excavated between 2003–4, by Barry Kemp.

Many who live there, however, have reason to travel from their home to the centre, to attend an office or a ceremony. The occupants of the large houses, and many in the smaller ones, are ‘officials’ whose presence at an office is required during the eight or nine days of the ‘week’. Travel to the centre is along just two or three north¬–south routes. Although they are the arteries of the city, the centre cannot easily be seen by looking along them. They, like the rest of the residential parts of the city, do not follow straight lines, have varying widths and also the same mud colour. The more senior officials travel by chariot, expensive, intricately-made things pulled by horses with coloured leather harnesses. These officials, at least on special occasions, do not travel alone but with a group of retainers running along beside. Those who cannot afford a chariot walk or ride by donkey taking a small load of green fodder with them.

Most of those heading to or from the centre are men. Women mostly remain in their neighbourhoods but also appear in the streets and alleys, visiting other houses, encountering travelling sellers of goods (which can include servant girls) or, singly or in chatting groups, making their way to the river bank along narrow winding paths between houses. The river bank is where most of the foodstuff and many small necessities and luxuries are available for purchase from the boats that constantly come and go on the Nile. Many of those who thread their way amongst the houses are servants (some of them specifically slaves), female and male. They make their way to a source of water — a public well or the river bank — where clothes are vigorously laundered (mostly by men) and from which water, in large pottery jars or leather bags, is carried to the houses.

There is another reason for people to leave their houses. Each morning, at dawn, scribes go to designated points in the main thoroughfares to check off, on papyrus lists of names, the men and boys who emerge from their houses and gather in groups. The names are of those conscripted for labour, in the quarries or at one of the many royal building sites. Each carries bread and onions wrapped in cloth and a rough red pottery jar of beer, stoppered with a bung of rushes. They carry no tools. These are issued each day at the place of work. Compared to the mostly Nubian policemen who have also gathered they are short in stature and some are prematurely stooped. ‘Where is Ramose, son of Huy?’ calls the scribe. ‘Sick’, comes the answer. The scribe marks his list, and the group starts to leave, to join the many other groups heading northwards. They will return at nightfall.

Later in the morning, here and there, other groups emerge to form a funeral procession. Four men carry the body, which is wrapped in linen and rolled in a mat of sticks bound with rope. Women come behind, wailing and throwing dust on their hair. Two of the remaining men carry hoes by which they will dig a pit into the desert. Another carries a basket containing a few items collected together to be added to the grave. They do not head directly for the cemetery but to recognised gaps in the houses which lead to the ends of prepared tracks which lead in straight lines to the cemetery and give the procession free passage across the otherwise forbidden desert.

So the days pass, until the scribes come with a different message. All work is stopping. Prepare to leave this place…

Barry Kemp, CBE, FBA, is Director of the Amarna Project, Senior Research Fellow at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research and Professor Emeritus at Cambridge University.

Planning the Great Aten Temple. Photo: L. Ranieri.