The manufacture of beautiful beads at Amarna

Anna Hodgkinson outlines her recent investigations into the suburban glass industry at Amarna.  

C. Leonard Woolley excavated at Amarna in 1921–2 on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Society. Just before the end of the season, in late January 1922, his team was working on some houses in the Main City South, in the vicinity of the House of chariotry officer Ranefer, and close to the houses excavated as ‘Grid 12‘ in the early 2000s. Woolley’s diary (kept in the archive of the Egypt Exploration Society in London) from January 21st 1922 reads:

(…) Finished cleaning up the house + in the afternoon moved all the men across to new site just south of Raneferi-house.

On January 22nd, Woolley then writes:

(…) The new site appears to be, as hoped, a centre of glaze-making industries: many moulds, frit pans, crucibles + ps. of slag + glaze lining(?) up.

Finally, on January 23rd 1922, Woolley simply notes:

Continued on M-N site: very poor results from factory…

before he continues to describe the architectural features found in the nearby house M50.13. The journal continues with some problems at the end of the season, the paying off of the workmen and the arrival of Wainwright and thus – the end of the work – on January 28 1922.

Woolley_diary_1922
Excerpt from Woolley’s field diary: January 22 1922. Reproduced courtesy of the EES.

All in all, less than 2.5 days were spent excavating the so-called ‘glaze-factory’. The buildings were subsequently published in City of Akhenaten I, where M50.16 was understood as a domestic house, with M50.15 as a side building and M50.14 being the surrounding courtyard. The very brief description for M50.14 reads:

At point X: remains of a glaze kiln: pit cut in sand 1.00m diam. by 0.50m deep, full of burnt brick, glass and glaze slag, and fragments of the pots used in the kiln for standing the vessels on: the bottoms and sides of these are covered with tricklings of glaze.

However, only very few object cards were produced for this site and no more detailed archive notes exist.

A geophysical survey was carried out across the site as part of the 2011 fieldschool at Amarna, and the strong anomalies that showed up in the southern part of the complex were indicative of burnt mud-brick. Indeed, walking across the surface, an area of heavily vitrified mud-bricks was visible, together with sherds of cylindrical vessels, which Petrie believed to have been part of the furniture of a glass oven, although they have since been re-interpreted as moulds for the production of raw glass ingots.

Since my research focus lies on ancient Egyptian glass technology, I had been intrigued by this building complex for a while. Having studied the results from Paul Nicholson’s excavations at site O45.1 in the Main City North, I wanted to find out whether this site could provide any further information on the organisation of the Amarna vitreous materials industries. I was kindly granted permission by Barry Kemp to re-excavate this site, which is located only about 100m to the north of the modern excavation house, in the autumn of 2014 as part of the Amarna Project. The project was generously funded by the G.A. Wainwright Trust, the Corning Museum of Glass Rakow Grant, and research grants from the Association for the History of Glass and the Thames Valley Ancient Egypt Society. I was joined by three archaeologists, eight workmen from Hagg Qandil, our inspector Mohamed Khalil Mohamed Khalil Osman and two trainee inspectors, Dora Mohamed Nagy Abdel Salam and Therwat Shawky Demian, from the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities. While we focussed on the excavation of the courtyard and the remains connected to the industrial activities that took place there, we also excavated a large portion of the domestic house M50.16. Dora and Therwat were simultaneously trained in the practice of manual excavation, the recognition of archaeological features and their recording, which included the drawing of detailed plans. They were also involved in the sorting of artefacts and pottery fragments, which are indicative of the use of the site during the Amarna Period.

Amarna_map
Map of Amarna’s Central and Main Cities.

The difference is noticeable when attention is paid to detail and excavation is systematic – in contrast to the work undertaken in 1922, the 2014 excavations, which ran for a month, yielded over 1000 objects, not counting the c. 26kg of vitrified mud-bricks, which belonged to a dump or a collapsed kiln or oven structure. The local knowledge of the workmen from Hagg Qandil, who were employed to work on the project, was invaluable: we encountered layers of mud-brick collapse from the house walls that had eroded since the 1922 work, although they were very hard to remove. Walid Mohammed Omar then informed us that extensive flooding in the past had caused considerable damage to this part of Amarna, explaining the compressed nature of the material. In fact, the original publication describes painted decoration on the interior walls of house M50.16, which stood up to a height of 1.6m. When we excavated the site, the walls were preserved up to less than half a metre, which shows the rapid deterioration of exposed mud-brick architecture.

M50_as_excavated
Buildings M50.14–16 at the end of the 2014 season.

It did not take long for us to realise that the 1922 excavations had been carried out in a far-from-thorough fashion: the first glass rods (over 90 of these were found) were discovered after a couple of days, and a multitude of glass fragments from ingots was also found. After less than two weeks on site the collapse in the central courtyard yielded a large piece of a vibrant blue glass ingot, one of the favourite colours to be used for prestige goods in late New Kingdom Egypt. A second ingot, this time almost complete, was found on the surface the following day.

M50_finds_1
The glass ingot fragments from M50.14–16.

The larger ingot fragment fits perfectly into the cylindrical vessels we found, and since this was also the case with many of the glass ingots found on the Uluburun shipwreck, it is possible that site M50.14–16 was involved in the production of these ingots. These cylindrical vessels only occurred in two other locations at Amarna: site O45.1 in the Main City North and the palace waste heaps in the Central City. It is therefore possible that this domestic complex held a relatively high status despite its small size, having access to valuable raw materials including the popular cobalt colourant, commonly used to turn the glass blue, alongside copper, which lent a light blue or turquoise colour.

M50_finds_2
Glass fragments and rods, and beads and amulets from glass, faience and agate.

The site not only produced raw glass – finished items were also found, most of which were beads. The site was a prolific centre for the production of these (largely dark blue and spherical) beads, and we also found the metal rods around which the beads had been formed, in a very similar way to the modern bead-making technique. Many of the beads still showed trails of glass which had not yet been polished off. Since glass-working required a relatively high working temperature, the ovens or fireplaces used for this industry were also used for the manufacture of faience beads and amulets, which could be baked simultaneously, even in a household oven. Five moulds of different designs for faience amulets and pendants were found, as well as almost 40 amulets with a varied floral and religious symbology, including depictions of the gods Bes and Hathor, in addition to over 300 faience beads including some wasters. A blue carved star-shaped glass amulet had a parallel in red-banded agate, and some other finished and unfinished agate beads, together with the discovery of more than 1.1kg of agate chips and pebbles demonstrated that these materials were processed simultaneously, using similar techniques.The larger ingot fragment fits perfectly into the cylindrical vessels we found, and since this was also the case with many of the glass ingots found on the Uluburun shipwreck, it is possible that site M50.14–16 was involved in the production of these ingots. These cylindrical vessels only occurred in two other locations at Amarna: site O45.1 in the Main City North and the palace waste heaps in the Central City. It is therefore possible that this domestic complex held a relatively high status despite its small size, having access to valuable raw materials including the popular cobalt colourant, commonly used to turn the glass blue, alongside copper, which lent a light blue or turquoise colour.

Monkey
The lower part of a monkey figurine.

The lower part of a monkey figurine was found in the southern courtyard, this type of statuette being a common find in the smaller domestic houses of Amarna’s Main City and North Suburb. This find, together with the numerous amulets of deities – whether they were produced for the occupants of the excavated houses or not – showcase the religious diversity present throughout the lower and middle ranks of Amarna’s society, who were less obliged to the state religion of the Aten cult and the royal family.

All in all, the excavations at site M50.14–16 have revealed a domestic workshop site at which – most probably – an ordinary family of slightly elevated status lived. They were specialists in the manufacture of beads from various materials and may have been processing high-status materials and producing glass ingots. Painted walls and the existence of a secondary house and courtyard also show that the occupants of this building held a certain status. Nevertheless, they were probably all directly involved in the manual task of bead manufacture.

The results of the re-excavation at site M50.14–16 fit in very well with the character of the Main City South, the Grid 12 and Ranefer excavations demonstrating an equal amount of industrial, diverse and busy urban life at Amarna. A second season of excavation, funded by the Egypt Exploration Society, is planned for the autumn of 2017.

Anna Hodgkinson is Marie Skłodowska-Curie Post-doctoral Fellow at the Freie Universität Berlin and Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

M50_team
The 2014 fieldwork team.
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