Busy lives – and busy archaeologists – at Amarna

Amarna is renowned for its domestic archaeology. Anna Stevens reflects on the experience of excavating small houses in the Main City – and trying to reconstruct something of the lives of the people of Amarna through the objects they left behind.  

One of the things that makes Amarna so special as an archaeological site is its vast residential areas. There are parts of Amarna where you can still walk around the ancient houses, and seek out something of the spaces occupied by people in the past. One of my earliest, and fondest, experiences at the site was helping to excavate a cluster of small mud-brick houses, from 2004–6. Located not far from the dig house, these little dwellings brought home to me the close quarters and very modest surrounds in which most of the people of Amarna lived, the mud surfaces and trampled floors offering something of the aesthetics of suburban life.

The houses were also packed with artefacts. Nothing too grand – anything that was really important, and not too heavy, was removed when the owners abandoned the city. But the deposits were still full of bits and pieces that were left behind, and provided us with an important opportunity to piece together something of the activities that formed the web of everyday life in the city.

The housing neighbourhood after excavation.

There is a notorious division in the excavation history of Amarna, like so many sites in Egypt. In the early 20th century, before the advent of modern archaeological techniques, vast swathes of the ancient city were rapidly cleared to expose the ancient buildings. Sadly, little attention was given to archaeological deposits and the artefacts they contained, especially if these were small, broken or particularly modest. It has been proposed that during the early excavations, only around 20% of artefacts were recovered from the ancient fill. This may even be an overestimate. A scan through the early excavation reports reveals that often just a handful of artefacts were collected from an individual house. During our excavations, in contrast, over 3000 artefacts were recovered across eight houses – it took a 500+ page monograph to publish them all! They range from robust pieces of limestone furniture, to colourful faience jewellery, potsherds re-used as tools, tiny pieces of mud used to seal papyrus, and a group of fragile gypsum fragments that could be pieced together to show parts of the cartouches of the Aten.

Pieces of gypsum plaster, painted and carved with cartouches of the Aten, which may once have formed the decorative surface of a wooden box or similar.

Dealing with an artefact corpus of this size can be overwhelming, although some objects stand out with ready-made research narratives. One was a small piece of limestone, less than 3cm high. It was burnt, broken and battered – but had clearly once been something. Turning the fragment over and over, the penny dropped: it was part of the crown from a royal statuette. We have a very nice parallel: a little statue of a king, perhaps Akhenaten himself, found by the Egypt Exploration Society in 1923, and now in the Brooklyn Museum (acc. no. 29/34). Just 21cm high, it survived in a much more complete state (only the feet and base are modern reconstructions) and it is clear that our fragmentary crown could have originated from a similar statue.

Left: The battered crown recovered in 2014 (object 35046, drawn by Andy Boyce). Right: A small statue of a royal figure from house Q44.4, now in the Brooklyn Museum (image from the Brooklyn Museum online catalogue).

The crown fragment is quite a significant little find. One of the characteristics of ancient Akhetaten was that cult images of the royal family – statues and stelae – were set up in houses for citizens to worship. Most of these images are known from larger houses of the elite, and it has been thought that the practice had fairly limited social reach. The discovery of a royal statue in such a modest housing area raises the possibility that engagement with the royal cult was sometimes more than just an elite concern. The Brooklyn statue was also found in a reasonably small house, not too far away. We can wonder how many more statuettes might have been overlooked during the early excavations if their state of preservation was closer to our small battered crown than the Brooklyn piece. And how did the crown end up in this condition – was it deliberately smashed to erase the memory of Akhenaten’s reign, or a victim of incidental damage?

In other cases, the finds offered a less immediately penetrable back-story. Many were the byproducts of manufacturing processes or items such as stone tools used in these activities. Often it took weeks of poring over them, laying everything out side-by-side in the dig house, recording each piece individually, but jointly thinking about it as part of a broader assemblage. One outcome of this process was recognition that the houses were full of byproducts from the working of faience. In particular, there was a large collection, potentially some 1000 pieces, of off-cuts from the shaping of blue faience tiles. Tiles of this kind were probably used to decorate architecture and perhaps furnishings. It is difficult to imagine that they would have been used in these small houses, and more likely that their destination was the city’s temples and palaces, and perhaps houses of officials too. They offer a glimpse of Amarna’s suburban economy, and support a long-standing theory that people who lived in such small houses survived by providing goods and services to officials who acted as middle-men for the state, distributing grain and other provisions in return. Much more work is now needed to find out how widely this model holds in other areas of the city.

Blue faience tile fragments from the excavated houses.

The process of pondering the artefact record wasn’t confined to the dig house alone. During the excavations themselves, there were also connections to be made between objects, the site and its stratigraphy. One particularly distinctive deposit resembled spoil from our own excavation sieves, rich in gravel and small stones too large to pass through the mesh. But it was also full of little artefacts. It remains something of a puzzle, but looked very much as though someone in the past had sieved through the ancient deposits, looking for saleable goods, and discarding the small broken objects. All of this is crucial information in piecing together a site history, to help us understand what we are now missing, and what can and can’t conclude from the archaeology that remains.

The site mid-excavation, showing the remains of the ancient houses shallowly covered by deposits. Pottery is being sorted on the mats in the foreground, and in the background deposits are being collected in buckets to be sieved.

Although Amarna is renowned for its domestic archaeology, the number of houses that has been excavated according to modern standards is still fairly small. There are plenty of housing areas left to explore: no large villa has been excavated to modern standards, for example, and many housing areas are immediate threat from encroachment. A modern archaeological eye will always find much more than excavators in the past, both in terms of recovering artefacts but also in the construction of narratives around ancient objects to help fill buildings with the activities and experiences of the people who occupied them.

The house of the vizier Nakht, cleared by the Egypt Exploration Society in 1922, was one of the grandest estates excavated at Amarna. It is now almost entirely overrun by illegal building in the wake of the 2011 revolution (look for the column bases by the black arrow).

The work outlined here was published in 2010 as a two-volume monograph – Busy Lives at Amarna: Excavations in the MainCity – by the Egypt Exploration Society and Amarna Trust.

Anna Stevens is Assistant Director of the Amarna Project, and an Affiliated Scholar at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge.