Surveying (and snake scaring) in the Amarna desert

Some of the most interesting elements of the ancient city of Akhetaten lie around its desert fringes. Corinna Rossi recalls her time working at Amarna, helping to survey the city’s quarries and desert roadways. 

I worked at Amarna for three seasons (2001–2003), during which I contributed to the survey of various features. The most challenging task that I was assigned was the survey of the quarries of Queen Tiy and of Sheikh Said, vast and irregular spaces covered by chisel marks and written annotations. But the most vivid memory that I have is linked to the survey of the desert around the ancient city, carried out by Helen Fenwick.

Part of the vast quarry network in the cliffs just north of Amarna, near Sheikh Said.

My official titles were those of Pole Bearer and Snake Scarer (evidently a product of the long hours spent on our own under the sun around the north tombs) and as such I was expected to look for the ancient roads, clear the way and then hold the survey pole in the correct position. The ancient roads are stripes of desert from which all the loose stones had been removed and piled up along the edges, and are often difficult to discern.

Helen Fenwick and Salah Osman set up the GPS ahead of a days’ surveying.

One day I headed on my own in the flat plain to the north of the Stone Village with a map in my hands, looking for a road that was supposed to be there, somewhere. The light was too flat and I could not see anything, just an even scatter of sand and stones. I then started to walk in different directions and try different angles, and at some point I found myself perfectly aligned with the sunrays in the correct position: an ancient road magically appeared on the desert surface, heading straight north for hundreds of metres on the undulating desert. Overall it was incredibly straight, and yet I could clearly see the junction between short sections, in which the two lines of stones piled up on either side were perfectly parallel; after each junction, the following pair of perfectly parallel lines was slightly offline if compared with the previous section. This nearly invisible zig-zag must have corresponded to the progression of the pairs of ropes that were probably stretched on either side of the road, to mark the edges along which the loose stones should be piled up. I could even imagine the pairs of wooden pegs stuck in the ground at the junctions.

One of the ancient desert roadways stretches off into the horizon.

I thanked the Sun Disk for offering that revealing glimpse on this small work carried out by unknown workmen more than 3300 years ago, and headed back to Helen to retrieve the survey pole.

Corinna Rossi is a lecturer at the Politecnico di Milano (Department of Architecture, Built environment and Construction Engineering). She is also director of the Italian Archaeological Mission to Umm al-Dabadib in the Kharga Oasis.