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date: 28 June 2022

The Archaeology of Amarna

Abstract and Keywords

This essay assesses the body of archaeological research connected to the New Kingdom settlement site of Amarna (ancient Akhetaten), the short-lived capital of Egypt founded by king Akhenaten around 1347 BC as the cult centre for the solar god the Aten. Amarna, by far the largest exposure of pharaonic settlement to survive from Egypt, is unsurpassed as a case site for the study of ancient Egyptian urbanism and daily life. This essay provides an overview of the ancient city, evaluates past and ongoing excavations at the site, and summarizes the archaeological discourse on the city as a physical, functioning and experienced space.

Keywords: settlement archaeology, Amarna, Akhetaten, Egypt, New Kingdom, Akhenaten, urbanism, daily life


Amarna (or Tell el-Amarna) is an archaeological site situated about halfway between Cairo and Luxor. It is known primarily as the location of the ancient city of Akhetaten, which served briefly as the capital of Egypt in the late Eighteenth Dynasty, from around 1347–1332 BC. Amarna is the most accessible settlement to survive from pharaonic Egypt and a fundamental case site for studies of urbanism, domestic architecture, and everyday life. It is also of great historical significance. Its founder, king Akhenaten, is often labeled the world’s first “monotheist,” having promoted a single solar god, the Aten, above the traditional gods of creation and kingship, and sometimes to their exclusion. His reign is one of the most intensively researched periods of Egyptian history (with its own bibliography: Martin, 1991). Akhetaten—the Horizon of the Sun Disc—was built as the cult home for the Aten, and something of the voice of Akhenaten himself survives at the site in inscriptions on rock-cut Boundary Stelae carved into the cliffs around the perimeter of the city (Murnane and van Siclen, 1993). Here he proclaims that the site had served no god previously, a claim that excavations have largely borne out, finding few traces of earlier occupation.

For scholars of ancient urbanism and daily life, the importance of Amarna lies largely in the fact that following Akhenaten’s death, Akhetaten was abandoned by the royal court and most of its population; it was never substantially occupied again. When archaeological investigations began at Amarna in the late 19th century, much of Akhenaten’s city lay easily accessible beneath a shallow cover of sand and building collapse, a situation that continues today. Amarna thus offers large tracts of a contemporaneous urban landscape, and one that can be very securely dated (Kemp, 1977). It offers essentially a full cross section of society. This is extremely rare in Egypt (and beyond), because settlements tend to be occupied for much longer periods, creating dense layers of urban build-up. Excavation can open windows onto parts of a settlement, but these often remain isolated from their broader urban setting, with contemporaneous occupation horizons difficult to isolate.

Ultimately, however, Amarna presents researchers with something of a conundrum: given the unusual historical circumstances of the city’s foundation, to what extent is it representative of other Egyptian settlements in terms of its layout, organization, and the experiences of its inhabitants?

The City of Akhetaten

The Archaeology of Amarna

Figure 1. Map of Amarna

(Prepared by Barry Kemp, Amarna Project).

Akhetaten was contained largely to a desert bay on the east bank of the Nile (Figure 1), stretching some 7 km along the river, partly linked by a north–south thoroughfare now known as the Royal Road (Kemp and Garfi, 1993; Kemp, 2012). The territory of the city also included land on the west bank of the river, probably used largely for farming and related settlement. Apart from three of the Boundary Stelae (numbers A, B, and F), no in situ Amarna period remains have been identified here.

The landscape of the eastern bay is flat and fairly featureless, the low desert bordered to the east by steep limestone cliffs, which are interrupted in several places by wadis. The most prominent of these, the Great Wadi, has a distinctive indented profile that resembles the hieroglyph for “horizon” (in which the Aten was said to dwell) and may have influenced Akhenaten’s choice of the site for his new city (noted by Aldred, 1976, although he seems to misidentify the wadi as the Royal Wadi). Today, Amarna is likewise a fairly flat archaeological site, unexcavated areas of the city forming low terraces that are only slightly higher than adjacent areas of excavated remains; the attribution of the term tell to the site is a well-known misnomer.

Amarna was a mud-brick city, with stone used on a large scale only for ritual architecture. Local limestone was the most prominent, cut into smaller blocks than usual (known as talatat), probably to aid the rapid construction of the city. The hub of the city, now known as the Central City, contained its two largest temples (the Great Aten Temple and Small Aten Temple) and two royal residences (the Great Palace and the King’s House). Scattered around these were administrative, military, industrial, and food-production complexes. It was at one of the former, the House of Foreign Correspondence (its name known from stamped bricks), that the Amarna Letters, an archive of cuneiform tablets documenting foreign exchange with Near Eastern and Mediterranean leaders, were discovered in 1887 (Moran, 1992; Rainey, 2015). Two further palaces were constructed at the far north of the site, the North Palace and North Riverside Palace, which have long been suggested as the main residences for the royal family, the Royal Road serving their daily commute into the Central City (Kemp, 1976: 93–99; but see also Spence, 2009). Close to the North Riverside Palace was a large mud-brick complex (the North Administrative Building), perhaps connected with the flow of goods and traffic in and out of the city; the cliffs beyond, extending some 10 km north to the site of Deir Abu Hinnis (Willems and Demarée, 2009; Van der Perre, 2014), contained the city’s main limestone quarries.

The residential areas of Akhetaten extended to the north of the Central City (the North Suburb, and beyond it the North City) and likewise to its south (the Main City). Population figures for the city are difficult to estimate, in part because of uncertainty over what constituted an ancient Egyptian “household,” but a figure of around 20,000–50,000 is likely (Kemp, 2012: 271–272). The vast majority lived in the riverside city, but there were also two small villages in the low desert to the east, the Workmen’s Village and the Stone Village, which seem to have been used largely to house workers engaged in constructing tombs, especially in the Royal Wadi, and related activities (Kemp, 1987; Stevens, 2012a, b). They are among the best-investigated parts of Amarna and are noteworthy as rare examples of special-purpose settlements that still survive within their broader urban setting. In this they contrast with the remarkably text-rich New Kingdom workers’ village of Deir el-Medina in Luxor (Bruyère, 1939), an offshoot of the city of Western Thebes, of which relatively little has been uncovered.

Otherwise, the low desert of Amarna was largely free of settlement, although it did contain several ceremonial or ritual complexes, some of which were dedicated to the cults of members of the royal family, and particularly royal women (Kemp, 1995: 452–461; Williamson, 2008, 2013). One group clustered in the south, namely at the sites of Kom el-Nana, the Maru Aten, and the so-called Riverside Temple, while the Desert Altars in the north have been suggested tentatively as private mortuary monuments (Frankfort and Pendlebury, 1933: 102; Kemp, 1995: 448–452). An important focal point in the eastern cliffs was the Royal Wadi, burial ground of the royal family, which housed up to five separate tombs, some for more than one person (Martin 1974, 1989; el-Khouly and Martin, 1987; Gabolde and Dunsmore, 2004). The city’s two main public cemeteries were also located in and around the eastern cliffs. One lay in and adjacent to a long wadi toward the south of the site (the South Tombs Cemetery), and the other formed a cluster of burial grounds nearer the northern end of the bay. Each included tombs that ranged from large rock-cut chambers with painted relief decoration (Davies, 1903–1908) to simple pit graves in the sand (Kemp et al., 2013), suggesting that a broad slice of the population was buried here. The desert villages each had their own small cemetery. The low desert itself was crisscrossed by a series of roadways: areas cleared of larger stones, which were piled in ridges to define the road edges. These seem to have served variously as transport alleys, patrol roads, and in some cases as boundaries, and they suggest fairly tight regulation of the eastern boundary of the city (Fenwick, 2004; Kemp, 2008; Stevens, 2012a: 414–415).

Earlier and Later Histories

The archaeological remains of Amarna are not limited to the New Kingdom city. Middle/Upper Paleolithic activity is attested in flint scatters on the desert plain (French, 1984), and finds of Old Kingdom pottery suggest the site served a settlement of this date, probably connected with the Hatnub alabaster quarries in the high desert to the east. Potsherds found scattered across the city, and in concentrated numbers around the South Tombs, indicate activity during the Third Intermediate Period/Late Period but with as yet no accompanying architectural remains (French 1986; Kemp and Stevens, 2010b: 57–65). The most substantial reoccupation of the site, before the present day, dates to the Late Roman period, when buildings and cemeteries were inserted among the ruins of the New Kingdom city (Kemp, 2005: 41–48): most notably, the monastery at Kom el-Nana (Faiers, 2005) and the repurposing of the North Tombs as a settlement for a Christian community (Pyke, 2007; 2008; 2009).

Understanding the Archaeological Record of Akhetaten

Although Amarna is a relatively straightforward site to excavate, its archaeological record is more complex than sometimes recognized, having been affected both by abandonment processes at the end of the Amarna Period and by later disturbance. Often, the remains of the New Kingdom city offer something far removed from the kind of panorama of objects and deposits in their original “usage” contexts that is sometimes expected at single-phase occupation sites.

The city was abandoned early in the reign of Tutankhamun, Akhenaten’s successor, on what was probably a widespread basis (for evidence of residual occupation, see Kemp 1995a, 446–448; Aston, 1996: 43). We can probably assume that there was some forewarning of the move and that people were able to make fairly well-thought-out decisions regarding what to take and what to leave behind. In part, therefore, the archaeological landscape of the city at the end of the Amarna Period was already one of abandonment rather than of everyday use, especially as regards portable materials and the contents of buildings proper. Items that were left on site at this time (rather than those that had earlier been lost or discarded) must often have been those considered redundant or too cumbersome to transport. This is well illustrated at one of Amarna’s best-known complexes, the workshop attributed to the sculptor Thutmose. Here, although statues and sculptors’ models of the now almost defunct royal line were left on site, to be recovered by the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft expedition in 1913 (Borchardt and Ricke, 1980: 87–100), few stone sculpting tools, especially in metal, were found during the excavations, presumably because they were removed for ongoing use.

A second event that followed the abandonment of the city, and had an acute effect on its appearance, was the razing of its temples, shrines, and royal statues to erase the memory of Akhenaten’s rule, most notably during the reign of Horemheb at the close of the Eighteenth Dynasty. The stone was removed to other sites for reuse, such as Hermopolis on the west bank of the river (Roeder, 1969) or smashed into small pieces. As a result, the cultic architecture of Amarna, which was some of the most unique from ancient Egypt, survives to little more than foundation level. Understanding the vertical appearance and decoration of these buildings as they once were now relies on scenes in officials’ tombs that show stylized versions of the city’s monuments (Davies, 1903–1908) and on the physical and virtual reconstruction of fragments of relief (Williamson, 2008; 2013) and statuary (Thompson 2006).

A third series of events that has affected the site is looting and jointly the removal of mud brick to use as fertilizer on agricultural land. This has occurred periodically over the years since the abandonment of the site up until the current day, both in a small-scale way and in more concentrated bursts. Excavations in 2004 among a group of houses in the Main City revealed stratigraphic evidence that helps place some of the disturbance at a time close to the Amarna Period: a truncated ancient deposit sealed beneath sheet collapse from a house wall that presumably fell within a few centuries of the city’s abandonment (Kemp and Stevens, 2010a: 191, Figs 3.5, 3.6, Pl. 3.8). A context for some of this early digging might be the search, by people leaving the city or those passing through thereafter, for valuables hidden under the floors. The site probably saw periodic digging of this kind over the centuries that followed (Kemp and Stevens, 2010a: 191). Within the past couple of centuries, however, the looting of archaeological sites across Egypt seems to have increased, in part due to the growth of the antiquities market, as has the removal of mud brick to fertilize agricultural plots opened on the desert beyond the banks of the Nile. Looting at the site is reported by the late 19th century (Petrie, 1894: 2), and more recent disturbance, over the last half-century or so, is attested by the presence of pieces of newspaper and other modern items mixed in with ancient deposits at the Workmen’s Village and Stone Village (Stevens, 2012a: 13). Excavators now working at Amarna can expect to encounter fairly substantial disturbance, by no means contained to settlement areas, with recent work at the South Tombs Cemetery also revealing widespread looting of graves (Kemp et al., 2013: 4). The impacts of such disturbance, and of earlier abandonment processes, on the archaeological record of Amarna are clear: the removal of certain items (metal is one material that seems to have been favored by ancient robbers) and disruption to the spatial relationships of those goods that remained.

Today, Amarna faces another challenge: land reclamation. With two modern towns occupying parts of ancient city proper and others on the desert plain, land is frequently sought for cemeteries, agriculture, and other purposes, and authorities struggle to maintain the balance between the needs of the local communities and the heritage site, increasingly so in the wake of the 2011 revolution. Heritage management at Amarna faces the difficult challenge that it is not only the buildings of the ancient city but also the landscape they occupy that make it so important. The opportunity to experience the architectural remains of Amarna in the context of something close to their ancient setting is something that will not be available to coming generations.

Excavating Amarna

A further transformative event on the site has been the archaeological excavations themselves, which began in the late 19th century following earlier surveys and epigraphic missions (Aldred, 1982; Kemp and Garfi, 1993: 10–19; Montserrat, 2000: 55–66) and have continued, with breaks, to the present day. The long history of excavation at Amarna is in part responsible for the high research impact of the site, along with the exceptional degree to which its excavation data have been synthesized (culminating in Kemp’s 2012 study of the city). In an age of short-term field projects, Amarna demonstrates the value of long-running case studies that maintain active publication programs.

The main expeditions to the site have been

  • 1891–1892: Flinders Petrie, assisted by Howard Carter, undertakes excavations in and around the Central City and some broader survey.

  • 1907–1914: The Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft (DOG), under the direction of Ludwig Borchardt, excavate large swathes of housing within the Main City.

  • 1921–1936: Excavations of the Egypt Exploration Society (EES), led by several directors, sees work in almost all key areas of the city, including the Workmen’s Village, riverside housing areas, outlying shrines, at the North Palace, and within the temples and palaces of the Central City.

  • 1977 to the present day: Barry Kemp directs an annual program of survey, excavation, and restoration (under the auspices of the Egypt Exploration Society until 2006).

Other campaigns that have focused on the New Kingdom remains include the excavations by the Egyptian Antiquities Organization in the 1960s; work in the Royal Wadi by Geoffrey Martin and Ali el-Khouly in the 1970s and 1980s (Martin, 1974, 1989; el-Khouly and Martin, 1987) and more recently by Marc Gabolde (Gabolde and Dunsmore 2004); Paul Nicholson’s archaeological investigations of glass and faience production (Nicholson 2007); and a project to record the Stone Village (Stevens 2012a, b).

The Early Campaigns

The early expeditions of Petrie, the DOG, and the EES were important research initiatives of their day. But they were constrained by contemporary expectations of what archaeology was as a discipline, in terms both of fieldwork methodology and the interpretation and curation of archaeological materials. Although the early excavations at Amarna yielded a dataset that is of ongoing value for researchers, it comes with very significant constraints.

For the most part, excavation was viewed as a means of clearing structures, which then provided the primary focus of study. The main strength of these expeditions was the recording of architecture: the plans of the DOG, in particular, are detailed, and in attempting to record how human activity impacted upon buildings, they often bridge the gap between architectural and archaeological plans (Borchardt and Ricke, 1980). They, and the EES expeditions that followed, have left us with a unique corpus of New Kingdom architecture, strongest as it relates to domestic structures. This forms the basis of a two-dimensional rendering of the city (Kemp and Garfi, 1993), which provides researchers with a remarkable dataset for the study of domestic architecture, social structure, and urban layout (e.g. Kemp, 1981; Tietze, 1985; Spence, 2004).

Excavation, however, was rarely considered a valuable process in and of itself, and little attempt was made to record the nature and stratigraphy of the deposits that were encountered in and around the structural remains. A rare example of such recording occurs in the description of layers of fill beneath the house of the official Ranefer in 1921, the first season of EES work (Peet and Woolley, 1921: 9–15, Pl. VIII.7; also Kemp and Stevens, 2010a: 20–24), but the same care was rarely extended to less orderly or disturbed statigraphic sequences. The value of stratigraphy for dating sites was recognized (Pendlebury, 1935: xxvi–xxvii) but little else.

The loss of information due to this lack of stratigraphic control is most acute in the Central City, which saw large-scale clearance by the EES in the 1930s (Pendlebury, 1951), leaving only small pockets of unexcavated stratigraphy (Kemp et al., 2012). Although we can revisit unexcavated housing areas, many of the buildings in the Central City were unique, and there are no substitutes available from which to fill in the gaps in stratigraphic knowledge created by poor excavation. This loss of information leaves the temples of Amarna as somewhat sterile structures, divorced from the activities that occurred in their vicinity.

The Archaeology of Amarna

Figure 2. Workmen clearing parts of the Main City during the 1921 excavations of the Egypt Exploration Society

(EES negative 21/57; courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society).

Archive photos and film footage are important aides for understanding the early work at the site. Figure 2 shows two gangs of workmen uncovering houses during the EES work in the Main City in 1921, close to the house of Ranefer. No trenches are laid out, and the workmen are digging through the sand and rubble with agricultural tools to expose the ancient architecture, which lies not far below the surface of the desert. It is easy to imagine that well-defined architectural spaces were targeted in this style of excavation and that open areas, such as streets and large courtyards, were often left uncleared (although neighborhood-level excavation was adopted by the EES from the mid-1920s: Pendlebury, 1935: xxvi). In the right of the image, sand and rubble is being put into baskets, carted to the top of the spoil mound and dumped. There is no sign of any system to deal with the artifacts and other materials contained within the excavated deposit; most significantly, there is no one sieving. Finds must largely have been spotted by chance as they came out of the ground or as the spoil was tipped onto the dumps.

The quantity of artifacts and other materials recovered can only have been a very small portion of what was actually present in the spoil. Shaw (1995: 227) estimates that around 20% of artifacts were collected during the early EES work, and similar figures can be assumed for the other expeditions. When excavation has been undertaken of the spoil heaps left by the EES (Payne, 2006: 47; 2007), the artifact content has indeed been high. The sample of materials collected must also have been far from a representative one, with larger and more colorful pieces most likely to have been spotted, while the collection of environmental materials such as plant remains and animal bones was almost nonexistent. Spatial control over the distribution of excavated materials was also weak. Objects were usually just assigned the building number in which they were found, and occasionally a room therein, or listed as being found high or low in the fill. In terms of linking objects to architectural spaces, emplacements, and to other objects, therefore, the artifact corpus from the early excavations offers very limited scope, allowing that previous looting of the site must often have disrupted preexisting distribution patterns.

The funding backdrop to the excavations also had an effect on the artifact assemblage. At this time, fieldwork in Egypt was often funded by subscription or sponsorship, with backers promised objects in return. The result was pressure on the excavators to collect museum-worthy materials and the subsequent fragmentation of the artifact assemblage. The Egypt Exploration Society, in particular, had supporters worldwide to whom objects from the dig were redistributed either in formal exchanges to institutions or by way of thanks to private sponsors. The task of tracing these today is complicated, even with recent advances in online presentation of collections, with much of the contextual information attached to individual finds now lost. Much of the material in private collections is probably lost to scholarship forever. And while the bust of Nefertiti is the most famous example of finds distribution, the vast majority of materials exported from Amarna were not great works of art. They were everyday objects such as faience jewelry and potsherds that gain significance by being part of an assemblage, studied alongside like objects and materials from the same stratigraphic context; little concern was given to keeping individually excavated assemblages together.

Another unfortunate legacy of the early excavations is the loss of architecture itself due to a lack of adequate backfilling at the end of each field season. Although Petrie filled each building with the spoil generated from clearance of the next as he went, he was generally not followed in this by his successors. Today, in fact, the residential areas of the city are dominated by the large spoil heaps left by the EES and DOG excavators along the streets and in other open spaces, which lend the landscape something of an inverted appearance. In the years that have followed their work, the city has suffered greatly from exposure, to the extent that many of the smaller houses, which were built with walls just one mud-brick wide, have completely eroded away.

The Amarna Project

Large-scale fieldwork recommenced in 1977 under the direction of Barry Kemp. Following two seasons of survey, which integrated the early Petrie, EES, and DOG plans with a topographic base map (Kemp and Garfi, 1993), the first site chosen for excavation was the Workmen’s Village. The work here, from 1979 to 1986, set the tone for much of what was to follow for the Amarna Project in terms of style of excavation and research agenda.

The excavations focused both upon the workers’ houses, contained within a small walled village, and upon the ground peripheral to the village, across around 3,380 sq. m. of ground. This remains the largest exposure of settlement excavated to modern standards at Amarna. The work took place at a time when the value of settlement archaeology, and especially the application of careful methods of excavation in “mundane” contexts, was beginning to be better appreciated in Egypt, and it is often viewed as an important example of what this kind of archaeology can offer. Along with the recording of buildings and their deposits, rubbish pits outside the village were excavated, floor deposits were investigated microscopically, and animal and plant remains were collected and analyzed (reported on in the Amarna Reports series). An underlying goal of the work was to understand the social and economic position of the workers’ community within the city more broadly and the degree to which they were dependent upon the state (Kemp, 1994: 138).

To a large extent, the archaeology of the Amarna Project is thus driven not by historical questions surrounding Akhenaten’s reign, but by the reconstruction of urban life. Amarna has become a case site within Egyptology for a kind of data-driven social archaeology that seeks to reconstruct the way cities appeared, functioned, were ordered socially, and were experienced by their inhabitants. The analytical approach of the Project often combines detailed study of artifacts and environmental materials with a wider view of distribution patterns across the city (exemplified by the study of the city’s textile industry: Kemp and Vogelsang-Eastwood, 2001). The Project is known, too, for its “grass-roots” approach to society and its workings, with a fieldwork program that has often focused on houses and suburban workshops, although state institutions such as the Small Aten Temple, North Palace, and Great Aten Temple have also seen extended excavations (as yet, however, less fully published). It is reasonable to characterize the output of the Amarna Project as an example of processual archaeology in a general way (Montserrat 2000: 92; Smith, 2010: 173), but this should not mask more recent attempts to elucidate the experiences of the people of Amarna as they relate to domestic and work life and spirituality (Kemp and Stevens, 2010a: 503–514; Kemp, 2012: 155–264; Stevens, 2012b: 441–450; Kemp et al., 2013).

The past century or so of fieldwork at Amarna has offered up to researchers an assemblage of just over 1,000 excavated houses; expansive cult, ceremonial, palace, and industrial complexes; more than 40,000 artifacts that are provenanced at least to an individual building; vast numbers of potsherds; and, through the work of the Amarna Project, a rich multisite assemblage of plant, animal, and human remains. This stands as a kind of archaeological atlas of life in a New Kingdom city and has served research that encompasses themes spanning the form and development of cities, urban economy, and the experiences of city life. It is one to which any number of interpretive approaches might be applied, greatly aided by the detailed and transparent (processual) reporting that has occurred since the 1970s. It is notable that the city has produced relatively few texts, especially from its residential areas, encouraging researchers to formulate discourse on the city and its people through its archaeological remains.

The Physical City

The “cityscape” of Amarna offers a kind of bricks and mortar imprint of decision making, from very formal choices to those that were more organic or socially inherent. We should not expect Amarna to have looked exactly like other cities, especially those with longer occupation histories. But when we tease out the decisions that dictated its form, Amarna is an invaluable source for the study of how ancient Egypt’s urban centers were products of its culture and simultaneously reflections of its society.

Discussions of formal planning at Amarna almost inevitably begin with the role of the city as a kind of stage for the cult of the Aten (which was closely linked to a royal cult). There can be little doubt that one of the driving forces during the founding of Amarna was its preparation for cultic and ceremonial activities; the main temples and palaces occupy a prioritized position in the hub of the city, flanking the Royal Road, and were presumably among the first buildings laid out. There is little scholarly consensus, however, on how far the city plan was a symbolic one. Akhenaten himself has little to say on the issue in the Boundary Stelae inscriptions, a reminder that he may not have had a clear vision for how Akhetaten was to appear and function when it was founded. His ideas for the city certainly developed over time, with excavations among the foundations of the Great Aten Temple revealing significant modifications to this complex over time (Kemp et al., 2012).

Quite quickly, we reach a point of having to extrapolate from the ground plan of the city, and what we know of the Aten cult, in order to read influence of the latter into the design of Amarna. Undoubtedly, the desert bay was appropriate as a natural arena for the display of the Aten, or its power, in the form of the sun and its daily progress across the sky; the open-air temples were presumably built with this natural spectacle in mind. The choice to line up the axis of the Small Aten Temple with the mouth of the Royal Wadi may also have been quite purposeful (although the resemblance of the wadi to the horizon hieroglyph is sometimes overstressed: e.g., Silverman et al., 2006: 46–48). For O’Connor (1982, 1989), the city was designed to symbolize, in microcosm, the universal reach of the Aten, and it was broken into quite distinct secular and cult zones, the movement of the royal family around the city offering a counterbalance—perhaps one that was more tangible—to the progression of the Aten overhead. Mallinson (1999) similarly projects a very deliberate symbolic framework for the laying out of the city based on distance ratios drawn partly from the surrounding landscape, with the Royal Wadi providing a focal point. Others prefer to take the city plan closer to its face value, seeing little symbolic significance in its layout (Kemp, 2000).

For the most part, the suburban areas of Amarna seem to have been shaped by processes that were organic and self-organized, although not necessarily any less deliberate. These presumably included family expansion, changes in personal fortunes, and continued immigration to the site. There is little to suggest that these processes were in any way unique to Amarna. They would have led to the construction of new houses and the reshaping of others, and although the residential areas of Amarna no doubt remained spacious compared to other cities, pockets of the city did become quite densely occupied, with houses built on the remains of earlier structures and some perhaps extending upward to three stories (Kemp, 1981: 94; Spence, 2004; Kemp and Stevens, 2010a). The Amarna suburbs were on their way to becoming a dense and gradually rising urban environment.

At the same time, because the growth of the city was arrested quite quickly after its foundation, we can still access something of how the people who settled here reassembled themselves into communities. Interesting perspectives are offered at the two desert workers’ villages. The Workmen’s Village, the more substantial of the two, was built from the outset as a planned workers’ settlement, with a thick perimeter wall surrounding houses of regular size and ground plan, albeit subsequently modified by its occupants (Peet and Woolley, 1923: 51–91). The Stone Village has a very different appearance. Although not as extensively excavated, it may never have contained regular housing units. It was at least partially surrounded by a thin perimeter wall, but this was built later in the site’s occupation (Stevens, 2012a: 40–42). State support, status, and occupation are all factors that must have contributed to the final appearance of each site. But did community identity also play a role? We might view the Workmen’s Village as a preformed community, transposed to Amarna with social ties, hierarchies, and a sense of broader identity already in existence. It has long been considered that the same community of workers may have cut the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings at Thebes and occupied the village of Deir el-Medina (Kemp, 1987: 44–49). The Stone Village, on the other hand, perhaps began as a newly created collection of laborers and only later began to adopt, possibly with quite limited state input, a set of architectural markers suited to its growing identity as a workers’ settlement, the growth of the site arrested somewhat earlier in its trajectory of community development (Stevens, 2012a: 449–450).

In the riverside city, people were organizing themselves into another kind of urban environment, dictated by different living and subsistence patterns. Although it is difficult to reconstruct how the city grew, a spread to the south and north out from the Central City is likely (Kemp and Garfi, 1993: 70). The colonization of the ground seems to have been slow enough for a small burial ground to have developed in the Main City, surviving as scattered graves partly overbuilt by houses (e.g. Nicholson and Hart, 2007): a sign, perhaps, of limited foresight as regards provision of space for the non-elite dead.

The Amarna suburbs are characterized by the mixing of houses of rich and poor, with a sense of social segregation created by the walls and spacious courtyards that surrounded the villas of the elite (Janssen, 1983: 279–280). With its very large sample of excavated houses, Amarna is one of few Egyptian sites where the archaeological modeling of socio-economic profiles can be undertaken on the basis of houses, rather than burial assemblages. Plotting the range and frequency of house ground-floor area produces a profile in which the Amarna population was relatively evenly graded in terms of socio-economic status (Kemp, 1989: 298–300). It is a model of New Kingdom society that has found support in studies of burial assemblages elsewhere (Smith, 1992: 218; Meskell, 1999: 148) and in preliminary analysis of Hyksos period houses excavated at the Delta city of Tell el-Daba (Bietak 2010: 19, fig. 19). It contrasts with frameworks that divide society at this time into more distinct “upper,” “middle,” and “lower” classes (O’Connor, 1983: 191–194). One fairly distinct division does occur at Amarna at about the 100 sq. m. mark, perhaps indicating a difference in houses occupied by officials or administrators and those of workers or artisans (Shaw, 1992: 159–160). An important social division, too, might be reflected at the South Tombs Cemetery, the largest of the city’s burial grounds, in the ability to attain burial in a rock-cut tomb or a simpler pit grave. How this relates to models based on house size awaits further research; however, finer gradients in socio-economic difference across the burial assemblages of pit graves are rarely obvious (choice of burial container—coffin or mat—is likely to be one). This leads to the suggestion that outward expressions of socio-economic difference for the non-elite may have been muted in funerary contexts, at this particular cemetery at least (Kemp et al., 2013: 11).

A fundamental pattern is present at Amarna, and especially for the Main City, in the way houses of different sizes relate to one another: smaller houses tend to cluster in neighborhoods around larger estates, which are usually provided with fairly substantial granaries. This has led to a kind of patron-provider model for the city in which officials and artisans living in the larger estates acquired goods and services from occupants of the smaller houses on behalf of the state in return for supplies, especially of grain (Janssen, 1983: 282; Kemp, 2012: 43–44). What we lack, however, is an understanding of how these clusters came into being. We can go some way toward reconstructing the order in which individual houses were built by considering how the walls of neighboring residences relate to one another (Kemp, 1977: 134–136; Kemp and Stevens, 2010a: 473–478). This shows that smaller houses seem to have expanded outward from the larger estates and that a single long stretch of wall was often laid out first, along which abutting houses were built, often sharing sidewalls. This could imply the construction of a group of houses at the one time, perhaps with the sharing of labor across households. It is a model that might suit a group of people who were already familiar with one another. At the same time, it resulted in buildings of varying scales and layouts, presumably dictated by the needs and resources of individual households, rather than a Workmen’s Village-like arrangement of houses of like size and design. The people of Amarna brought with them, unsurprisingly, the social and economic imprint of their previous lives. But to what extent were they remodeling a physical urban environment that they were already familiar with before the move to Amarna? There is increasing archaeological evidence to suggest that the comingling of houses of different sizes was something of a feature of organically developed settlements of the New Kingdom and its lead-up (e.g. Amara West: Spencer, 2014; Tell el-Daba: Bietak, 2010: 18–19, 25) and indeed a feature of pre-industrial cities generally (Cowgill, 2004: 358–359). But we still need larger exposures at these settlements to better understand how these houses co-related. We should allow that there may have been an overarching vision of urban order for Amarna (but not necessarily new to it) that saw the deliberate scattering of houses of the elite around the city but that with this basic framework in place was left to self-organize.

The Functioning City

The archaeology of Amarna, like most settlement sites, lends itself particularly well to the reconstruction of urban economy: the relinking of networks of supply, demand, and distribution that made the city work. Studies of imported ceramics, their labels and their contents, including incense and wine, have offered much in terms of linking Amarna to the world beyond (Fairman, 1951: 163–169; Serpico and White, 2000; Serpico et al., 2003; Gabolde 2009), although considerable work remains to place Amarna within the broader economic world of late Eighteenth Dynasty Egypt.

The Archaeology of Amarna

Figure 3. A neighborhood of closely packed mud-brick houses at excavation grid 12 in the Main City.

(Courtesy of the Amarna Project).

In terms of the internal workings of the city, the approach of the Amarna Project has largely been to work outward from household or neighborhood economies, an underlying theme being the degree to which people were reliant on the state or were self-sufficient. The investigation of local economies in this way began with the work at the Workmen’s Village, where the excavations developed a picture of peripheral living in which the villagers were dependent on state supplies of water, pottery, and much of their meat but acquired a level of self-sufficiency that saw them cultivating the land around the village for vegetables, fruits, and herbs and for raising animals, including pigs, the presence of which implies steady access to a water supply (Kemp, 1987; Stevens and Clapham, 2014). Samuel (1999), in a study of food processing at the village, offers an example of how the reliance of the community on state-delivered grain supplies may have impacted patterns of living, resulting in the sharing of certain food-production facilities across households. As a point of contrast, investigations at the Stone Village have not yet revealed definite signs of garden plots or animal pens and provide evidence of less varied plant consumption (Clapham and Stevens, 2012: 15–45), thus suggesting perhaps a community of lower standing than the Workmen’s Village.

The isolated locations of the two villages, and their likely connection with work on the royal tombs, lend them very specific subsistence profiles. Fieldwork within a neighborhood of small houses in the Main City (Excavation Grid 12: Figure 3) offered a window on a different model of everyday living. The work demonstrated, on the one hand, the overlap that existed between residential and working space in New Kingdom Egypt, known also from other settlements of the period (e.g., Memphis: Giddy, 1999). The Grid 12 houses contained evidence for aspects of textile production, the melting down and reworking of small scraps of metal, and the shaping of faience inlays (Kemp and Stevens, 2010a, 2010b). The latter, represented by large numbers of finished inlays and the off-cuts from their working, opens particularly interesting paths of interpretation. There seems little context for the use of inlays of this kind in the Grid 12 houses, at least not on a large scale, implying that they were being produced with redistribution in mind. They seem best suited for use in high-end architecture, including temples and palaces. The assemblage may thus offer a chance to flesh out the “patron-provider” model suggested by the architectural relationships between smaller houses and the larger estates, the inlays being channeled into state building projects via one of the neighborhood officials. The latter was probably the official Ranefer, who lived nearby and whose courtyard contained up to three large circular granaries at any one time (Kemp and Stevens, 2010a: 103–105). This in turn gives rise to the idea that the Amarna suburbs were essentially vast but loosely structured workshops in the service of the state (Stevens and Eccleston, 2007: 151). It is a model that can be extended to other parts of Amarna, such as the estates of stone sculptors, which seem to have had their own attached “villages” of workers (Arnold, 1996: 41–43; Kemp and Stevens, 2010a: 493–495).

It is not yet clear, however, how far this model is specific to Amarna as a rapidly built royal city or is relevant for other urban centers. Presumably it went hand in hand with the system of barter that underlay everyday exchange and is well documented in texts, especially from the village of Deir el-Medina (Janssen, 1975), but where the two paths—of state supply and private enterprise—intersected in the Main City is unclear (e.g., Vanthuyne, 2012). One conspicuous absence in the Grid 12 neighborhood, and the city suburbs generally, are garden plots and animal pens of the kind found at the Workmen’s Village, although preliminary study of plant remains hints that a wider variety of species may have been consumed at the former (Stevens and Clapham, 2010: 433). Were these too being supplied via officials, bartered for, or might households have farmed small plots of land along the riverbank, now lost under modern cultivation? For the Grid 12 faience producers, a hint of an alternative market appears in a later New Kingdom text describing an Egyptian “mansion,” the attributes of which include walls inlaid with lapis lazuli (Lichtheim, 1976: 173; Shaw, 1992: 150–151). We can doubt that lapis lazuli was widely employed for this purpose in reality, but blue faience tiles would be an appropriate substitute, and perhaps allowed reciprocal arrangements of exchange between suburban faience producers and the elite seeking to decorate their homes.

The Grid 12 excavations demonstrate the great potential that still exists for excavation among domestic quarters at Amarna to repopulate houses with the artifact and environmental assemblages lost to the early excavations. A priority of future work should be to investigate houses across different parts of the city and across a broader socio-economic spectrum; we still have no well-excavated assemblages from any of the walled villas, for example. Archaeology—and excavation—has an ongoing role in building up a more nuanced understanding of how the city worked, expanding on studies based on the distribution of finds from the earlier excavations (Shaw, 1995). One issue is how far the city was organized according to guilds, or quarters that specialized in the manufacture of specific goods (Shaw, 2004: 17–25). We know that household production of faience was common, as shown by the widespread distribution of faience molds across the city, but it is not clear how far this was restricted to the production of personal items such as jewelry or included products for redistribution as seen at Grid 12 (see Boyce, 1995; Shortland, 2000; Vanthuyne, 2012).

We are also yet to fully integrate the upper echelons of the distribution network: the role of the state and its institutions. Kemp (1994, 1995b: 33–34) observes that there should be potential at Amarna to map onto an archaeological assemblage the “reversion of offerings,” a long-standing tradition whereby goods offered in the daily temple cult, including food, wine, and beer, could be redistributed to the public (Haring, 1997). Priests and temple staff were given priority in receiving offerings, but textual source material does not make it clear how far these opportunities filtered into society. At Amarna, scenes in officials’ tombs show vast numbers of offering tables within the Aten temples, piled with joints of meat, bread, and other goods (Davies, 1903–1908), and excavations have exposed large bakeries and complexes for wine storage and meat production in the Central City. In part, these probably served the nearby palaces, but their roles were likely to have included servicing the daily temple cult (Kemp, 1994, 1995b: 34). Excavations have confirmed that the Great Aten Temple, for part of the city’s occupation, contained many hundreds of offering tables (Kemp, 1995b: 33). Tracing how and to what extent offerings filtered out among the population of Amarna has proved difficult, however: there is no smooth path here from artistic sources to archaeology by way of textual evidence. Ongoing studies of faunal remains and their distribution around the site may help elucidate how widely meat was consumed, but they are hampered by the fairly poor survival of animal bone at the site (for preliminary work, see Payne, 2006, 2007; Legge, 2012). In a less direct way, the study of human remains from the South Tombs Cemetery, which is producing evidence for nutritional hardship (Rose and Zabecki, 2009; Kemp et al., 2013; Dabbs et al., 2015), throws doubt on whether the general population was receiving reversion offerings, at least those with high nutritional value such as meat, on any regular basis. Nor is there much evidence that meat offerings were being left for the dead here.

The Lived City

The suburbs and houses of Amarna do not “come alive” to us easily, at least not in the way of Deir el-Medina or indeed Pompeii, with their vivid decoration and accompanying daily life texts. Amarna houses have largely been cleared of their original contents and have few permanent fittings, and those that do survive are mostly utilitarian. Although we can often identify how areas were used (for cooking, sleeping, etc.), understanding the social cues that gave meaning to urban and domestic spaces is far more difficult. But in these aspects Amarna is typical of most ancient Egyptian settlements.

Domestic ambience offers one useful starting point, and observations based on Amarna houses are certainly relevant for New Kingdom domestic experience more broadly (e.g., Spencer, 2014). For many, close-quarter living and a lack of light in the home seem to have been the norm. This, of course, may have been entirely acceptable, if not even desired, even given the preference toward more spacious living in the larger elites; more personal space was not necessarily what was being sought in the latter. Amarna houses show the ancient Egyptian preference for a “low horizon of living” (Kemp, 2012: 199–202), making use of low mud-brick benches and portable stone and wooden stools, seats, and tables. And they show that despite, or because of, the dusty environment, living spaces were kept clean: well-tended mud floors are a feature of excavated houses. It is the pragmatic elements of domestic life that have the strongest imprint in the archaeological record. What we often miss, because they were deliberately removed or lost to termites and weathering, are the aesthetic elements. Something of these survive in painted wall and ceiling plaster (Peet and Woolley, 1923: 59–60; Kemp and Stevens, 2010a: 133–179), and object lists from the early excavations, and artifacts deposited in graves, give a hint of the rich object world that was available, at least to some: fragments of gold leaf (found in houses of rich and poor), elaborately carved boxes, and a gold-link chain for an infant (Kemp, 2012: fig. 6.12; Stevens et al., 2013: 13). Mapping this material back into houses and the lives of their occupants is a task that largely remains. Among the most evocative are pieces of resin, often melted on to the surfaces of small pottery dishes (Serpico and White, 2000), that attest the burning of incense to beautify or purify the home, a relatively rare archaeological attestation of sensory experiences other than the visual.

The feel of the home, we might assume, was often family-oriented and a place of retreat. Yet the multifunctional nature of Amarna houses needs to be remembered. These were sometimes workplaces, probably not just for manufacture but also for meeting. Spence (2010) reconstructs the domestic environment of Amarna as quite a formal one. She notes how the layout of the rooms leading into the central room, a probable reception area, may have been designed to disorient the visitor by means of sharp turns and restricted but pinpointed lighting, thus establishing a hierarchy that gave the upper hand to the house owner. Kemp (2012: 182, fig. 5.20, 188) offers a more open reconstruction of the entrance loggia but notes that not all houses may have been so designed. With Egyptian archaeology increasingly, if somewhat belatedly, becoming absorbed into broader archaeological dialogue on houses as experienced spaces (Meskell, 2002: 110–125), we can expect further work on this aspect of Amarna life (e.g., Koltsida, 2007).

Another central theme at Amarna is that of response to change. How did the people of Amarna cope, both physically and spiritually, with being uprooted to this new city? We have very few private texts that shed light on such aspects. One of the closest measures we have of “quality of life,” at least in terms of physical stress, is through the study of the skeletal remains of the people of Amarna. Excavations at the South Tombs Cemetery have added remarkable depth to how we understand the ancient city, with the study of around 400 individuals revealing likely signs of widespread dietary deficiencies and hard working lives (Rose and Zabecki, 2009; Kemp et al., 2013; Dabbs et al., 2015. But whether these experiences were more extreme at Amarna than elsewhere at this time is not yet clear, as there are relatively few well-excavated non-elite cemeteries available for comparison. It is noteworthy that work on New Kingdom cemeteries in Egyptian-occupied Nubia is revealing similar results (e.g., Buzon 2006; Binder and Spencer, 2014: 128–134).

To a large extent, rich and poor seemed to have shared a common symbolic framework at Amarna. Imagery found on amulets at the Stone Village, for example, finds repeated expression in jewelry from the Royal Tomb, here produced in more expensive materials (Stevens, 2012a: 442). Yet one notable disjunction appears in the distribution of objects relating to the royal cult: the worship of the royal family as intermediaries to the Aten, if not in their own right. Shrines for the cult are more common in larger houses than they are in smaller ones, and cult images in the form of stelae and statues are generally of high quality (Crocker, 1985: 56; Ikram, 1989: 100; Stevens, 2006: 121–125, 133–138, 317–318). This seems to suggest a largely elite concern with the cult, with some blurred boundaries (traces of individual voices?) in goods such as small, roughly carved stelae that show the royal family (Stevens, 2006: 133–138, 318). The cult was not one that has left a strong imprint on personal ritual items such as jewelry, where we do find royal names and those of the Aten but far fewer royal images, and none of the Aten at all (Stevens, 2006: 30–31, 44–46, 63–67). Freedom of thought is not well suited to elucidation through material remains, but here we see choices at play in regard to loyalty to, and interest in, the official cult: experience seems to lie not too far below the surface of the archaeological finds.

Amarna typifies settlement archaeology in that “community” and “household” are its most easily approached social groupings. The South Tombs Cemetery reminds us that Amarna was also a landscape of individuals; that some people lived their entire lives here, for example. Although burial method is very uniform at the cemetery there are hints of individuals defining themselves, or being defined by those who buried them, through material culture: the inclusion of personal goods such as mirrors and tweezers, jewelry and amulets with varied imagery, often likely to have been used during life. Variation in individual expression and experience can be pursued here. Among the almost uniformly supine burials are two interments of older women (aged 40–50 and 50+ years) buried in contracted positions (Stevens et al., 2013: 8), a posture not typically Egyptian. Morphological analysis of the cranio-facial features suggests that at least one of the women had Near Eastern ancestry (G. Dabbs, personal communication, 2014). Amarna must have been a multicultural city, yet ethnic diversity is not easily found among its archaeological remains (Kemp, 2012: 269–270). Was ethnicity an aspect of individuality that was suppressed in everyday life or ill suited to expression in material culture? Plotting personal expression and identity back into the city is a task that largely remains—as indeed is the elucidation of individual, and especially non-elite, agency in shaping the city. The role of text in everyday life, from inscribed architecture to amulets, is another theme that awaits study.

Concluding Remarks

Amarna, an archaeological site with less background “noise” than those with longer occupational histories, gives us space to consider and reflect upon a population across a time frame that falls within the bounds of a single lifetime. It is as close as we will get to traveling back and seeing an ancient Egyptian city functioning at a moment in time. Future research will undoubtedly see a continuing focus on the inner workings and experiences of the city. Engagement with theoretical discourse generated within anthropology, sociology, and other disciplines is likely to increase. With its rich body of empirical data, Amarna seems a perfect testing ground for many of the (Mertonian) “middle-range” or “empirical urban” theories outlined by Smith (2011) as offering potential to engage archaeological data and “link the actions of people in cities to the materiality of the urban built environment” (Smith 2011, 183) in a more nuanced way than empirical studies alone. These cover themes including the recursive relationships between people’s actions and their built environments, the communication of messages through city design, and “reception theory,” or the experience of built space by residents and visitors through movement, daily activities, and ceremony.

Future research should also look outward. Our understanding of where Amarna sat in the living landscape of Eighteenth Dynasty Egypt and beyond is poor. Although studies of ancient urbanism are increasingly looking to the relationships between cities and their hinterlands and environments (Joyce 2009, 191–192), we know virtually nothing about contemporaneous local settlements, and broader regional approaches are hindered by the difficulties isolating late Eighteenth Dynasty levels at long-lived settlements, such as Memphis and Thebes. Ongoing excavation and outward-looking perspectives are crucial to build a better understanding of how Amarna exchanged goods, people, and ideas with the rest of Egypt and the world beyond, was unique or otherwise, and sits more broadly within the history and study of urbanism.


I am very grateful to Neal Spencer for his comments on a draft of this essay. More information on Amarna can be found at and details of how to support research and conservation at the site at


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