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Fieldwork - Tell El-Amarna

The Society's work at Amarna is summarised below. For further details see the website dedicated to the project.

The current programme of fieldwork at Tell el-Amarna

Source: Barry Kemp, June 2003

The archaeological site of Tell el-Amarna in Middle Egypt is the short-lived city created by king Akhenaten around 1350 BC and occupied for less than twenty years. It offers a single archaeological horizon which is easily accessible over an extended area and has excellent conditions of preservation. It offers great scope for the study of urbanism, domestic economy, and the technology of its period. It also has a high public profile. A second period of occupation, from the 5th and 6th centuries AD, is also available for study and includes a complete Christian monastic community (at the site of Kom el-Nana). These two periods, plus the opportunities for collecting contemporary material, also provide a good depth of time for natural science research which aims to document changes in living species and in environment, an aspect of the work which has generated a number of research papers in recent years.

The site consists of three sets of remains:

The city: Amarna was never lost as an ancient site. It has always been visible as the ruins of an ancient city and was recognized as such by the Napoleonic expedition in 1798. Investigation by archaeologists began in the late 19th century. Regular annual seasons of excavation were carried out by an expedition of the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft between 1911 and 1914, and by the Egypt Exploration Society between 1921 and 1936, and since 1979 (following two survey seasons in 1977 and 1978). A detailed survey of the city, by B.J. Kemp and S. Garfi, A survey of the ancient city of el-'Amarna, was published by the EES in 1993.

The tombs: two sets of decorated rock tombs for Akhenaten’s officials lies in the cliffs behind the city, and are commonly known as the North and South Tombs. They have been open since ancient times and the burial chambers entirely emptied of material. The scenes and inscriptions were copied early in the 20th century and published by the Society in a series of 6 volumes, The Rock Tombs of Amarna (1903-1908). In a more distant valley between the North and South Tombs lies the royal cemetery which includes the tomb of Akhenaten. The objects and reliefs have been fully published by G.T. Martin, The Royal Tomb at el-'Amarna, 2 vols (1974, 1989). In recent years a French expedition (Prof Marc Gabolde) has made another thorough study of the remaining material around the tombs.

Outlying desert sites: several smaller and sometimes not very conspicuous sites lie on the desert plain between the city and the tombs and on the high desert behind. They are the subject of a current survey, which has identified three small cemeteries for the first time. Amongst the desert sites are the Workmen’s Village where the EES worked between 1979 and 1986. The best conditions for organic preservation are to be found here.

The Egypt Exploration Society's association with Amarna began in 1921. Annual seasons of excavation ran until 1936, and were resumed in 1979. The Society has a large archive, including the extensive photographic collection of fieldwork from the 1920s and 30s.

Amarna Survey 2001-2002
Above: Map showing the relationship between the map sheets of the city survey and the new desert survey.
A further area has now been added to the desert survey.


Amarna 2003
Above: Sites of field projects during March/April 2003.

The current programme of the Egypt Exploration Society at Amarna, carried out under the supervision of the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt, has a number of separate elements which aim at an integrated approach to documentation, conservation, research and visitor access.


Documentation and Digital Resources

Through the rapid development of digital technology in recent years it has become possible to build up a series of databases for Amarna, in digital format.

Mapping: since the location and distribution of features across so large a site is one of the aspects that make Amarna so special we are giving a high priority to the creation of digital maps within a GIS framework. A large proportion of the maps of excavation sites carried out in recent years has been digitized. These include the whole of the Kom el-Nana excavation and that to the south of the Great Palace at a medium level of resolution, and some of the areas of the North Palace and Small Aten Temple likewise, the house of Ranefer and part of the Workmen’s Village. The survey map sheet (no. 5) of the Central City has been done at a coarser level, intended to form part of a continuous digital map of the whole city based upon the 8 survey sheets published. This will be integrated with the newly begun GPS digital survey of the desert hinterland.

GPS survey: alongside the digitization of existing maps, a new survey of the desert hinterland is being undertaken using differential GPS equipment, by an archaeological surveyor (Helen Fenwick) from the University of Hull. The method is rapid, highly accurate, and is leading to the mapping of a range of features which are essential to the full understanding of Amarna. The survey has so far covered the ground between city and cliffs as far as the South Tombs. It is providing data for contour maps and digital terrain models. As the survey progresses it is accompanied by low-level aerial photography from a small helium photographic balloon. The survey has led to the discovery of several new sites, including three cemeteries.

Amarna GPS desert survey

Objects: huge numbers of objects, from beads to statues, have been found at Amarna in the more than one hundred years that it has been subject to excavation. Creating a unified database is a huge undertaking. Our current programme with the objects has three elements:

1) Objects from the recent excavations (1979 onwards): at present several in-house databases are in existence, the largest covering the pottery sherds, and now up to 130,000.

2) Objects from the EES 1921–1936 seasons: a preliminary listing with page references to the City of Akhenaten volumes has been made and is mounted on the Amarna web site. The person responsible for this (Dr Nuala Simpson) is working to add information on archive records for the objects and for their present locations.

3) Statue fragments: in the site magazine at Amarna we now have around 1000 fragments of broken statues of Akhenaten and other members of the royal family. Mostly they come not from our own excavations but from the spoil heaps of the older work, especially those from the 1930s excavation of the Great Palace. Two Amarna statue specialists (Kristin Thompson and Dimitri Laboury) are working to catalogue them. The most important result so far has been the assembly of parts of a pair statue in black grano-diorite of Akhenaten and Nefertiti from the house of the sculptor Thutmose. One of the heads (of Nefertiti) is in the Berlin Museum.

Akhenaten and Nefertiti statues
Above: The head is a cast of the original in Berlin
(digital image by D. Laboury and C. Rossi)

The aim with the digital datasets is gradually to mount them on the Amarna web-site which is currently maintained by the McDonald Institute in Cambridge. It contains two at the moment: one for the textiles and one for the 1921-36 objects (in preliminary form only). The web site address is:

One major group of finds originally from Amarna which we have made no attempt to deal with are the Hermopolis blocks. Several hundred are in store in the SCA magazine at al-Ashmunein. This is a project waiting to be done.


Building Conservation

The conservation of ancient buildings has been part of the expedition work since 1988. Mud-brick walls are not stable: they erode through the action of wind, occasional rain, and human activity. At the North Palace, for example, photographs taken in the 1920s show that since then about half of the volume of brickwork present at that time has disappeared. Our policy is to preserve and to keep visible as much of the ancient brickwork as possible. Usually we replace eroded bricks especially at the base of walls, and add capping layers to the tops. When wall lines have disappeared completely but their original line is definitely known we replace the wall with two or three courses.

Our philosophy is that our restorations should be fairly unobtrusive and as far as possible leave as much ancient brickwork visible as possible. Irregularity is part of the character of ancient buildings. We try to avoid over-restoration.

At present the conservation is carried out under the supervision of Suresh Dhargalkar, an architect who for many years was employed to supervise building conservation on some of the royal palaces in the United Kingdom. The builders and workmen who carry out the conservation are local men who have done this work with us for many years and have built up much experience. The two current projects are the North Palace and Small Aten Temple.

North Palace

The walls of the North Palace are built from mud bricks which have been eroding very badly in recent years. Often all the exposed surfaces are under attack and there have been several collapses.

Brickmaking outside the North Palace

Our method is to:

- replace badly eroded bricks where they form the face of the wall especially towards the base where erosion creates a danger of collapse

- cap the tops of walls with new bricks where the existing top is soft

- recreate in a few new courses walls and brick columns which are either entirely missing or are represented by only a low mound of decomposed bricks

The replacement bricks are newly made at the site, on a patch of flat desert outside the enclosure wall. The new bricks are made from locally available materials using a formula which is the result both of analysis of the old bricks and of testing alternative formulae. The ingredients are:

- local soil from the fields mixed with plant material

- small stones

- fire ash

- animal dung

- slaked (burnt) lime

Two important stages in manufacture are:

- dissolving the slaked lime in water and soaking the soil in it in order to impregnate the mud mixture with the lime, to add to the hardness

- making the bricks from a relatively dry mud mix which can be compressed through manual hammering in very strongly made moulds (specially made in England to the correct ancient dimensions). The resulting bricks are quite hard and dense and relatively free from the organic content which attracts termite attack.

Brickmaking outside the North Palace

The area which we are concentrating on is the row of rooms at the back (east) of the palace. It is here that the walls stand generally highest, it is the part which visitors see first because it is immediately in front of the viewing platform, and it is the part where recent erosion seems to be most severe. Our plan has been to start at the northern end and work southwards. In 2002 we finished the rooms north of the central columned hall.

North Palace during repairs

North Palace after repaires

In the most recent season (2003) we have concentrated on the central columned hall.

Column bases. The rear part of the palace originally possessed many columns set on stone column bases. Several of them survive. The positions of the missing ones are visible from traces left on the floors, often patches of gypsum plaster. For the garden court at the north end of the site, in 2000 we replaced the missing column bases with new ones. These were made from a mixture of white cement and white sand poured into a special mould which we had had made in England, and strengthened internally with iron rods. In 2003 we began the replacement of the column bases in the central hall, with the laying of white cement circular pads upon which the newly cast bases themselves will be set, we hope next year.

Stonework. In other places the North Palace used stone sparingly, mostly as door thresholds. We have replaced a few of these using new stone slabs. However, at the front of the central hall there survives the gypsum plaster foundations for a broad staircase leading to an external platform originally made from limestone blocks. We have made a detailed plan of this. We propose next year to lay a single course of limestone blocks over this, using blocks cut to the original ancient size. A layer of sand to protect the ancient gypsum plaster from the new blocks has already been put down.

Plan of the North Palace, showing areas of recent conservation

Above: Plan of the North Palace, showing areas of recent conservation.


North Palace. Central Hall

North Palace. Central Hall

North Palace. Central Hall

North Palace

North Palace

North Palace



Small Aten Temple

The smaller of the two temples to the Aten lies in the heart of the city in the part most accessible to visitors. Originally it possessed a monumental stone sanctuary but all of the wall blocks and most of the other stone architectural elements were taken away after the end of the Amarna Period. What is left is the gypsum foundation layer from beneath the stonework and the mud-brick walls of the pylons and courtyards. The EES expedition began its present work at the temple in 1987, starting conservation in the following year. Since then we have recleared the entire building and made a fresh architectural study, and have also removed the huge spoil heaps from the 1930s’ excavations. We have redefined the area of the sanctuary in new limestone blocks and begun extensive repairs to the brick walls and to the three sets of mud-brick pylons following procedures similar to those used at the North Palace.

Small Aten Temple


The broad doorways between the three brick pylons were originally floored with limestone blocks. The gypsum plaster foundations for these survive and have been planned in detail. They are at present covered with sand to protect them. The principal work carried out in 2003 was the laying of a new floor of stone in the broad gateway between the first set of pylons. We plan to do the same with the second and third pylons. The purposes are firstly to create clear horizontal ground lines which help visitors to appreciate the fact that the temple was built on rising ground, and secondly to advertise the fact that there were originally monumental stone doorways between the brick pylon towers.

Small Aten Temple before restoration Small Aten Temple after restoration
Above left: before restoration - Above right: after restoration



It is important to realise that after the end of the Amarna Period the city seems to have been abandoned in an orderly way. Moreover it remained open to scavenging for a long time afterwards. Consequently most objects of value were removed in ancient times. In the 19th century AD, before archaeologists began to excavate, a large part of the site was dug over by local villagers and treasure-hunters. The main part to escape was the eastern edge of the large housing area to the south of the Central City. This best preserved part became the focus for the German excavations of 1911 to 1914, and then for the British excavations of 1921 to 1923. They thoroughly cleared most of it.

As a result, almost all of the areas now available for excavation have already been dug over to some extent in relatively modern times. The chances of finding significant museum-quality material or material which will contribute directly to the history of the Amarna Period are therefore small.

Excavation even on a modest scale produces very large quantities of routine evidence that needs to be processed and prepared for publication. Every month of excavation seems to need about a year of post-excavation study. Several volumes of publication are currently being prepared and whilst this is happening the amount of new excavation being done is fairly limited.

House of Ranefer

One current excavation is at the house of one of the officials of Akhenaten, a chariotry officer called Ranefer. The house was first dug in 1921, when it was revealed that beneath Ranefer’s house lay the foundations of a smaller and earlier house (though still one from the Amarna Period).

The present aims are to investigate a rare case of building-plot development, but also to recover the organic content of deposits sealed beneath the floors of the later house. These are being sieved under the supervision of Prof Paul Buckland, an environmental specialist from the university of Sheffield who has also begun the identification of the insects; the plant remains are being studied by Dr Chris Stevens. We have also begun to extend the investigation into Ranefer’s grounds, barely touched by Peet in 1921.

Ranefer's House

Above: Ranefer's house is shaded yellow.

Ranefer's House - phase 1

Ranefer's House - phase 2

Ranefer's House

Ranefer's House

Ranefer's House

Ranefer's House


Material recovered from Ranefer's house:
Above: locust
Below left: blue faience ring-bezel in the shape of the wedjat-eye of Horus
Below right: pebble with ownership inscription in hieratic

blue faience ring-bezel pebble

Environmental research

Several members of the present expedition are engaged in researches of their own on the changing environment in Middle Egypt beginning with the Amarna Period. The raw material are well-preserved plant remains and insect remains, and charcoal from which it is possible to identify species of tree and shrub. Two books are close to publication, one based charcoal identifications and the other a study of agricultural practices in the Late Roman Period.

Cemetery investigation

The desert survey has so far identified three cemeteries of the New Kingdom other than the well-known groups of rock tombs. The one identified this year close to the South Tombs is the most promising to pursue. It is principally represented on the surface by an extensive scatter of human bones and some pottery, the result of one or more flash floods which have washed probably a good part of the original cemetery for at least half a kilometre down a shallow wadi and on to the plain below. The condition of the bones is often quite good, suggesting that the last flood was recent. Prof Jerry Rose, of the University of Arkansas (Fayetteville) is of the opinion that a worthwhile study of certain aspects of the population is feasible based on a methodical surface collection of the bones within a large grid based on GPS reference points. The pottery (most or all of it 18th Dynasty) would be collected at the same time.



Visitor Access

It is central to the expedition’s strategy to try to improve visitor access and understanding. The building repairs at the North Palace and Small Aten Temple contribute to this. In the coming year (Spring 2004) we would like to lay out a visitor trail in the Central City with numbered positions which relate to numbered descriptions on the Amarna web site. These positions would be marked on the ground with low white cement pillars (for which an iron mould has already been made).

Amarna Visitor Centre


Visitors would also be well served by a visitor information centre, a building which explains the background to the site by means of text panels, models and replicas. Mallinson Architects of London has designed just such a centre for Amarna. Three possible exhibits have also been prepared. One is a large model of the greater part of the city itself; another is a large replica wall of talatat-blocks carved with a scene of Akhenaten at the Window of Appearance; a third is a painted panel which reproduces and restores a well known mural from the North Palace, from the so-called ‘Green Room’.


Amarna Visitor Centre

Amarna Visitor Centre

Amarna Visitor Centre Amarna Visitor Centre

Amarna Visitor Centre

Amarna Visitor Centre

Amarna Visitor Centre

Amarna Visitor Centre




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