Life, Death and beyond in Akhenaten's Egypt: Excavating the South Tombs Cemetery at Amarna

Article excerpt


Since the middle of the nineteenth century, the study of ancient Egypt has included the drama of the Amarna period, the 17-year reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten (c. 1349-1332 BC) and a brief aftermath that ended during the reign of Tutankhamun. The prime archaeological manifestation of this episode is the city of Amarna, built by Akhenaten on the east bank of the Nile, some 350km south of modern Cairo. The site reveals something of Akhenaten's intentions, for it was his wish to purify the cult of the sun (the Aten) by creating a place for worship that was uncontaminated by previous associations, human or divine. Amarna also became home, almost incidentally, to a population ofperhaps 20-30 000 people-- officials, soldiers, people involved in manufacture and even more whose place in life was to serve others--who followed the royal court to this new city and set about re- establishing their lives and livelihoods.


Amarna has long been ancient Egypt's largest accessible urban site, a rich source for the study of domestic architecture and the material remnants of life (Kemp 1977, 1989: 261-317; Kemp & Stevens 2010a, 2010b). Research that began in 2005 is now adding further layers of information, derived from the survey and excavation of a major cemetery of Amarna's people: the South Tombs Cemetery. Some of that information is cultural, and some derives from the anthropological study of the human remains. Together, it offers new perspectives on life in Akhenaten's city; on one community's responses, physical and spiritual, to a period of social upheaval and religious re-ordering; and on the rituals and broader behaviour patterns that accompanied death for the non-elite (surprisingly poorly documented up to now; Baines & Lacovara 2002). Beyond the historical interest of Akhenaten's reign, the value of the Amarna cemetery lies in our ability to pinpoint when and where this population lived, relatively rare in the Egyptian setting, where cemeteries often survive in isolation from the cities and towns they served. In this paper, we offer a preliminary overview of the excavations and results obtained so far.

The South Tombs Cemetery

The South Tombs Cemetery occupies a sand-filled wadi that cuts through a limestone escarpment that forms part of the eastern boundary to the Amarna plain (Figures 1 & 2).


The adjacent rock face is dotted with unfinished, but often elaborately decorated, rock-cut tombs intended for officials of Akhenaten's city (the 'South Tombs' proper). Following a surface survey in 2005, around 1550[m.sup.2] of ground has been investigated in three separate areas within the wadi: the Upper Site (700[m.sup.2]), Lower Site (575[m.sup.2]) and Wadi Mouth Site (275[m.sup.2]) (Figure 2). The cemetery is likely to contain several thousand burials. So far, we have excavated 222 graves and recovered 274 skeletons; some incomplete, with some grave pits accommodating more than one body.

Burial rites

Two aspects best characterise the approach to burial and provisioning the dead: an overall simplicity and consistency of approach. The ground tends to be quite densely occupied by graves, which take the form of simple oblong pits dug into the sand. The 2006 excavations at the Upper Site revealed a grave with a mud-brick burial chamber (Ambridge & Shepperson 2006: 35), but this is so far unique. In terms of grave orientation, the local topography seems to be the overriding influence, with pits cut into flat ground tending to run approximately parallel to the line of the wadi, and those on sloping ground to run across the slope. Neighbouring pits usually conform to similar orientations, and there is a reasonably clear process of secondary infilling of the ground with graves that tend to follow more varied orientations.

At surface level, most graves appear to have been marked by low cairns of limestone boulders, sometimes with a memorial stela showing an image of the deceased (Figures 3 & 4). …