The Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt

By W. Stevenson Smith | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 16
THE CHANGE TO AMARNA

CULTURAL changes seldom lend themselves well to neat chronological arrangement, but the reign of Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten) presents an aggravating problem for anyone attempting to understand the course of his religious revolution with the accompanying effect which this had on the arts. There has been a growing tendency to accept the theory that the young king acted as co-regent with his father during the crucial years in which a profound change occurred. It is possible to trace earlier manifestations of this change and to see how in many details long-established practice continued under the new regime. The general impression is, nonetheless, one of an abrupt break with tradition. It is not surprising, then, that there was first a tendency to stress the revolutionary character of Akhenaten's reform and then, in reaction, to place a contrary emphasis upon the survival of old details in the new forms. However, until fairly recently, it was at least accepted that some sort of break occurred after a short period of experimentation at Thebes following upon the death of Amenhotep, III. This was in the days when three tombs at Thebes, a few blocks from a shrine of the Aten at Karnak, and a very limited number of monuments elsewhere, provided decidedly meagre hints in the face of the overwhelming body of material from the capital which Akhenaten was known to have founded at Tell el Amarna at some time between the 4th and 6th year of his reign. Only a few keen observers stressed the significance of the Amenhotep IV blocks which were first noted by Lepsius and Prisse d'Avennes in the last century and since 1902 had been turning up in the reconstruction work at Karnak.1 These have now reached an embarrassing number of thousands, while hundreds of similar blocks have been found at other sites.2 We have seen that a great deal of material has now become available from the palace of Amenhotep III at Thebes, but it has also increased from further excavation at Amarna, as well as from other sources such as the tomb of Tut-ankh-amon. It is obvious that, since the publication of this vast accumulation of material is far from complete, any attempt to interpret it is a somewhat perilous enterprise.

A broader view can be gained than there was some thirty years ago in that rich period of Amarna studies which followed the pre-war German excavations and the post-war recognition of the importance of the extraordinary contents of the workshop of the Master Sculptor Tuthmosis at Amarna. It must be admitted that this view is still not as clear as one could wish, even though a great deal can be seen through the romantic haze that has always tended to grow particularly dense about the central figure of Akhenaten himself. To no other time in Egyptian history has reconstruction been so lavishly applied by ingenious minds. As in the case of the events themselves, the monuments have taken on almost too concrete a form for the extremely fragmentary elements which compose them. Yet the parts of this whole exist in superabundant quantity. An effort to apply a practical, common-sense approach to this material is apt to founder, because there is an extravagant element here which defies cool analysis.

-173-

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