Tag Archives: Akhenaten

Object Biography # 22: A sculptor’s trial piece of Akhenaten(?) drinking


Fragmentary trial piece of figure drinking from a cup, Manchester Museum

Ancient Egyptian art was governed by a strong sense of decorum – i.e. what was permissible to depict and how it was presented – especially in relation to the Pharaoh. This system changed significantly during the reign of Akhenaten (c. 1352-1336 BC), when new scene-types were introduced. The king, queen and royal family are represented in previously unparalleled moments of intimacy: apparently ‘playing’ with children, holding hands and even kissing. Such acts would be unthinkable for Senwosret III or Tuthmose III, and were perhaps shocking to an ancient audience – although the impact of visual culture, and the composition of the audience, is difficult to model.

Another activity in which the king is usually never shown partaking is eating and drinking. Egyptian kings present offerings to gods; non-royal people sit impassively in front of heaped offering tables. eii-toastDespite the great importance placed on eternal sustenance, the act of eating itself is conspicuous by its absence. Even mouths – of any
human figure – are almost never shown as open.

In a modern Western context, it is often considered undignified for leaders to be seen consuming food. Queen Elizabeth II is often shown toasting a visiting head of state at a banquet – but she is never pictured eating. Elected politicians are more likely to be compromised when photographed eating because they appear vulnerable – and, consequently, foolish.


British politician Ed Milliband looks undignified when caught eating on camera


Detail showing cup or chalice, with spindly fingers

The present object is a reconstructed single limestone plaque (31 x 17cm), rather than a section of relief. It may therefore have been a sculptor’s trial piece but may have also had a (secondary?) votive, devotional function at Amarna, where images of the king (and royal family) were key objects of cult. There is no preserved text to identify the figure, who is shown seated and holding a goblet or chalice to his mouth.

The spindly fingers, voluminous kilt and languid (to modern eyes, at least) pose might indicate suggest a depiction of Akhenaten himself – especially as the face of the figure has been deliberately effaced – a fate meted out to images of the king after his death. A close parallel for the pose of the present image occurs in a scene of the royal family ‘feasting’ from the tomb of Huya at Amarna.


Scene in tomb of Huya at Amarna of royal family ‘feast’, with drinking figures of Queen Tiye (at left) and Akhenaten and Nefertiti (at right)

In fact, these and other scenes do not actually show the royals consuming anything – their mouths are all closed and their faces are impassive – but about to consume the food and drink they hold. The same restraint occurs in a small plaque – perhaps an instructive parallel to the present piece – showing a princess about to eat a cooked duck. What is


Amarna princess about to consume a duck, Cairo Museum

innovative is that food and drink is shown being the king or royal family at all.

One major problem of interpretation, especially with Amarna Period representation, is that we often impose modern parallels on ancient evidence to describe what is going on; like so-called ‘jubilees’ and ‘durbars’, this is not a ‘banquet’ in a modern sense. It targets other concerns that are not likely to be fully understood by a modern audience.

As Margaret Murray wrote in 1949, Akhenaten “appeals by a mixture of religion and sentiment”. In creating the innovative image world of Amarna, artisans had to learn new motifs and scene types. Perhaps this explains the significant number of so-called ‘trial pieces’ and models found at the site of Amarna. The present piece was perhaps one of many experimental stages in refining the royal image – creating innovative poses, such as the king drinking, attested in tombs of officials like Huya.


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Dazzling things for Akhenaten & Nefertiti: Glass production at Amarna

In a guest blog, Dr Anna Hodgkinson, of the Freie Universität and the Egyptian Museum, Berlin, discusses some interesting pieces from Amarna, the capital city of ‘heretic’ king Akhenaten

I recently spent two days working in the stores of Manchester Museum, studying objects related to glass-working from the sites of Tell el-Amarna, in Middle Egypt, and Gurob, in the Egyptian Fayum. Both sites were partially excavated by W.M.F. Petrie in the 1890s, which is the reason for the large numbers of objects from these sites at Manchester and other UK collections.

My research project, which is based at the Freie Universität and the Egyptian Museum, Berlin, focusses on the manufacture of glass- and faience items in Late Bronze Age Egypt and Mesopotamia, in conjunction with the production of foodstuffs. While this largely took place at a domestic level, much evidence of institutionalised industries exists. This particularly applies to the palatial, or royal settlements of the ancient Egyptian New Kingdom.


Much evidence of glass-working and, possibly, raw glass production exists from Amarna. However, while extremely high quantities of objects have been found in the course of recent, thorough, excavations, such as those led by Barry Kemp since 1977, the early excavations by Petrie (1891-2) also yielded vast quantities of such items. Petrie had a special interest in the manufacture of glass in ancient Egypt, and, for this reason, he brought back a huge quantity of items, which were presented to various museum collections. Unfortunately, since the precise find locations were not recorded, we are only aware of the general area in which the objects were found: the north-western Main City and also the Central City “palace wasteheaps” at Amarna.

During my time at Manchester, I studied almost 160 objects related to glass-working from Petrie’s work at Amarna. While finished glass artefacts, particularly intricately decorated vessels, can be considered elite objects, simple items of jewellery would have still been accessible to people who were less well-off. The distribution of finished goods is thus equally important a case study as that of the manufacturing materials. I am, however, concentrating on the latter group, since this can tell us much more about the methods used and the skills involved in the working of glass.


The large number of items was rather unexpected, and some items had been grouped under a common accession number and needed to be given individual numbers. Items I studied encompass fragments of glass ingots of various sizes and colours, i.e. blocks of raw glass used for the production of finished objects. Furthermore, there were numerous glass rods that had been drawn from the molten ingots, and used for the manufacture and decoration of core-formed vessels and items of jewellery. They had occasionally been flattened into bars and chipped in order to be used as inlays for hieroglyphic inscriptions or to decorate pieces of sculpture. Two large fragments of cylindrical pottery vessels are coated in run-off glass, indicating that they were probably used as moulds for normed glass-ingots.

Petrie even produced his own reconstruction of the manufacturing processes and the ovens used for melting the glass. He states in his publication from 1894 that “Fortunately the sites of three or four glass factories, and two large glazing works, were discovered; and though the actual work-rooms had almost vanished, the waste heaps were full of fragments which shewed the methods employed: moreover the waste heaps of the palace, as we have mentioned in Chap. Il, contained hundreds of pieces of glass vases which illustrate the finished objects.” Petrie used the cylindrical vessels and the oven debris to reconstruct the glass factories in the Main City North. However, excavations by Paul Nicholson in the area in the 1990s have created a slightly different picture: Site O45.1 was found to contain two large and thick-walled kilns, capable of reaching temperatures high enough to produce raw glass from scratch.

In 2014 I was able to undertake a season of excavations at buildings M50.14-16 in Amarna’s southern Main City. This site did not contain any large ovens or kilns, but evidence of pit firing was found, indicating glass-working at lower temperatures. The site also yielded numerous fragments, rods and bars of glass, together with c.90 unfinished and waster glass beads. Similar items were also found by Petrie, probably also in the northern Main City.

While the cataloguing of the glass objects from Amarna in museums worldwide continues, the Manchester collection has already demonstrated that the materials recovered by Petrie are far more numerous than previously assumed. The evaluation of the materials in Manchester Museum will contribute to our knowledge of New Kingdom Egyptian glass-working techniques and the skills of the craftsmen who, in around 1350 BC created large amounts of colourful glass objects in their houses and in larger workshops, catering to the elite, to Pharaoh as well as producing objects for their own use.

Read further:

Petrie, William Matthew Flinders, 1894. Tell el-Amarna, London: Methuen.

Nicholson, Paul T., 2007. Brilliant Things for Akhenaten: The Production of Glass, Vitreous Materials and Pottery at Amarna Site O45.1, EES EM 80, London.

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Temples, Gold and Border Security: Nubia and Egypt in the New Kingdom

Sesebi. Photo: Anna Garnett

Sesebi. Photo: Anna Garnett

In the last of her guest blogs, British Museum Future Curator trainee Anna Garnett describes material from the New Kingdom site of Sesebi

This week I recorded two lectures for Manchester University’s Online Diploma course in Egyptology, organised by Dr. Joyce Tyldesley. To complement the course structure, and to draw upon my own experiences, I gave an introduction to New Kingdom Nubia (the northernmost part of modern Northern Sudan) focussing on the site of Sesebi.

The Nile Valley, stretching from Egypt into Sudan, was a vital trade link and corridor of exotic materials, people and ideas throughout the pharaonic period. During the New Kingdom (c. 1550-1069 BC) the Egyptian pharaohs pushed further and further into Nubia with military campaigns, in order to bring the area under Egyptian control and therefore have power over the Nubian resources, which significantly included gold mines. During this time, the administration of Nubia was placed under the control of an important official known as the ‘Viceroy of Kush’, or the ‘King’s Son of Kush’; a title which emphasises their close relationship to the king. The Viceroy also supervised the tribute coming into Egypt.

Acc. no. 9456. Scarab of Ramesses II from Sesebi.

Acc. no. 9456. Scarab of Ramesses II from Sesebi.

The region of Upper (southern) Nubia was known to the Egyptians as ‘Kush’; an area which the New Kingdom Egyptians recognised as ‘Vile Kush’. Egyptian pharaohs established a large and complex system of fortifications and patrols in the area as a very visible message of domination to the local Nubian population. These fortifications often included temples and domestic architecture, and are known as ‘temple-towns’. One such example is the ‘temple-town’ of Sesebi, on the west bank of the Nile in the region of the Second Nile Cataract.

This site was constructed mainly during the Amarna Period during the reign of Akhenaten (c. 1350-1334 BC) and is currently being investigated by a team directed by Dr. Kate Spence (University of Cambridge) and Dr. Pamela Rose (Austrian Archaeological Institute). A temple dedicated to Amun-Re, Mut and Khonsu, domestic housing and storage facilities were built within an impressive

Acc. no. 9469. Sherd with potmark depicting the Memphite creator god Ptah. From Sesebi

Acc. no. 9469. Sherd with potmark depicting the Memphite creator god Ptah. From Sesebi

buttressed mudbrick fortification wall enclosing an area of approximately 270 x 200m. The modern site of Sesebi is characterised by the three remaining standing sandstone columns which preserve oval name-rings containing the names of Egypt’s conquered enemies. Close comparisons can be made between the layout of Sesebi and the contemporary royal centre at Amarna in Egypt.

The temple area was excavated by a team from the Egypt Exploration Society directed by A. M. Blackman and H. W. Fairman from 1936-8. Manchester Museum was a donor to those excavations and as a result received a selection of excavated objects for their collection. These

Acc. no. 9454. Faience bracelet from Sesebi
Acc. no. 9454. Faience bracelet from Sesebi

objects include faience jewellery (e.g. Acc. No. 9454), pottery sherds (e.g. Acc. No. 9469), faience moulds (e.g. Acc. No. 9468) and also a scarab of Ramesses II (Acc. No. 9456), an object which illustrates later activity at the site during the 19th Dynasty. Ongoing fieldwork and study of these so-called ‘temple-towns’, which also included such sites as Soleb, Sedeinga, Amara West and Sai, is beginning to reveal the intricacies of the New Kingdom occupation of those sites and indeed the complex relationship between the settled Egyptians and the local Nubian population at these key strategic locations.

Anna finishes her traineeship at Manchester Museum at the end of 2013 and will be returning to the Sudan for fieldwork in early 2014. Visit Anna’s blog here.


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MAES Lecture 14/10/13: Derek Welsby, ‘Excavations at Gematon: A Kushite City on the Nile’

BM EA 1770The next Manchester Ancient Egypt Society lecture will be given by Dr. Derek Welsby

Excavations at Gematon, a Kushite City on the Nile

Monday 14th October, 7:30pm
Days Inn, Sackville Street, Manchester, M1 3AL
All welcome


Founded by the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaton in the 14th century BC Kawa flourished for nearly 2000 years. Ongoing excavations by the Sudan Archaeological Research Society in association with the British Museum are concentrating on the remains of the Kushite town, on its houses, industrial quarter, store rooms and shrines. Work is also taking place in the contemporary cemetery where a number of dressed stone pyramids have been uncovered recently along with evidence for links with the Roman World. The talk will seek to set Kawa in its Kushite context and highlight some of the most important results of the excavations.

Derek Welsby directed excavations in Sudan at Soba East (1982-92), survey and excavations in the Northern Dongola Reach (1993-98) and excavations at Kawa (1998-present) as well as a number of smaller projects including an archaeological survey along the Wadi Halfa to Kerma railway. He is project director of the SARS mission forming a part of the Merowe Dam Archaeological Salvage Project, is an Assistant Keeper in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum and was until recently President of the International Society for Nubian Studies. He has published extensively on the archaeology of Sudan including The Kingdom of Kush. The Napatan and Meroitic Empires and The Medieval Kingdoms of Nubia. Pagans, Christian and Muslims on the Middle Nile.

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Curator’s Diary 19/04/13: Fragments of a Shattered Image

One of the most exciting aspects of working in a Museum is the occasional discovery of long-forgotten gems that lie in storage and which are often only brought to light by the chance enquiry of an inquisitive researcher. Such was the case this week when Anna Garnett, our British Museum ‘Future Curator’ trainee and I went in search of objects bearing ancient Egyptian plaster, to take samples for a researcher. Lists of object numbers, provenances and dates gave some indication of the sort of objects we were looking for but – because many of the items in the collection have still not been photographed – the physical identification of items often yields a surprise.


I was pretty sure that I knew all the “key” pieces in the collection. These tend to be the ones that are mentioned in publications, because of their own significance or their relationship to other objects of note. These connections are not often obvious, and usually require book-based research. Yet, sometimes you open a drawer, register the form or decoration of something and immediately recognise it as part of a larger whole. Thus it was with genuine amazment that I opened a drawer to discover a piece of one of the most famous paintings to survive from ancient Egypt. I don’t mind admitting that I let out an audible gasp of surprise. How could I not have read that THIS was here?!


Princesses in the Ashmolean. Note the size of the adult heel!

The colours were a clue but the patterning was unmistakable. A small-ish piece (20 x 15cm) of mud brick, with thin painted plaster coating from Petrie’s excavations at Amarna. Number 8740. It is part of the much larger scene featuring two small princesses – daughters of Akhenaten – from a palace wall now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Petrie (Tell el-Amarna, 1894, p. 15) describes “the patronising air of the elder sister chucking the little one under the chin” and speculated that the paintings of the two figures is “perhaps the only use of light and shade by the Egyptians.” The princesses sit beside the much larger-scale foot of an adult – Akhenaten or Nefertiti – showing how large the original wall scene must have been. Petrie records many smaller fragments of painted plaster belonging to the wall – and that is what we must have in Manchester.  Our fragment seems to represent part of a patterned fabric – a cushion? – in the reds and yellows distinctive of this scene.

Other bits are doubtless scattered in collections around the world. But the thrill of recognising just one small part compares with Petrie’s joy at first sight of the whole.


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Real royal portraits in ancient Egypt…?

DoC portraitThe strong opinions expressed about the first official portrait of the Duchess of Cambridge, unveiled this week, highlight the continuing interest in depictions of royalty. But how do modern experiences and expectations of a royal image compare to those in ancient Egypt? Catherine’s portrait – completed, the artist stated, mainly from photographs – captures a highly recognisable face, without any setting or regalia to imply status. It is, clearly, an ‘art work’.

Quite in contrast, Pharaonic scenes are functional rather than purely aesthetic. Many focus on the king: he is recognisable by his scale, insignia, and position in a scene. Viewers are left in no doubt about who he is. Royal family members are identifiable for the same reasons. But was any attempt made to make these individuals look like themselves?


In this relief (Acc. no. 3303), Ahmose I and Osiris are indistinguishable apart from their insignia.

In ancient Egypt, the pharaoh was at all periods, in some sense, the image of a god. A finely carved scene from the temple of Ahmose I at Abydos in the Manchester Museum highlights this. The king embraces Osiris – the god’s facial features are indistinguishable from his own. These are not recognisable ‘portraits’ in the modern sense. We may speak of a particular portrait ‘type’ or ‘types’ – promulgated at the start of a reign (and perhaps again at other key moments), and applied to royal family members and even the elite. Yet these are not intended as reflections of reality. Egyptian visual culture was essentially idealising. This was because it was created for an eternal audience, not to capture a fleeting moment – unless that moment was something that might impress the gods.

It didn’t matter what the king, or his family, looked like in scenes or statues. It is doubtful that very many people would have got close enough to the pharaoh to even register his facial features and ‘recognise’ them in a temple wall scene or statue. We are today very familiar with famous faces: the new portrait of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, has already been replicated millions of times around the world. Most people, in Britain at least, would know her if they met her. In ancient Egypt, such recognition was simply not important, nor was it to be expected: the content of a scene or statue make clear which VIP was who. For those with some familiarity with the meaning of hieroglyphic signs, or even their general arrangement, a cartouche captioning the image would provide additional information.


Cast of a bust of Akhenaten from Amarna. A genuine attempt at royal portraiture?

A modern eye may see what it perceives as portraiture in the ‘careworn’ features of some Middle Kingdom kings, or at other times when representations of the human face deviated from the idealising. Yet, we must be aware that there is a difference between a face being ‘life-like’ (resembling an unknown living person) and ‘true-to-life’ (an image of a specific individual). If nothing else, a life-like face is more arresting, more inviting than an idealised one – and a chief purpose of sculpture was to attract attention from the living, but also from the dead and the gods.

The claims of sculptors during the reign of Akhenaten to have been instructed by the king himself indicate no more than a desire to express closeness to the pharaoh. The issue of what Akhenaten looked like, behind all the ideological filtering of his wide range of images, is a vexed one. It is, however, likely that – whatever others may have thought – Akhenaten approved of his images. What the Duchess of Cambridge really thought of her own portrait we may never know.


I will discuss the existence of royal portraiture, amongst other issues, in a ‘Museum Meets’ study day next Saturday, the 19th of January: ‘How Did Statues Work in Ancient Egypt?’


Filed under Egypt events at the Manchester Museum

Object Biography #11: Fragment from an offering table of Akhenaten (Acc. No. 1938)

Acc. no. 1938, showing cartouche of Akhenaten

Acc. no. 1938, showing cartouche of Akhenaten

This mottled red granite fragment (16.5 cm in length) is part of smaller-than-life-size statue of Akhenaten, shown supporting a rectangular offering table. It comes from Flinders Petrie’s excavations at Amarna between 1891 and 1892, supported by Jesse Haworth. Like most Amarna sculptural material, this statue is badly broken – the result of the intense persecution of the memory of Akhenaten after his death and the abandonment of his city at Amarna. It bears the name of Akhenaten (lit. ‘he who is effective or beneficial for the Aten’) and the remains of epithets ‘Lord of Appearances’ and ‘Living in Truth (Ma’at)’, making it likely that this image represented the king himself and not Nefertiti or one of the couple’s daughters.

Acc. no. 1938, seen from the front

Acc. no. 1938, seen from the front

This statue-type is known from the early 18th Dynasty, and some scholars have suggested Akhenaten’s apparent fondness for the pose – traditionally associated with the fat, fecund Hapy, personification of the Nile inundation – was related to the theme of the king’s own exaggerated corpulence in many of his representations. Interestingly, rather than the products of the Nile which are usually shown on such representations of Hapy, Akhenaten’s offering statues are also shown as loaded with meat and incense. These statues make concrete Akhenaten’s self-proclaimed role as ‘beneficient for the Aten’: he was the main provider for the Aten – all religious contact with the deity was to be directed through the king.

Scene from the east wall of the tomb chapel of Huya at Amarna, showing statues with offering tables at the Great Aten Temple

Scene from the east wall of the tomb chapel of Huya at Amarna, showing statues with offering tables at the Great Aten Temple

Scenes of the Great Aten Temple, such as those from the tomb of the official Huya at Amarna, show such royal statues in position – with both king and queen bearing such offering tables. Interestingly, Huya was in charge of royal workshops and it is in his tomb that most instances of statues appear – although far fewer than there is archaeological evidence for on site at Amarna. As appropriate for the solar cult at Amarna, there were no roofs on temple buildings so the statues are seen to be offering goods directly to the sun. Contact between the sunlight and the offerings was perhaps deemed sufficient divine sustenance to allow the food to be redistributed to the priests serving in the temples, in the traditional method of priestly payment.

New studies of the distribution of finds are revealing new evidence of how fragments are being pieced together, little by little. Though most of our Amarna sculpture fragments are in storage, we hope soon to have them all photographed and uploaded onto our on-line database.

For more on the ongoing excavations at Amarna, in particular the fascinating work on piecing together sculptural fragments, visit the Amarna Trust website.


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Living in nature at Amarna

Acc. no. 7220 – a painted scene from a palace floor, now conserved and soon to be on display

In the last week before we open the Ancient Worlds galleries, we have been making final preparations to put objects – many unexhibited before – on display. A good proportion come from famous sites and it is interesting to consider how they might originally have been used in their original settings.

Manchester holds an important collection of material from the excavations of archaeologist Flinders Petrie and others at Amarna. This site is well-known as the royal residence – what would call a ‘capital’ city today – chosen anew by King Akhenaten (c. 1352 -1336 BC). Akhenaten has been described as “the first individual in history” and is viewed variously as a revolutionary, a heretic, the first true monotheist, and a megalomaniac. Certainly, the theology of the king and his new capital centred on one deity: the sun disk, called the Aten. This deity was praised in hymns recorded on rock-cut stelae and on the walls of elite tombs at Amarna. A particular connection is made in these texts between the life-giving rays of the sun and prosperity of plants, animals and human beings.

One of the themes we explore in the new galleries at Manchester is the experience of living in a royal city, using our rich collection of objects from Amarna. Surviving decoration from the complex of palaces and elite villas at the site shows a delight in representing the natural world, with plants and animals featuring prominently. Part of the royal palace, for example, had a painted floor showing pin-tale ducks flying out of the marshes beside the River Nile, as they would at dawn. Yet here, in a palace, before the king’s throne, the motifs of the painted floor can also be interpreted as heralding the presence of the divine living ruler and his sole god, the sun disc, who – together – dispel darkness each day. Akhenaten and his courtiers clearly wished to emphasise through decoration their desire to be “living in nature”.

Faience inlays and amulets from Amarna

There is extensive archaeological evidence at Amarna of kilns and workshops, which supplied palaces with a range of glazed inlays and appliqués for palace interiors and other decorative objects. Remains show that this was a thriving centre for the manufacture of luxury materials such as glass, and the typically-Egyptian glazed ceramic known as faience. In the new galleries we explore the technology behind faience-making, after conducting our own firing experiments with colleagues from Daresbury laboratory.

I have been particularly struck by the rich array of colours and shapes used. We hold a mixture of decorative elements including tiles and the inlays once attached to them, in addition to separately modelled flowers and fruit such as bunches of grapes and pomegranates. The explosion of colour may seem gaudy to us now, yet it is important to remember that these elaborate decorations were an outward sign of divine bounty, the natural world created by the Aten and ruled over by his only prophet – Akhenaten (whose name literally means ‘Effective for the Aten’). In their own way, these palace decorations created an effect no more ostentatious than the state rooms of Buckingham Palace or Versailles.

These decorations were made for the residence of the living ruler, a transient place compared to the stone-built tomb, or ‘House of Eternity’. This philosophy makes many details of palace decoration seem even more whimsical, illustrating a love of life in ancient Egypt that is often overshadowed by a perceived obsession with death. Manchester Museum is in a fortunate position to have a wealth of material from ‘living’ sites, such as Amarna. In contrast to the previous, 1970s-designed galleries, which were dark and sepulchral (the ‘Daily Life’ section even more than the ‘Afterlife’ one!) our new galleries celebrate the life of ancient Egypt. I hope it would be a celebration Akhenaten – and other Pharaonic Egyptians – would recognise.

This post is an adapted version of one which appeared on the blog of Andante Tours.


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