Tag Archives: Amarna

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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A Colourful Goddess: Hathoric Pottery Decoration

Acc. no. 10984

Acc. no. 10984

One of the main tasks I’m working on as part of my traineeship here at Manchester Museum is the reorganisation of the Egyptian pottery store. The many boxes of pottery sherds (fragments) in particular continue to yield surprising finds: this week I came across two beautifully decorated sherds which immediately caught my eye.

During the New Kingdom, in particular the late 18th Dynasty, certain pottery forms including storage jars and bowls became highly decorative and featured moulded and painted motifs. Blue pigment, derived from cobalt, was also used to decorate pottery during this time and is distinctive to the New Kingdom and to particular sites including Amarna, Gurob and Malqata (Thebes).

Acc. no. 6204

Acc. no. 6204

Painted and moulded floral designs such as lotuses, cornflowers and poppies were used to decorate the vessels as well as animals including ducks, gazelles and ibexes. Hathor, goddess of fertility and beauty, was often shown with a human face and cow’s ears on blue-painted storage jars like these examples in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

MMA 12.180.31

MMA 12.180.31

Blue painted pottery was an item of high status since the cobalt, obtained from the Western Desert, was so difficult to procure and the level of craftsmanship involved in their creation made these objects particularly desirable during the New Kingdom. Blue-painted sherds with Hathoric motifs are still being found in Egypt today, such as this beautiful example found recently at the site of the palace of Amenhotep III at Malqata.

Hathor’s face was also moulded onto the surface of two sherds at Manchester Museum: a rim from a large polychrome carinated (angled) bowl (Acc. No. 6204) and another painted blue, red, white and black, which may originally have been part of a decorative handle (Acc. No. 10984). Unfortunately the provenance of these objects has since been lost but the decorative style and form of [6204] suggests that it dates to either the late 18th Dynasty or, perhaps more likely, the Ramesside Period.

The presence of blue pigment on [10984] suggests that it dates to the late 18th Dynasty and is likely originally from Amarna, Gurob or Malqata (Thebes). We can confidently compare this object with an example from Amarna from the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (E.GA.4569.1943) which is also blue-painted and of a similar form, which may suggest that our example is also originally from Amarna.

Anna Garnett

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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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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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Curator’s Diary 19/12/12: Nefertiti and Amarna in Berlin

Nefertiti 100I have just returned from a trip to Berlin, where I took the chance to see a major new exhibition at the recently reopened Neues Museum: ‘In the Light of Amarna: 100 Years of the Nefertiti Discovery’. The exhibition was timed to coincide with the centenary of the discovery of the famous painted plaster bust of Queen Nefertiti, on the 6th of December 1912. So soon after Manchester’s own centenary and because of our rich Amarna holdings (we have almost 800 objects from the site) it seemed an ideal opportunity to revisit the Berlin Egyptian and Sudanese collections.

The exhibition space is split between two levels. It opens with the excavations of the Deutsches Orient-Gesellschaft (DOG) at Tell el-Amarna, led by Ludwig Borchardt, which discovered the bust. Borchardt’s brief diary entry contains what is still an apt description of the bust today: “No use describing it, you have to see it.” Indeed, having established that the bust is in many ways indescribable, the exhibition as a whole is arranged to build anticipation: only at the very end does the visitor come face-to-face with Nefertiti herself.

Yet the key strength of the display is the much-needed context it gives to this singular piece of sculpture. Borchardt’s excavations for the DOG are placed within the setting of early 20th century Egyptian archaeology. The dig was funded by James Simon, a Jewish entrepreneur who was the son of a wealthy cotton merchant – circumstances very similar to Jesse Haworth’s support Petrie’s work in Egypt, which formed the basis of the Manchester Museum Egyptology collection. Of the many captivating archive photos in this section, one showing the Nefertiti bust and other Amarna sculpture in Simon’s home (before being given to the state museums) was particularly striking.

The contested nature of the finds division that led to Nefertiti being brought to Berlin is not ignored, and the role of the German press in helping to form popular opinion is particularly well illustrated. In the current exhibition, particular emphasis is placed on the fragility of the bust. Indeed, the exhibition is essentially formed around Nefertiti – rather than Nefertiti being moved to the centre of the exhibition. Given the condition of the bust, it seems unlikely that she’ll be travelling very far any time soon.

Pottery moulds for faience objects such as this (Acc. no 2557) were a common find at Amarna. This examples bears the names of Nefertiti.

Pottery moulds for faience objects such as this (Acc. no 2557) were a common find at Amarna. This examples bears the names of Nefertiti.

What fascinates me about the (very brief and atypical) Amarna Period is not so much the protagonists themselves, their beliefs or suggested abnormalities, but rather the fact that those characters exert such a disproportionate amount of interest for the general public and academic community alike.

The new exhibition acknowledges this interest and – while presenting the famous bust in its proper archaeological context – explicitly addresses the fact that the bust has often been taken out of context, most notably attested by Nefertiti’s numerous appearances in pop art and kitsch. The decision to place the ‘modern reception’ section of the exhibit close to the gift shop was well-advised, showing how much Nefertiti remains a commercial icon.

Replica of Nefertiti's painted bust in Manchester

Replica of Nefertiti’s painted bust in Manchester

The entrance to the main section, on the upper level of the exhibition, is dominated by a stylised shaft of orange Aten-like light. Using a necessarily small selection of key objects, the prelude to Akhenaten’s reign is covered, before life (as opposed to death) at Amarna is explored in detail. The large numbers of objects on display reflect the density of finds: countless fragments of stone, faience, glass. In its object selections, the new exhibition parallels many of Manchester’s holdings. All of this material, illustrating various aspects of life at the city, succeeded in providing the famous bust with a realistic setting among living people. The famous ‘workshop’ of the sculptor Tuthmose is seen as just one of several areas at Amarna engaged in producing objects for the elite, whether stone sculpture, pottery or glass and faience objects.

Manchester’s replica bust of Nefertiti – created in the 1930s and one of a limited number of ‘official’ copies – remains very popular. In the old galleries, many visitors were mislead into thinking that this was the real bust (despite being labelled as a replica), perhaps because it was included alongside genuinely ancient objects from Amarna. By including our replica bust, along with other Amarna copies, in our ‘Fakes and Replicas’ cases in Ancient Worlds, we hope to allow visitors to experience something of the indescribable bust in three dimensions. Yet we also want to emphasise the desirability of this particular image, and highlight its unique place in the replication of Pharaonic visual culture.


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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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