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”.
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.