Monday, January 28, 2008

Notes: Lost City of the Pharaoh

This is not a formal review, but here are a few notes that I took whilst watching the BBC 2 programme Lost City of the Pharaoh, about recent finds at Amara, last night.

If you want to see the programme you can see it FOR THE NEXT FEW DAYS ONLY on your computer at the BBC page i-Player page.

Known today as Amarna, the ancient city of Akhetaten (Horizon of the Aten) is located 200 miles south of Cairo and 250 miles north of Luxor. It has been investigated by a number of different researchers, and most latterly by a team lead by Professor Barry Kemp, who has been working there since 1977.

Akhetaten was constructed from the ground up as a brand new city in c.1350BC when the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten decided to move the religious centre and capital city to an empty desert Nile-side location. The vision of the Pharaoh for his new city is known almost exclusively from boundary markers placed at the edges of the newly planned site, which give details of the buildings he intended to construct - as Barry Kemp said, it was "a direct statement from Akehnaten himself" about what he wanted to create at Amarna. The hieroglyphic texts say that the new god, the Aten, drove the pharaoh to build the city, that it was not the idea of Akhenaten himsel. 50,000 followers of the pharaoh moved there, but the city was abandoned 20 years later, and the eventual fate of Akhenaten and his wife Nerertiti is unknown.

Although the Aten is most closely associated with Akhenaten, the solar deity, represented as a sun disk with radiating rays terminating in hands often holding ankh symbols, first makes its appearence late in the reign of Akhenaten's father Amenhotep III (Amun is Content). The reign was a period of prosperity and internatl stability, expressed in the form of building projects which created temples and statues. when Akhenaten took the throne, he was originally named, like his father, for the god Amun. However, after four years of ruling from Luxor Akhenaten (Glory of the Aten) decided to move the capital to a new location, revolutionize the religion and changed his name to honour his chosen deity. The worship of the Aten was monotheistic - the hundreds of other Egyptian gods were outlawed.

Most of the buildings in Akhetaten were made of mudbrick, and many were painted with beautiful scenes in bright colours. Stone was quarried for other buildings (temples and palaces) from a number of quarries. One of these, the Queen Tiy Quarry, was shown. It is a mind-bending thing - the quarried stone had left a vast open space held in place with columns which had been quarried around. The most complete surviving building was the North Palace. Buildings of rich and poor were located side by side. The centrepiece of the city was the Great Temple to the Aten which was not enclosed with a roof, but was open to the sun. 1800 offering tables were found, some of which are depicted in the tomb of Mery-Ra (Beloved of Ra).

Although royal and noble tombs are known from the Amarna area, the remains of ordinary residents of the city only came to light in 2005, and this discovery is the main focus of the documentary. Desert floodwater washed out the human bones of workers who lived in the city, the "lower end" of Ancient egyptian life. Most of the remains were quite badly damaged, with the bones disturbed and intermingled, but a fiar amount of soft tissue survived. Professor Jerry Rose from the University of Arkansas described how all the tombs had been robbed in ancient times, with the heads removed and thrown on one side, the torso lifted out and the legs and feet left in situ. This meant that the first of the remains were found without legs.

The bodies were buried in shallow graves, in coffins made of sticks tied with rope to form a shell. It was originally speculated that life at Amarna was healthy. It therefore came as quite a surprise to find that amongst those buried in this cemetery an unusual number of teenagers were found amongst the dead, and many of these were far from fit. Some of them had suffered from spina bifida (a genetic condition exacerbated by trauma - in this case apparently caused by extreme hard work) and pitted vertebrae (also a symptom of a heavy workload).

It is possible that these signs of physical labour were the result of the work required to build a vast city in a short period of time. The main form of building material was mudbrick but stone was also used for the most important buildings. It was necessary to excavate this from the above-mentioned quarry which was 1.5 miles away, and bring them to the site. Working conditions would have been hard - summer temperatures can reach over 40 degrees centigrade.

As well as signs of a very heavy work load, there is considerable evidence for other types of health problems including anaemia (the result of an iron poor diet), parastites and infectious diseases. Infectious disease was particularly high amongst children who would have been born within Amarna (60%, which is unusually high) with adults, who were born outside Amarna at only 18-20%. There was an unusually high mortality among individuals aged between 12 and 20 years. There are signs that food was not abundant or of high quality for these individuals - as Rose put it, this was "not the city of being taken car of". Life was apparently worse for those born into the new community, and one possibile theory is that this was the result of an epidemic which swept disease through Amarna.

The documentary, produced by Timewatch, was a far better visual experience than many modern docu-dramas. There were some dramatic reconstructions, and quite a bit of footage of the sun, but the emphasis was on footage of actual sites, and of the specialists who contributed the good quality data about the Amarna period, its background, and the discoveries at the site.

The Amarna Project has its own website, which is absolutely excellent - would that there were more archaeology websites which too the idea of communicating their work to the public so seriously and professionally.

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