Sunday, November 06, 2011

Newsletter: The Resumption of Work at Amarna by Barry Kemp

Sent by email by Barry Kemp of the Amarna Project and Amarna Trust:

The Resumption of Work, Autumn 2011

I am writing this on a fine, warm morning, at a table set beneath a group of palm trees that occupy the centre of the North Palace at Amarna. Six months have passed since I last sent out an email report. I have delayed writing another until I could see a path through the uncertainties. Our permit from the SCA runs until the end of the year, and my hope has been that it would be possible to carry out, during the last months of 2011, the fieldwork that had been planned for the spring. I can now report that this is happening.

Two separate projects are involved, and they are taking place one after the other, on either side of the middle of November. The first is the repair schedule at the North Palace. The second is the resumption of excavation at the South Tombs Cemetery. That these are taking place is a sign that, bit by bit, post-revolution Egypt is settling down to its new order.

The idea of carrying out remedial work at the North Palace goes back to the late 1990s. By that time, after seventy years of exposure to the elements and, for much of that time, being used by farmers and their animals as a short cut to their fields (it was surrounded by a barbed-wire fence only in 1984), the brickwork had suffered severely. The rear part, standing higher than the rest, looked close to major collapse. The three days of heavy rain during January of this year illustrate the seriousness of the assault that the weather can bring on.

Our first steps in consolidation were taken in September 1997. Our subsequent seasons have not been annual, sometimes being replaced by similar work at the Small Aten Temple. Our team of brickmakers and three teams of builders have, over the years, developed a good style of work that is sensitive to the materials they use and to the requirements of an ancient building. For the supervision of much of the repairs, we have been fortunate to have the services of conservation architect Suresh Dhargalkar who formerly was responsible for conservation at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. This year he was unable to come. I have done my best to stand in for him, with the assistance of SCA conservator Atef Nagi and inspector Ahmed Fathi.

In the rear parts of the palace, the aims of the work have been to preserve as much as possible of the original brickwork and to leave it visible, adding significant brickwork only where the original has all but disappeared. We have thus added a patchwork of new bricks, sometimes in the sides of walls, to fill undercutting, sometimes to define the jambs of doorways, and sometimes on top as capping. We have also marked out missing stone elements, casting replacement column bases and laying, at ground level, the outlines of stone features in limestone blocks. Over a very large part of the palace, however, the walls have preserved less well.

Weathering has reduced them to low dusty ridges covered with gravel with perhaps only a single course of original bricks underneath. In this condition, they have all but stabilised, and are beyond the kind of consolidation we have applied to standing brickwork.

The part of the palace on the north side that lies adjacent to the better-preserved rear was of unusual design, a row of three similar buildings that were intended for the keeping of animals and birds. One part had been provided with rows of stone mangers carved with pictures of feeding animals. Traces of painted decoration, and the closeness of the buildings to the royal residential area together suggest that their purpose was something almost theatrical, namely, the creation in solid form of the idyllic landscape of papyrus marsh and animal life that so enchanted the ancient Egyptians and which was a recurrent theme in the art and architecture of Amarna.

Thus it seemed desirable to clarify the layout of this part on the ground.
The only feasible way to do this is to brush down the remaining wall stumps and to lay fresh courses of bricks over the top. The final stage of this is the work that is currently proceeding. In order to reflect the increasing degree of erosion as one moves westwards, towards the present cultivated fields, the height of the rebuilt walls also generally decreases, down to one or two courses at the lowest point.

Access to each section of the three animal houses was through doorways that were up to 2 m wide. The original thresholds were long ago removed, leaving only broken pieces behind. It clarifies the appearance of buildings if doorways have thresholds. In two of the animal houses they had been slabs of sandstone, brought from quarries far to the south, quarries that are no longer used. This year we are creating mock-sandstone thresholds to replace them, by casting them as slabs in wooden moulds, using local desert clay for colour. For this, Simon Bradley has returned, the sculptor who made the full-size column that stands conspicuously in the Small Aten Temple.

It has also been possible to make further observations and measurements that contribute to the major publication of the North Palace that is well under way. To this end, the third member of the team, Miriam Bertram, is drawing a series of elevations of walls from the rear part of the palace to which she is adding elements that, although now lost, can be, to some extent, reconstructed from the notes, sketches and photographs made in the 1920s, when the building was first exposed. This includes walls with windows, complete with stone window sills, and a wall in the animal houses where parts of most of the decorated stone mangers were still in place in 1923.

The work at the palace will end on November 12th. By then, the laying out of wall lines for the three animal houses should be finished, although some small touches might remain for next year. What I hope we have achieved in the L-shaped area that we have paid attention to since we began in 1997 is to prolong the life of the best-preserved brickwork at the rear and, in the part where we have laid out new walls, to reveal more clearly to the visitor an unusual architectural layout and to help the imagination extend itself over the very large areas that remain untouched.

Our own contributions to the fabric of the North Palace are themselves exposed to the elements and gradually degrade. It makes sense to think of returning in five years' time to give the building a 'service', a mixture of cleaning and repair. In the meantime, the plan for next year is to transfer the building teams to the Central City and to undertake a work of reclamation at the site of the Great Aten Temple, a task that will take several years to accomplish.

The final official confirmation that we can undertake the planned excavation at the South Tombs Cemetery came just over a week ago. On November 13th, Anna Stevens, the deputy director, will arrive with a small team of archaeologists with the intention of continuing the excavation until very near the end of the year. At the same time, the magazine at the expedition house will be opened. One task to be undertaken is conservation of the fragments of decorated coffins recovered in previous seasons.

I would like to thank all who take an interest in our work, and especially those who have continued to support us through this difficult period.
Pictures of the current work are mounted on the Amarna Facebook site, and I have attached a few here.

Our Justgiving site includes a special appeal to assist in the completion of a publication project (the painted wall plaster from an early Christian church that had been constructed over the remains of one of Akhenaten's buildings at Amarna, the place called Kom el-Nana). See:

It is close to reaching its target. Can I appeal to your generosity again to accomplish this?

And any who receive this report but not our free, printed twice-yearly newsletter, Horizon, and who would like to be added to the mailing list, need only send me their name and postal address.

Barry Kemp, 31 October 2011.

The work at Amarna is supported directly by two institutions: in the UK by the Amarna Trust, and in the USA by the Amarna Research Foundation. In both cases, donations are tax deductible. Amarna Trust: Donations can be made directly to the treasurer: Dr Alison L. Gascoigne Lecturer in Medieval Archaeology University of Southampton Avenue Campus Highfield Southampton SO17 1BF +44 (0)2380 599636 or to the Trust's bank account: Bank: Nat West Address: High Wycombe branch, 33 High Street, High Wycombe, Bucks, HP11 2AJ Account name: The Amarna Trust Account number: 15626229 Branch sort code: 60-11-01 BIC: NWBK GB 2L IBAN: GB66 NWBK 6011 0115 6262 29 or by electronic transfer through Paypal or Justgiving, available on the website (where a Gift Aid form is downloadable) The Trust sends out a free newsletter twice a year, Horizon, to anyone who sends me a postal address. It is also available as a downloadable pdf file from our two web sites. Amarna Research Foundation The Amarna Research Foundation, Inc. is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization incorporated under the laws of the State of Colorado. It has been approved by the Internal Revenue Service as a charitable organization, and contributions to the Foundation are tax exempt. The Foundation receives donations and runs a membership list. See where a membership form can be downloaded. The Foundation publishes a regular newsletter, The Akhetaten Sun, available to members.

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