The Private Tombs of Amarna

Text by the esteemed Tia

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The rising sun for which the city of Akhetaten was named is not the only resident of the eastern cliffs; cut into the living a rock are the final resting places of the men who helped to create and, ultimately, end the Horizon of the Aten.

The remaining tombs hover around the same state of incompletion, giving the distinct impression that the workmen are simply enjoying a prolonged lunch break. A deserved break, at that, as the tombs were commissioned and worked on simultaneously, with the workmen rotating as new tombs were assigned, others became ready for decoration, or a shift in Pharaoh’s favor decided the abandonment or the enlargement of a previous chamber. Perhaps because of this constant assembly line, the tombs all share similar floor plans. Entranceways were made by leveling out the surrounding rock while inside, a horizontal main passage went straight back to a shrine meant to contain a statue of the deceased cut from the living rock. In many tombs, this simple floor plan is elaborated with a cross-cut corridor running perpendicular to the main hall. These large, cruciform tombs had halls with two or more columns, and were reserved for the more important of Akhenaten’s officials. High Priest Meryre and Panhesy, the Royal Butler, have two apostle halls apiece, providing even more wall space for reliefs, shrines, and portrait statues. The tomb of Tutu and May have similar extravagances, but by far the grandest belonged to Ay, the Grand Vizier and God’s Father. When complete, his hypostyle hall would have had twenty-four columns running in three rows of eight. The hall, like the rest of the tomb, is incomplete, but even so, it is still the most impressive tomb on the block.

Whatever the importance of its eventual owner, every tomb was begun in the same humble, back-breaking way. First would come the quarrymen to carve the tomb into the cliffside; then the plasterers would smooth out the walls; after them, the draughtsmen would plan, sketch, and carve the reliefs; and finally the painters would color in the whole. As the tombs were tunneled into bad limestone, an especially thick layer of plaster was required before decoration could be applied. Sunk relief was used in all of the inscribed tombs; much cheaper and easier to execute than the more complicated raised relief, it could also be done more quickly--something to consider when working on a veritable tomb assembly line. However, as with all things Amarnan, there were exceptions. The tombs of Pentu and Ahmose had the details of their reliefs cut intaglio and inlayed with colored plaster, a technique that had first originated in the Old Kingdom. Its rediscovery at Amarna probably owes much to the profusion of inlaid furniture and tiles that decorated the palaces and other public buildings. Unfortunately, the workmen also rediscovered the reason than their Old Kingdom predecessors abandoned the practice; the colored plaster has a tendency to shrink overtime, crumbling out of place and leaving behind only their intended shells. The more conventional reliefs have fared little better over the millennia, having lost much of their plaster to vandals past and present, their paint worn away to a mere stain of red flesh-tones, to say nothing of the damage caused by squatters and bat infestations. The Southern Tombs have fared better than the Northern group in this regard, as their out of the way location makes them more inaccessible to tourists while making them of easy access to the windblown drifts of sand that often seal them off completely.

Despite the ravages of time and people alike, it is still possible to make out the majority of the decoration scheme. Almost immediately one becomes aware of that the main difference between Amarna’s private tombs and their Theban counterpart has less to do with their location than with the content of their scenes. Gone are the images of the owner and his family hunting, fishing, dining at parties, or reclining in each other’s company before the gods; in their place, we see the Royal Family heaping up altars with offerings to the sole god, the Aten, bestowing the Gold of Honor, and praying, always with their growing number of daughters in tow. The tomb owner is reduced to a mere miniscule figure dependent upon the family for his awards and even his well-being in the hereafter, as he must address the Aten through the person of the King. It is only at his own funeral that the tomb owner takes precedence of royalty, and where traces of the orthodox religion remain strong. The prayers may be to the Aten, but the deceased is still shown in an Osiriform coffin attended by a setem-priest and the proper rituals.

But it is the Royal Family who dominates, and whatever the tomb owners’ may have thought of this, historians couldn’t be happier… or more frustrated. Many of the themes are unique to Amarna royalty; Akhenaten and his family are shown dining and drinking in seven tombs and one of these, that of Huya, shows Tiye joining in on the feast. Only in Huya’s tomb do we find records of Tiye’s visit(s) to Amarna, the dedication of her Sunshade Temple, or her youngest daughter, Beketaten; Meyre II’s releifs capture the change of rulers, from Akhenaten and Nefertiti to Smenkhkare and Meritaten; not to mention the Year 12 Durbar, receptions of tribute, and the more shadowy members of the Royal Family (e.e. Smenkhkare, Mutnodjmet, Beketaten) that are recorded in few if any other places at Amarna.

Ironically, it is this very same tendency of recording the obscure that make the tombs so frustrating. In the reign of Akhenaten’s father, Amenhotep III, there wasn’t an official shown that wasn’t named and given his proper titles; at Amarna, the officials are reduced to anonymous faces, and the more obscure royal family members hardly fare better. Beketaten is never explicity named as Tiye’s daughter, any more than Smenkhkare is proclaimed the son of a king or Mutnodjmet is labeled as more than “Queen’s Sister.” It is what the tombs don’t say that makes them such an enticing headache.

Dating the tombs is an easier affair (by Amarna standards: ), provided that one goes by the inscriptions. Other methods include dating a tomb by its physical place or even the number of princesses shown with Akhenaten and Nefertiti, but these tactics are not without their pitfalls. While it is generall true that the earliers tombs are at the southern end, and the latest at the northern, there are anachronisms. Ahmose’s resting place is a good example; it may be in the northern group, but its inscriptions date it to the earlier years of the reign. A more popular method is to count the number of royal daughters shown. As Akhenaten and Nefertiti eventually had six girls, a tomb showing only two or three princesses must be earlier than a tomb showing four or more, and so on. The problem is that we don’t know how much time passed after a princess’ birth before she was included in the official family portraits, or even allowed to participate in activities like offering or re ceiving dignitaries at court. The three youngest princesses are also sometimes excluded from a scene for the benefit of their three elder siblings, on whom Akhenaten and Nefertiti obviously doted; Sotepenre, the very youngest, is often completely absent even in scenes that we know were made several years after her birth. Lastly, there are the technical difficulties faced by the workmen charged with decorating the tombs. Just how does one fit so many princesses into so limited a space? Either stack em’ or exclude ‘em, and future historians be damned!

It is to the artists’ credit that, working within so many limitations--the same subject matter, time constraints, and the royal perogative--they were able to create variations and quirks that bestow a much-needed breath of life upon scenes that would otherwise be over formalized and static. No two reliefs are exact duplicates of each other, particularly where the antics of the princesses are concerned. Meritaten teases a horse with a stick during a chariot procession, Neferneferure coddles her pet gazelle during at the Year 12 Durbar, and an infant Ankhesenapaaten plays with her mother’s dangling earring while she helps bestow the Gold of Honor. In the words of Cyril Aldred, “In this they reveal the restless spirit of the artists, reveling in the opportunity to create novelties, for the new iconography had not yet become fixed by tradition” (Aldred, 25).

In fact, the new iconography and the artists evolved together. In the earlier tombs, the Royal Family was shown worshipping the Aten on the left lintel of the entranceway, with the tomb owner reciting a version of the “Hymn to the Aten” on the right. In later tombs, the owner was shown worshipping the Aten as it rose and set. As time passed, the at once rigid and grotesque style of the reliefs became more naturalistic and the figures better proportioned; sometime between regnal years 6 and 9, the artists’ granted their creations both left and right hands, rather than just two lefties, but only the Royal Family was ever shown with left and right feet. If it’s any compensation, Akhenaten’s correctly drawn feet didn’t help the fact that his distinctive paunch was shown to grow larger and more rotund over time; all those feasting scenes finally caught up with him.

Time caught up with him, too, and with him went his city, but not the officials that had pledged their support, in this life and the next. For all of their expense and importance, the private tombs were never used by their intended occupants. Even Any and Huya’s tombs, which the workman had labored so hard to complete in time for their funerals, were found empty and have likely been so since the abandonment of Akhetaten. A few shabtisof various persons have been found here and there, but as shabtis are often made and stored ahead of time, they mean only that their intended owners were well-prepared for death, and not yet at one with it. With Akhenaten’s demise, the political lives of Amarna’s elite either ended with his or began anew elsewhere, back in Thebes. Any burials that had been made were disinterred and transported back to their ancestral burial grounds, a scenario that the deceased may well have secretly preferred over being left on the outskirts of an infant city in the middle of nowhere. The gifts that Pharaoh had meant for eternity, they left to it.