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Akhenaten’s Workers: The Amarna Stone Village Survey, 2005–2009

Akhenaten’s Workers: The Amarna Stone Village Survey, 2005–2009

By Anna Stevens (Egypt Exploration Society Excavation Memoir 100–101). 2 vols. Vol. 1, The Survey, Excavations and Architecture. Pp. 468, figs. 73, b&w pls. 206, tables 24; vol. 2, The Faunal and Botanical Remains, and Objects. Pp. 398, figs. 59, b&w pls. 46, tables 42. Egypt Exploration Society, London 2012. £65. ISBN 978-0-85698208-8 (vol. 1); 978-0-85698209-5 (vol. 2) (cloth).

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The 100th and 101st volumes of the Egypt Exploration Society Excavation Memoir series marks an anniversary in this outstanding collection of reports from field projects of the society. With Stevens’ publication on the Stone Village, a settlement in the Eastern Desert of Amarna (city of Akhenaten and capital of Egypt in the second half of the 14th century B.C.E.), another piece of the puzzle of this fascinating establishment and newly founded royal city is added. The city’s administrative, religious, and residential quarters occupy the riverside in a long stretch of area about 9 km in length and only 1 km in width. The area is opposed by the sacred mortuary landscape of the Eastern Desert. In the cliffs to the east of the city are the tombs of the Amarna kings in the Royal Wadi, the private tombs of the officials, and the newly discovered South Tombs Cemetery. Separating the landscape of the living and the dead, the Eastern Desert yields a system of roadways intended to patrol and monitor the desert behind the city. Despite its inhospitable nature, there were two settlements found here: the Workmen’s Village and the Stone Village. The Workmen’s Village was excavated by Peet and Woolley in the 1920s, and its extraordinary preservation led to the investigation of half of the site in only two years (T.E. Peet and C.L. Woolley, The City of Akhenaten. Pt. 1, Excavations of 1921 and 1922 at El-’Amarneh. Egypt Exploration Society Excavation Memoir 38 [London 1923]). The Stone Village was for the first time documented and briefly surveyed in 1977 by Kemp (“Preliminary Report on the El-’Amarna Survey,” JEA 64 [1977] 26). From 2005 to 2009, the site underwent extensive survey and excavation under the direction of Stevens, assistant director of the Egypt Exploration Society excavations at Amarna, and Dolling, who contributed to the present publication.

Four trenches were opened within the Main Site, and five trenches in the surroundings. The combination of a survey of the whole site to get an understanding of the wider picture and excavations of smaller representative parts and conspicuous features corresponds well to the scope of the project’s envisaged time frame, capacity, and available funding and is a fine example of a well thought out agenda according to modern archaeological standards. To complement the picture, the results are contrasted with those from the excavations of the Workmen’s Village—whose archaeological yield was considerably larger because of the different excavation standards in the early 20th century and the renewed investigations in the 1980s (see various reports in B. Kemp, ed., Amarna Reports I–VI [London 1984–1995])—and the recently excavated and already published results of grid 12, a mixed housing area in the Main City (B. Kemp and A. Stevens, Busy Lives at Amarna: Excavations in the Main City. Grid 12 and the House of Ranefer, N49,18. 2 vols. Egypt Exploration Society Excavation Memoir 90–91 [London 2010]). Considerable effort has been made in publishing the results soon after the project was finished, a fact that has distinguished the Amarna excavations for many years. This is of great benefit for scholars working in Egyptian archaeology today.

The first volume presents an introduction to the site with a concise description of the main features: the Main Site, the roadways, and the peripheral remains. The report deals with building materials and techniques and considers the identification of domestic space, the demarcation of boundaries, and change and growth over time. The first volume also presents a detailed account of the archaeological context. It is followed in the second volume by a discussion of the different find groups, separated into sections on environmental remains; things of usefulness and convenience; things of the body, mind, and home; and things for working with. The investigation of the animal and plant remains, as well as wood and charcoal, adds to the value of the publication and allows for conclusions on the inhabitants’ diet. The other chapters cover the small finds of the site. The settlement, enclosed by a perimeter wall, consisted of small huts constructed with unmodified limestone boulders. Evidence for roofing material was noted, as well as extensive use of gypsum plaster to seal walls and floors in parts of the site. The entire corpus of finds conveys the picture of a habitation displaying everyday activities. The find repertoire also comprises a large amount of basalt flakes, which presumably resulted from the shaping of hammerstones used for stone dressing and cutting in tomb carving.

The pottery is, however, still under investigation and will be published in a separate volume, which is a major drawback of the present publication. Dating the site via pottery is not essentially necessary, since Amarna was only inhabited for about 20 years, and the pottery’s first impression confirms an occupation during the Amarna period. For a conclusion on the everyday activities at the site, such as food production, consumption, and storage, a discussion of the pottery would have been crucial. Especially at such a heavily looted habitation, in situ finds of pottery might have given insight to activities undertaken within the domestic space, even if formation processes have to be taken into consideration. Having said that, the limited scope of the project and the capacity and delay in publication—which an extensive study of the pottery would have caused—show the difficulties of the approach advocated here. Mentioning the presence or absence of specific pottery types within the different chapters is at least one solution, and it remains to be seen how the presentation of the pottery will be related to the architecture in the final publication.

The excavations of the Stone Village were undertaken to complement the picture of urban life at Amarna and to “tease out social dividing lines” (1:14), an aspect that is particularly important, considering the peripheral setting and presumably special-purpose function of this settlement. It is clear from the location of the settlement that the function of this village was related to the sacred mortuary landscape of Amarna and that the inhabitants were presumably engaged in tomb carving and decorating, as has been suggested for the Workmen’s Village. Very rare finds of inscriptions (cf. Peet and Woolley [1923] 101, fig. 15) and the striking parallel with the workmen’s village at Deir el-Medina (with the abundance of textual sources about the lives of the artists working in the tombs of the Theban Valley of the Queens and Valley of the Kings) confirmed the role of the Workmen’s Village at Amarna, and a similar purpose must also be assumed for the Stone Village.

However, both settlements differ considerably in their outline, building technique, and finds. The reason for this sharp separation must be sought in either a different function or a different community inhabiting either site. Although the limited excavations present only a small glimpse into the life of this settlement, the author attempts to provide multiple interpretations for its use. The large amount of basalt flakes uncovered in the Stone Village accounts for a community engaged in the rough tomb carving process; the Workmen’s Village seemed to have accommodated artists whose skill is displayed in wall paintings and artwork in the more elaborate mudbrick houses of the village. A closer look at the finds from both villages, however, reveals that such a sharp distinction cannot be drawn, and both settlements must have overlapped in their tasks (1:434).

The most striking parallel, the Station de Repos, another settlement of small huts on the cliff slope separating Deir el-Medina and the Theban Valley of the Kings, is only briefly mentioned, and it is rejected as a parallel far too quickly for its purported lack of domestic debris (1:432–33). The interpretation by the first excavator, Bruyère, strongly influenced the notion of the settlement’s function. He considered the Station de Repos to be a secondary encampment of the same group of workmen living in Deir el-Medina, who used the Station de Repos as an overnight encampment during the week to reduce travel time to the worksite (B. Bruyère, Rapport sur les fouilles de Deir el Médineh [1934/35]. Fouilles de l’Institut Français du Caire 16 [Cairo 1939] 345–64). Other scholars proposed that it was a control station to account for the presence of the workers and to monitor the distribution of tools.

Recently published preliminary reports of the renewed excavations at the Station de Repos by an Academy of Finland/University of Helsinki project, however, present quite a different perspective on the nature of that settlement ( The excavations confirmed the same building materials for the huts as for the Stone Village constructions and the extensive use of gypsum plaster—a material that was most probably accessible in great quantities at a supply post for workmen engaged in decorating the royal tombs. A deposit of old textile rags found in the Station de Repos and a cloth bundle containing several completed lamp wicks confirms the production of candles for the work in the tombs. The pottery repertoire consisted of typical domestic forms—bowls and plates (“tableware”) and storage jars (V. Perunka, pers. comm. 2013). The site seems to be connected clearly to the workmen’s community of Deir el-Medina, since stelae, stone seats, and door jambs with inscribed titles and names of the Deir el-Medina artists were uncovered in the huts by the first excavator. It is clear that the Station de Repos was used as a control station in the wide network of monitoring the sacred mortuary landscape of western Thebes (R. Ventura, Living in a City of the Dead. Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis 69 [Freiburg and Göttingen 1986]) and unlikely that the workmen used the huts here as an overnight encampment during the week (N. Knauer, “Überlegungen zur Village du Col bei Deir el-Medine,” M.A. thesis, University of Munich [1999]). But the domestic debris confirms that the workmen must have spent some time there possibly taking breaks and manufacturing tools and during temporary halts while waiting for another group to finish a specific task in the tomb.

In light of this close parallel, Stevens’ conclusion that the Stone Village was the settlement of a separate community either engaged in rough stone dressing and cutting, or as a supplement to the community of the Workmen’s Village accommodating newly acquired tomb builders and decorators, needs to be questioned. The arrangement of Deir el-Medina and the Station de Repos, and the Workmen’s Village and the Stone Village at Amarna, represents a close match. In addition, the obvious significance of the control posts and supply stations in the surroundings of Deir el-Medina mentioned in the texts is expressed in the archaeological record at Amarna with the system of roadways and guard and supply posts adjacent to the Workmen’s Village (cf. B. Kemp, “The Amarna Workmen’s Village in Retrospect,” JEA 73 [1987] 21–50; “Amarna’s Ancient Roads,” Horizon 3 [2008] 8–9). Stevens describes the nature of the Stone Village as displaying a more communal character of living. This is, for instance, represented in a group of ovens that must have supplied a larger number of people, or numerous potmarks that might have distinguished commodity containers for different recipients and marked ownership. Combined with a lack of evidence for any attempt to beautify the houses or enrich the diet, the Stone Village must not have necessarily had a strict residential function. Attributing specific finds to different genders—such as jewelry with the depiction of the typical household gods Taweret, Bes, and Hathor interpreted as protective amulets for women and children and thus suggesting the presence of families (1:422–23)—also remains questionable, since these objects might have played an equally important role in the lives of the workmen as symbols for the continuity of the family (cf. S. Seidlmayer, “Prestigegüter im Kontext der Breitenkultur im Ägypten des 3. und 2. Jahrtausends v. Chr.,” in B. Hildebrandt and C. Veit, eds., Der Wert der Dinge: Güter im Prestigediskurs. Formen von Prestige in Kulturen des Altertums.” Münchner Studien zur Alten Welt 6 [Munich 2009] 323–27).

As a consequence, viewing the Stone Village as a possible control post and supply station for the artists during the workday, as well as for the manufacture and distribution of tools, should have had a greater emphasis in the present publication. Apart from this minor correction, the new Egypt Exploration Society volumes represent an exemplary excavation publication and should not be missed in Egyptological libraries.

Miriam Müller
Oriental Institute
The University of Chicago
Chicago, Illinois 60637

Book Review of Akhenatens Workers: The Amarna Stone Village Survey, 2005–2009, by Anna Stevens

Reviewed by Miriam Müller

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 117, No. 4 (October 2013)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1174.Muller

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