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The Sunshade Chapel of Meritaten from the House-of-Waenre of Akhenaten

July 2018 (122.3)

Book Review

The Sunshade Chapel of Meritaten from the House-of-Waenre of Akhenaten

By Josef Wegner (University Museum Monograph 144). Pp. xii + 164. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia 2017. $55. ISBN 978-1-934536-87-2 (cloth).

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This book examines an exceptional quartzite fragment from ancient Egypt acquired in 1900 by the University Museum of Pennsylvania. It dates to the reign of the so-called Heretic Pharaoh, Akhenaten, ca. 1353 B.C.E. Wegner’s research presents a compelling argument that the object (E16230, lgth. 0.69 m x wdth. 0.27 m x  ht. 2.38 m) is not a stele, as has been suggested, but is instead an architectural fragment of one of the more enigmatic structures built by Akhenaten: a type of solar temple called a Sunshade of Re. Akhenaten built several sunshades, each dedicated to the solar renewal of the king and the sun god Aten and each associated with a female member of Akhenaten’s royal family. These structures are dedicated to the solar renewal of the king and the sun god Aten brought about by the intervention of the royal women whose divine associations with fertility and rebirth are invoked in the structure.

Wegner demonstrates that the fragmentary inscription on E16230 reads: “in the Sunshade of Re of the king’s daughter, of his body, his beloved, Meritaten, in the House of Waenre, in Akhetaten” (4–5). Meritaten was Akhenaten’s eldest daughter; two other sunshades bear her name, both located at Tell el-Amarna. However, Wegner argues that the third sunshade was more likely located at Heliopolis in the delta region of Egypt. If true, the finding is especially exciting because E16230 provides a window into Akhenaten’s activities in the delta, a subject that is often neglected. In addition, although damnatio memoriae and reuse has damaged the surface of the block, it preserves evidence of extensive inlay, making it the largest and best-preserved example of inlaid architecture from the reign of Akhenaten. Wegner discusses the inlay in chapter 5 and provides an in-depth discussion of Meritaten in chapter 13.

The publication of this book coincides with the release of my own book Nefertiti’s Sun Temple: A New Cult Complex at Tell el-Amarna (Leiden 2016). When taken together, the two monographs substantially advance understanding of these little-examined structures.

In chapter 1, Wegner summarizes his objectives and arguments, reviews previous scholarly engagement with the object, and introduces a key problem: the inscription indicates the block is from Akhetaten, conventionally understood as the city founded by Akhenaten at Tell el-Amarna. However, in chapters 7–9, Wegner further indicates that the term Akhetaten, or in translation “The Horizon of the Aten,” should be understood as an area dedicated to worshiping the Aten, rather than the specific name of Tell el-Amarna. Akhenaten also called many other areas Akhetaten, and the title does not have the hieroglyphic determinative indicating a specific town name. The block could derive from an Atenist complex outside Tell el-Amarna proper. In fact, there is little evidence for a building called “waenre” at Tell el-Amarna but solid evidence that there is a “waenre” at Heliopolis.

Chapter 2 reviews the object’s provenance, its life following the Amarna period, and its history within the university museum. After Merenptah used the object as the base of a sphinx in the 19th Dynasty, it became the threshold of a building in medieval Cairo.

Chapters 3 and 4 focus on the decoration and inscriptions of the block. Black-and-white photographs and clear line drawings depict the reconstructions. Interestingly, the inscriptions contain palimpsest or recarved names of the Aten. As Akhenaten’s reign progressed, he changed the name of the Aten to better illustrate his theological ideals. The names are often called “didactic” because they include text meant to clarify the Aten’s identity. The names have been altered from the first version to the second version of the didactic name, which is not well attested. Wegner reviews the arguments surrounding the dates of the changes and tentatively suggests a regnal date of year eight or nine for both the second version of the Aten name and the changes to the monument (35–9).

Chapter 6 presents a possible reconstruction of the original structure that first included E16230. He concludes that it may have been part of a free-standing structure placed on a podium with stairs. Although evidence suggests that many sunshade chapels took this form, my work at the Sunshade of Re at the site of Kom el-Nana (likely Nefertiti’s Sunshade of Re) indicates that sunshades, especially in Akhenaten’s reign, could diverge from this type (Williamson 2016, 119–35). I do not argue that Wegner’s very well considered reconstruction is wrong, but rather I suggest academic reservation in the absence of more detailed investigation. In addition, he proposes that since E16230 is a large single block of quartzite, Akhenaten may not have used talatat (small limestone blocks of uniform size that could be carried by one or two people) for the rest of the building. My work at Kom el-Nana has demonstrated that Akhenaten’s architecture made a visual impact by using large blocks of fine stone such as quartzite and sandstone for doorways and other elements of larger-scale architecture, while using inexpensive talatat to complete the rest of the structure. I have some reservations regarding the suggestion that the lintels were decorated with recumbent sphinxes and find that the photographs fail to provide entirely convincing evidence, although others may disagree. Also, the evidence appears to be too sparse to conclude that the motif was a ubiquitous decoration on broken lintel doorways. However, the idea is exciting and should be further pursued.

Chapters 9–11 review the current state of evidence regarding Akhenaten’s activities in Memphis and Heliopolis and convincingly argue that the fragment comes from a sunshade in Heliopolis. Wegner’s discussion of the two areas is a significant element of this monograph, as discussions of Akhenaten’s reign often overlook or elide the delta area. Wegner’s analysis of the Atenist compounds in these two areas, along with helpful illustrations proposing their possible layouts, provides a stepping stone for further research. This underlines the fact that Atenism was not confined to Tell el-Amarna. It also highlights the need for cohesive integration of the study of the delta evidence with the study of Tell el-Amarna so that we may understand Akhenaten’s changes in broader context.

In summary, Wegner has provided a valuable contribution to our understanding of the Sunshades of Re and the roles of Akhenaten, his daughter Meritaten, and Atenism in the delta area.

Jacquelyn Williamson
George Mason University

Book Review of The Sunshade Chapel of Meritaten from the House-of-Waenre of Akhenaten, by Josef Wegner 

Reviewed by Jacquelyn Williamson

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 3 (July 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1223.williamson

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