Spring Digs Discover a New Ancient Egyptian Aten Temple

The Amarna Project, chaired by Professor Barry Kemp, is concluding their Spring 2014 dig season at Tel-el-Amarna; known in ancient times as Akhet-Aten, the capital city founded by Pharaoh Akhenaten and Queen Nefertiti during Ancient Egypt’s 18th Dynasty. Previous discoveries at the site included two sets of gypsum-lined basins that had been arranged around a central rectangular island, and this year a third set of basins was uncovered that seemed to have been filled in during the later Amarna time frame. This year’s dig also revealed a gypsum concrete layer that is thought to have been a ‘causeway’ that existed between four large columns set on a concrete foundation.

Building Mudbricks, Courtesy of Barry Kemp

Building Mudbricks, Courtesy of Barry Kemp

Further work was done to restore The Great Aten Temple, which was dedicated to the one god Aten, portrayed as the sun disc with extended hands often seen holding ankhs, a symbol for life. New excavations by Kemp’s team this year have taken them to the edge of the area where Pendlebury, in 1932, uncovered a large amount of offering tables made out of limestone blocks and estimated there were 920 more made from mud bricks. Careful examination of an unpublished photograph of Pendlebury’s revealed that his reconstruction of the second phase Temple built on top of the original was wrong, and in fact the plethora of offering tables were limited to the earlier temple layout, and they would have been buried underground and invisible by the time the second incarnation of the temple was built.

A bit towards the south some marvelous discoveries have been unearthed. First, pieces of sandstone columns and a cornice that bears the cartouches of the Aten have been found, along with various other interesting stonework which were discovered in the rubble. Second, they uncovered a mid-section of a royal woman’s figure clad in an elegantly pleated garment that is about 2/3 life size. Damage done to the statue could have been accidental when the large stone work was demolished, but the other broken finds seem to have been deliberately broken in small pieces perhaps when this city was evacuated and ransacked.

Repairs to the access ramp to the mud-brick pylon entrance, and laying the stones of the new threshold, Courtesy of Barry Kemp

Repairs to the access ramp to the mud-brick pylon entrance, and laying the stones of the new
threshold, Courtesy of Barry Kemp

What we are learning is that there were two temples built. The first was constructed along classic lines on a grand scale and runs symmetrically on an east-west axis. Next, there appears to have been a remodeling phase that included the colossal sandstone columns in front of a stone façade of the renovated temple. Finds included a large gypsum foundation in the Great Aten Temple, and not present in the nearby Small Aten Temple, may have been erected due to structural weaknesses, or due to a collapse of supporting columns that could possibly be attributed to water erosion.

The second temple, built late in the Amarna period, appears to be of a more formal layout. This other temple begs us to ask the question about its use. Could it have been used for ceremonial events? Was it open for worship only by the royal family or was it used publicly? That this large mud brick enclosure may have been for ritual performances is beyond our understanding as of yet.

New reconstruction laid down this year by a team of mud brick makers and builders created a low stone retaining wall around the edge of the excavation on the west. The past season’s work at Amarna has been very productive, and we look forward to many years of new discoveries and improvements to both our understanding of, and the reconstructed appearance of, the Great Aten Temple.

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