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The North Tombs Cemetery 2015

Anna Stevens, Gretchen Dabbs, Mary Shepperson and Melinda King Wetzel

The 2015 excavation season ran from 30 March – 7 May. The excavation team comprised Anna Stevens, Mary Shepperson and Mindi King Wetzel (site supervisors); and Gretchen Dabbs, Sofie Schiodt, Kate Rose, Conni Lord, Megan Paqua, Reinert Skumsnes, Melanie Pitkin and Ashley Bryant. The MSA inspector was Mr Abdel Gawad Emad Ahmed, and we were joined by trainee inspectors Mariam Atif Shaker, Farid Fathy Hashem and Marwa Ahmed Osman. Nineteen workmen from Hagg Qandil and el-Till were employed to assist with the excavations. A first analysis of the skeletal material was then undertaken from 19 May – 14 June, 2015. The work was led by Jerome Rose and Gretchen Dabbs, with participants Ghada Al-Khafif, Alissa Bandy, Heidi Davis, Heather Manning, Erika Morey, Leah Morse, Lindsey Roberts, Julia Rodriguez, Sofie Schiodt, Ashley Shidner, Eleanor Simper and Jessica Spencer. The MSA inspector was Mr Ahmed Wagih Anwar.

Site description

A view facing north across the wadi showing the three areas excavated in 2015.A view facing north across the wadi showing the three areas excavated in 2015.

The North Tombs Cemetery is located within a bay that is formed by two adjacent wadi mouths, which breaks the steep cliffs of the high desert between North Tombs 2 and 3. Whilst the North Tombs have been known to researchers since the early 19th century, they represent only the elite end of a much larger cemetery, the full extent of which was only recognised by surveyor Helen Fenwick in 2004.

The bay contains three flat sandy banks, a spur of limestone rising up in the centre to separate the two wadis. There are several modest, undecorated, and largely unrecorded, rock-cut tombs in the cliffs around the bay, including one in its east end. Spread across the banks are robbers’ pits and associated spoil mounds that contain modest quantities of bleached human bone and potsherds, materials that have been dug up from graves below. Most of the pottery on the surface and in the robbers’ spoil is of Amarna period date, although there are a few pieces of ribbed late Roman amphorae and later glazed wares. The robbers’ pits have the appearance of being several decades old, and anecdotal evidence from residents of el-Till suggests this phase of robbery occurred about 30 years ago, before the antiquities of Amarna were policed.

An Amarna Period rock-cut tomb at the far end of the wadi. The dry stone walls surrounding the mouth of the tomb are from its reuse in Late Antique times. An Amarna Period rock-cut tomb at the far end of the wadi. The dry stone walls surrounding the mouth of the tomb are from its reuse in Late Antique times.

Areas of the site that do not bear robbers’ pits have almost no bone or sherds, being covered with a light scatter of gravel and small limestone boulders. Overall, there is less surface bone, pottery and boulders than at the South Tombs Cemetery. It is possible that more of these materials have been washed away during floods; the sandy embankments are separated by deep wide channels that have formed by flash floods sweeping down from the high desert. It is not yet clear if these channels were already present during the Amarna period, although the fact that there is no obvious bone eroding out of the channel walls might indicate that they were, and the graves were set back from their edges.

Methods: In the 2015 season, excavation was undertaken exclusively on the southern bank, the broadest of the three. Twenty-seven 5 x 5m grid squares were laid out in three areas: close to the wadi mouth (the ‘near site’), approximately half way along the bank (the ‘mid site’) and towards the far end of the wadi (the ‘far site’). In locating the grid squares, ground that was undisburbed by robbers’ pits was chosen.

Map of the North Tombs (based on a survey map by Helen Fenwick) showing the 2015 excavation areas. Map of the North Tombs (based on a survey map by Helen Fenwick) showing the 2015 excavation areas.
Grave pits emerge at the mid site following the removal of sand and gravel overburden.Grave pits emerge at the mid site following the removal of sand and gravel overburden.

The excavation method was first to remove the layers of overburden: typically, a surface crust of water-hardened orange ‘marl’, below which the fill became a softer gravel-rich sand. As this bulk deposit was removed, oblong patches of marl often began to emerge. These seem to be water-laid deposits that have settled into depressions of robbers’ pits, dug in turn into underlying graves. At this stage, each pit was investigated individually. This lower horizon of robbers’ pits, no longer visible from the surface, represents looting that took place well before modern times, but is difficult to date more precisely. Almost all of the graves excavated this season had been robbed to a substantial degree; a similar situation was encountered at the South Tombs Cemetery. Often, the robbers simply rummaged around in the grave pit, disarticulating the skeleton but leaving much of the bone inside the grave, although sometimes they threw bone out of graves onto the surface of the site or into an adjacent grave, leaving a more complicated record for the archaeologist to trace. The three excavation areas differed in terms of the amount of overburden that had to be removed before graves emerged, due to localised effects of erosion and sand deposition, with the tops of the graves often noted at a higher level at the near site than the other areas. At the far site, no burial pits were encountered within the first set of excavation squares to be opened (AV12–14, AW12–14), a situation that is probably original but is difficult to explain in light of the fact that there is bone visible in robbers’ pits surrounding these squares. There is no sign within the stratigraphy of the original Amarna period surface, which was probably destroyed by the looting and perhaps by subsequent flooding.

Each individual set of skeletal remains identified in situ was given its own ‘Individual Number’, beginning at 1001, and skulls likewise were numbered in sequence from 1001. Individual numbers were allocated in the field only when a set of skeletal remains could be matched with certainty to a grave; it is anticipated that further individual numbers will be assigned as the analysis of the human remains progresses, and co-mingled remains are separated in the laboratory.


A total of 85 graves were excavated over the six weeks, with 115 individual numbers assigned.

Area Number of graves excavated Number of individual numbers assigned at close of excavations Number of single burials Number of multiple burials
near site 30 41 19 11
mid site 30 36 26 4
far site 25 38 15 10
totals 85 115 60 25

Breakdown of individuals and graves excavated across the three 2015 excavation areas at the North Tombs Cemetery. The number of individuals and multiple burials is likely to increase as the study of the human remains continues.

Grave layout and architecture

The mid site at the close of excavations in 2015, showing the closely-packed but orderly grave pits. The mid site at the close of excavations in 2015, showing the closely-packed but orderly grave pits.

The graves took the form of simple oblong pits cut into the gravel-rich sand; they were generally quite regular in shape with vertical walls, cut just larger than an adult individual and surviving to depths of between around 20 cm to 1m. With the exception of the initial six squares explored at the far site, each 5 x 5 m grid square typically contained five to six graves, a density that is comparable to the South Tombs Cemetery. In terms of grave alignment, no clear pattern is yet obvious. The graves run in various directions, filling in the ground, although often in two main alignments, perpendicular to one another. None of the graves cut into one another and it can be assumed that they were marked at surface level, probably by simple stone cairns, as at the South Tombs Cemetery, although no in situ examples of these were encountered. One disturbed burial at the mid site (grave 16753, Ind. 1077) contained broken pieces of mud brick that may once have been part of a grave marker. No stelae were found that might have been erected graveside. There is, in fact, little worked stone generally at the site, in contrast to the South Tombs Cemetery, which was situated next to a small quarry, the waste from which seems to have been re-used to form grave cairns.

Treatment of the body: The bodies were wrapped in textile and in a mat; in general, the preservation of both was very poor. The matting remains to be studied, but seemed usually to be of leaf, grass or reed. The thicker and more rigid gereed and tamarisk-stick matting that was common at the South Tombs Cemetery was rarely encountered. Nor were there any examples of wooden coffins, whether decorated examples or simple unpainted boxes.

A multiple burial at the mid site, containing four juveniles laid on top of each other, the uppermost interment damaged by robbers. A multiple burial at the mid site, containing four juveniles laid on top of each other, the uppermost interment damaged by robbers.

Whilst most of the individuals were buried singly, a feature of the cemetery so far is the large number of graves containing more than one person. Twenty-five of the 85 excavated graves were multiple burials. In most cases, the individuals were placed closely side-by-side or stacked one on top of each other, often with their heads at opposite ends of the grave. Most of the multiple burials contained just two individuals, but others accommodated up to five bodies. In all of the multiple burials, the bodies had been wrapped separately in textile and matting. In one example, at the far site, a layer of sand about 5 cm deep separated each body (grave 16551, Inds 1018, 1019, 1065, 1073 and 1081), suggesting perhaps that the grave had been reopened for each interment, but generally the bodies were so tightly packed that it seems likely they were interred at the one time. Whilst multiple burials occurred at the South Tombs Cemetery, especially at one particular area (the ‘upper site’), they seem, so far, to be more common at the North Tombs Cemetery. The stacking of individuals one on top of another is not something that was encountered at the South Tombs Cemetery, where they were generally laid side-by-side in graves cut usually to around twice the regular width. At the North Tombs Cemetery, the graves containing more than one person are usually only slightly wider than the single burials, if at all.

Burial goods and offerings

A selection of faience and glass beads found during the excavations.A selection of faience and glass beads found during the excavations.

Very few artefacts were found during the excavations, apart from a few pieces of jewellery (e.g. beads in glass and faience, a wedjat-eye ring in faience, a wooden ear plug and a glass ear or hair ring). An unexpected find was a metal needle (obj. 41091; grave 16845, Inds 1106, 1114). Occasionally pieces of pottery with smoothed edges were encountered that were perhaps used as digging tools, and one disturbed grave yielded a flat piece of limestone with edges chipped as though to form a rough blade (obj. 41095; grave 16753, Ind. 1077); was it used by robbers to cut through the matting and textile wrapping on the bodies? Relatively little pottery was encountered, although one robbed grave contained a mass of broken bowls, probably dumped by ancient looters (grave 16472, Ind. 1044).

The skeletal analysis

The research goals and methods for the North Tombs Cemetery were based on those established for the South Tombs Cemetery. Data were collected on the age and sex of each individual in order to group them into social categories for demographic analysis. Information was also collected on the diseases observed on the skeletal remains, the impact of labour on the skeletal joints, and the calculation of individual and average statures. Each skeletal individual was assigned to a team of two, who cleaned the remains, numbered each element, estimated the age and sex of the individual (where possible), and identified any pathological conditions manifest on the remains. Additionally, dental data was recorded for use in establishing health profiles and estimating subadult age. Pathological lesions were photographed and some of them were x–rayed to enable later review of the fracture diagnosis.

In total, 28 individuals and 29 isolated skulls were analyzed. A major theme in the North Tombs Cemetery sample analyzed to date is one of youth. There was one individual aged as an early subadult (3.0–6.9 years) (3.9%), and 11 individuals were classified as late subadults (7.0–14.9 years) (39.3%). Sixteen individuals were classified as adults (over 15.0 years) (57.3%), but the vast majority of these were categorized as young adults, with 12 individuals aged between 15.0–24.9 years of age at death (42.9% of the total analyzed sample). No infants were analyzed this season. A similar demographic distribution was observed in the isolated skulls, although a slightly higher representation of individuals classified simply as ‘adults’ was observed, as there are fewer characters of the skull that are useful for age estimation, especially in younger adults. 

Fourteen of the 16 adult individuals were estimated to be females. The sex of the other two individuals could not be estimated from the skeletal material available for analysis.  None of the skeletal adults analyzed were estimated to be male. This phenomenon is likely due to the young age of the adults: young adult males often present similar morphological features as females, because the secondary sexual characteristics have not yet had time to develop during the post-puberty phase. 

As a consequence of the young demographic profile of the sample observed, the health profile was somewhat different than that from the South Tombs Cemetery. Common conditions from the South Tombs Cemetery, such as compression fractures of the spine, Schmorl’s nodes, and degenerative joint disease, were observed in the North Tombs Cemetery sample at slightly higher frequencies than was observed in the South Tombs Cemetery sample, although this may be due to the disparate sample sizes. The majority of adults analyzed from this season exhibited some form of traumatic injury, including spinal compression fractures (78.6%), Schmorl’s nodes (50.0%), and limb fractures (35.7%). Degenerative joint disease (arthritis) was also common, with 21.4% of adults exhibiting spinal degeneration and 50.0% of adults developing DJD in the joints of the arms and/or legs. Subadults show surprisingly high rates of several conditions as well, including spinal fractures (50.0%), Schmorl’s nodes (16.7%), and non-spinal DJD (16.7%). In general, the development of DJD in young individuals is unexpected and suggests lives filled with exceptionally taxing labor.

The presence of malarial infection was documented through the observations of a suite of skeletal lesions.  Unlike many pathological conditions, malarial infection does not manifest as a single, identifiable lesion.  Diagnosis of malaria from the skeletal remains requires identification of porosity on either the superior eye orbits (cribra orbitalia), the anterior-proximal humerus, or the anterior-proximal femoral neck and either spinal porosity or periostitis. Twenty-six individuals could be assessed for malarial infection, and 15 of those (57.7%) exhibited the suite of diagnostic lesions. Rates were similar between adults (46.2%) and subadults (69.2%), acknowledging that the small sample size likely has a significant impact on the frequency differences reported here. 


Whilst the North Tombs Cemetery is generally similar in character to the South Tombs Cemetery, there are several distinctive aspects of the results from this first season of excavation. The first is the young age of many of the individuals buried here. Age estimations based on the small sample so far analysed, and on observations in the field, suggests a very constrained age profile, with most of the individuals (82.2%) studied to date having died between the ages of 7 and 24 years. This pattern is not typical of other contemporaneous cemeteries and does not match that identified in the South Tombs Cemetery. Leading on from this, there is little immediate sense of ‘family groupings’ amongst the graves.

A second aspect is the simplicity of the interments, with a paucity of grave goods, no evidence yet of wooden coffins, and little sign of the use of multiple layers of matting around the burials. The few undisturbed graves excavated contained no objects at all, suggesting that the low number of grave goods is not the result entirely of looting. A third aspect of note is the somewhat disorderly nature of the graves; more multiple burials, and burials placed upside down, were encountered than expected based on the results from the South Tombs Cemetery. The multiple burials are not obviously family burials (although this cannot be ruled out entirely), and may therefore represent either less ‘care for the dead’ than single burials or the death of multiple individuals in a short space of time and their expedient burial in ‘mass’ graves.

A preliminary conclusion must be that the burials within the areas excavated this season at the North Tombs Cemetery represent a somewhat different or more restricted portion of the Amarna population than was found at the South Tombs Cemetery; namely, one that is young, relatively poor and involved in extremely heavy labour from an early age. A central question is where were these individuals living, and we might suppose they were from the northern part of the city, although the fact that Panehesy, owner of Tomb 6 of the North Tombs group, seems to have owned a house in the Main City (and another ‘residence’ beside the Great Aten Temple) needs to be borne in mind. It is perhaps noteworthy that the Egypt Exploration Society excavators working in the North Suburb in the 1930s noted the very modest nature of part (although certainly not all) of the housing areas here.

Explaining the seemingly young overall age-at-death of these individuals is not straightforward. Are they being subject to a particular disease that is affecting the young? Or might this be a workforce, conscripted on the basis of youth and subject to extreme working/living conditions that resulted in large numbers of deaths? It may be noteworthy that the main limestone quarries are also located to the north of the city. Recent survey by the Dayr al-Barsha Project is revealing a busy landscape of Amarna period quarries and associated roadways extending some 10 km north of the Amarna bay, suggested to have once formed a network with harbours and perhaps workers’ settlements (De Laet et al. 2015). No evidence of any substantial workers’ settlement has been identified at the quarry sites, but we need to allow that camps with semi-permanent architecture may have existed, or that settlements were located along the floodplain.

There are many alternative explanatory frameworks that will be explored as the project continues; a first priority is to complete the full analysis of the skeletal remains. In any case, the first season at the North Tombs Cemetery has established a solid foundation for the next season of fieldwork, when excavations will proceed to the other banks of the wadi to test for variation in demography and burial practice here.


V. De Laet, G. van Loon, A. Van der Perre, I. Deliever and H. Willems, ‘Integrated Remote Sensing Investigations of Ancient Quarries and Road Systems in the Greater Dayr al-Barsha Region, Middle Egypt: A Study of Logistics’, Journal of Archaeological Science 55 (2015), 286–300.




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