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The North Desert Cemetery, 2018  

Anna Stevens and Gretchen Dabbs

View across the North Desert Cemetery.Figure 1. View across the North Desert Cemetery. The high cliffs in the background contain the North Tombs, which belong to some of the most senior officials in Akhenaten’s court.


In Autumn 2018, the Amarna Project continued its long-term study of the non-elite cemeteries of Amarna, with a short season of excavation at a small burial ground around 600m south-west of the North Cliffs Cemetery, excavated in Spring 2018. We have designated this site the ‘North Desert Cemetery’. Like all the cemeteries of Amarna, it has been badly robbed, but is still full of research potential. It has never been the subject of archaeological excavations before. Who was buried here? Where did they live at Akhetaten? Why were they interred in a separate cemetery? And how do their graves and skeletons compare to others so far excavated at Amarna? These questions are among those that are shaping our work.

Four weeks of excavation were conducted, from 12 November to 14 December. The excavation team comprised Anna Stevens, Wendy Dolling and Mindi King Wetzel (site supervisors); and Gretchen Dabbs (bioarchaeological director), Sofie Schiodt, Kate Rose, Conni Lord and Sarah Ricketts. Our site inspectors were Ms Martha Atef Eesa and Ms Asmaa Adel Wadee, and our magazine inspectors were Mr Tharwat Shawky Demain and Mr Mohamed Abdel Mohsen, to whom we extend many thanks, and likewise to the staff of the Mallawi and Minia MoA offices. Seventeen workmen from El-Hagg Qandil and El-Till were employed to assist with the excavations. The excavations were funded by a National Endowment of the Humanities grant awarded to Southern Illinois University in partnership with the Amarna Project.

Figure 2. Draft map of the North Desert Cemetery showing the areas excavated in the 2018 field season. By Wendy Dolling.Figure 2. Draft map of the North Desert Cemetery showing the areas excavated in the 2018 field season. By Wendy Dolling.

Site setting

The North Desert Cemetery is located at the end of a band of outcropping desert marl which forms a low plateau rising from the flat desert floor. The site incorporates three burials zones: i) Pit-graves on a low terrace on the desert floor north of the plateau; ii) At least one robbed-out shaft-and-chamber tomb on top of the plateau; iii) Graves around the sides of the plateau.

Aims and methods

The aims for the season were:

  • To open a set of test squares across the different zones.
  • To collect a sample of human remains that can be compared with those recovered from the other Amarna cemeteries.
  • To gain a preliminary understanding of the approach to burial here.

A five-by-five metre grid was set out across the site and excavation was undertaken within a sample of these grid squares. Five excavation areas were opened. Three lie on the low desert terrace: squares AJ33+AJ34 +AK33+AK34/ AH36+AH37/AD39+AD39. One was located on the sloping northern edge of the raised plateau: squares W32 + X32. The fifth excavation area was located on top of the plateau, at a prominent robbed-out tomb (Tomb 1). Over the course of the season, a topographic map of the site was also made.

On the desert terrace and plateau slope, the excavation method was first to remove the layers of overburden: typically, a surface layer of gravel and sand, followed by a thin crust of orange ‘marl’. Below this, oblong patches of fill gradually began to emerge, which marked deposits that had accumulated in graves and robbers’ pits. These pit fills were then investigated one-by-one, the burial remains photographed, planned and lifted. Nearly all of the graves this season had been looted, although usually the looters simply rummaged around, disturbing the interment but leaving at least part of it within the grave. The looting belongs to at least two main phases. One probably occurred in the distant past, but there is another more recent phase, which probably took place within the last century.

On top of the plateau at Tomb 1, the excavation first concentrated on removing a large spoil mound that encircled the mouth of the tomb shaft. The surface of the mound was removed entirely, before work focused on the western half of the mound, removing it down to the gebel. The spoil was mostly sterile sand and marl dust, with occasional boulders, although in its lower horizon it contained a layer of mudbrick rubble. The mound likely represents at least two phases of looting of the tomb. Work then focused on clearing the tomb shaft of windblown sand (and modern debris), which exposed the mouth of a chamber to the east, cut into the natural orange clay. The interior of the chamber was filled with windblown sand and collapse from the ceiling. It had been entirely robbed of its original contents.

Figure 3. Sarah Ricketts excavates the grave of an infant on the low desert terrace.Figure 3. Sarah Ricketts excavates the grave of an infant on the low desert terrace.


A total of 32 pit graves (plus the chamber tomb) were excavated over the four weeks, which yielded a total of 24 individuals. Individual numbers are assigned during the excavations only when a set of skeletal remains can be matched with certainty to a grave. A few more numbers may be assigned when the human remains are studied in a future season. Initial observations in the field suggest the site has a normal demographic profile, with individuals of a broad age range. It is too early to estimate the number of people buried here, but it is likely to number in the low hundreds.

Grave architecture and arrangement

Pit graves: The graves on the desert terrace and the edge of the plateau were simple oblong pits cut down into the sand, quite regular in shape with straight sides and vertical edges. No direct evidence for superstructures was found, although these may often have been simple stone cairns. A reasonable number of loose boulders were encountered in the bulk deposits and graves fills. One burial, of an infant, had a group of small boulders placed down in the grave directly over the interment (Figure 3). A weathered worked limestone slab found on the surface of the site might be the remains of a stela that once marked a grave, but otherwise no stelae were encountered.

There was considerable variation in the orientation of the graves, although adjacent burials often followed a similar orientation. This is not obviously in response to landscape features, so it might be that these represent family or community ‘plots’. One or two areas contained slight concentrations of infant/subadult burials, although more excavation is needed to see if this is a real pattern.

Tomb 1: The tomb on top of the plateau comprised a vertical shaft measuring some 3.2 x 1.1 m, lined at its base with mud brick and with a raised mortar floor. It opened to the east to a chamber. Little of the original walls or ceiling survived, having collapsed inwards and/or been truncated by looters, but the chamber likely measured c. 2.8 x 2.7m. The entrance from the shaft opened onto the south-west corner of the chamber. The floor and lower 30–50cm of the chamber walls were covered with a rough mortar, the same as on the floor of the shaft. In the north-east corner of the chamber was a small square structure made of mortared brick and boulders. A second such structure, badly damaged, lay in the south-east corner. The purpose of these emplacements is not clear, although they were perhaps coffin supports. There was no direct evidence for any structure on top of the tomb, although the mouth of the shaft had been considerably widened by looters which might have destroyed any structural remains. The mud-brick rubble in the spoil mound around the tomb seems likely to have come from the brick lining the shaft.

Treatment of the body

Figure 4. Mindi King Wetzel recovers heavily fragmented pieces of a wooden coffin thrown out of Tomb 1 by looters.Figure 4. Mindi King Wetzel recovers heavily fragmented pieces of a wooden coffin thrown out of Tomb 1 by looters.

As is the case at all of the non-elite Amarna cemeteries, the bodies had been prepared simply for burial. Most individuals were wrapped first in textile and then rolled in a mat made of plant material. The textile was generally not well preserved, although the matting was often in better condition. Examples of matting in gereed, tamarisk and of finer types such as reed were noted. Samples of matting were taken for closer study in the future. The presence of gereed matting at this cemetery is interesting, as this was rare among the excavated graves at the other two northern cemeteries (although common at the South Tombs Cemetery). Two of the pit graves contained the badly preserved remains of wooden coffins. Both were rectangular box coffins. One contained an infant and had been left unpainted. The other was larger and had been painted. It was not well preserved, but remains of vertical yellow bands on a black ground could be identified on its exterior. This coffin was in square W32 on the slopes of the plateau and lay in a very deep rectangular grave, cut to imitate the shape of the coffin. Small fragments of a decorated wooden coffin were also found in the spoil heap that ringed Tomb 1, likely thrown out of the tomb by looters (Figure 3). Although the sample of excavated graves at the North Desert Cemetery is very small, the proportion of graves with wooden coffins here is similar to the South Tombs Cemetery (ie. c. 1 in 10).

All the excavated pit graves accommodated just a single individual. It is not yet clear how many individuals were buried in the chamber in Tomb 1, but it is conceivable that just a single person was buried here. Only one skeleton seems to have been recovered from the robbers’ spoil (although the bone has not yet been studied).

Burial goods and offerings

Only a few objects were recovered. Most were pieces of jewellery, the majority of which came from two graves. One of these, for a subadult, contained a group of finger rings and two sets of faience beads which made up a necklace and a girdle. A nearby grave of an infant contained a short string of glass beads. One grave contained a dom palm nut but few other botanical remains were found. Pottery was the most common find, predominantly from disturbed deposits. It seems initially consistent with the pottery assemblages from the South Tombs and North Cliffs Cemeteries, but remains to be analysed. A considerable quantity of Roman pottery was recovered from the site, but is likely connected with a phase of looting of the cemetery. The nature of the finds leaves no doubt that this is a New Kingdom cemetery and is not connected with the Early Christian occupation of the North Tombs. Several examples of ‘spade sherds’ – potsherds reused as digging tools – were also recovered.


The North Tombs Cemetery is a burial ground for a mixed population of adults and subadults who are again buried mostly in matting coffins and with occasional, simple burial goods such as faience jewellery and pottery vessels. Although the skeletons and burial goods remain to be analysed, the cemetery seems initially to resemble the South Tombs and North Cliffs Cemeteries more closely than the very unusual North Tombs Cemetery (which contains mostly young individuals, often buried together). The small size of the North Desert Cemetery is unusual, however, as is the shaft-and-chamber tomb. The closest parallels to the latter occur at the Workmen’s Village and the Stone Village, both of which are built against the edges of a similar plateau of marl clay. It is not yet clear where the people who were buried at the North Desert Cemetery lived, but it can be speculated that they were from the suburbs north of the Central City. The site has more of the feel of a small ‘community’ burial ground, as opposed to the large ‘public’ cemeteries elsewhere (especially the South Tombs Cemetery). Its focal point may be the chamber tomb/s on top of the low plateau – a prominent feature of the local landscape – which perhaps belonged to one (or more) individuals who held elevated status within one particular sub-community of Akhetaten, but not to the degree of the city officials who were granted rock-cut tombs in the eastern cliffs proper. It is hoped that further work at the site will be possible in the future.


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