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The North Cliffs Cemetery 2018

Anna Stevens and Gretchen Dabbs


From 24 March to 12 May 2018, the Amarna Project continued its long-term study of the non-elite cemeteries of Amarna, shifting focus to a burial ground on the low desert near the North Tombs – the North Cliffs Cemetery. This cemetery lies just below the Tomb of Panehesy (North Tomb 6), the southernmost of the North Tomb group to have been substantially finished. Seven weeks of excavation were conducted, from 24 March to 10 May. The excavation team comprised Anna Stevens, Wendy Dolling and Mindi King Wetzel (site supervisors); and Gretchen Dabbs (bioarchaeological director), Conni Lord, Melanie Pitkin, Sarah Ricketts, Kate Rose and Sofie Schiødt. Eighteen workmen from El-Hagg Qandil and El-Till assisted with the fieldwork.

Ind. 1160, wearing a necklace of glass and faience beads  (obj. 41419).Figure 1: East-facing view across the North Cliffs Cemetery, with the Tomb of Panehesy visible in the cliffs behind the site.

Site setting

Unlike the North and South Tombs Cemeteries, which are located in large sand-filled wadis, the North Cliffs Cemetery lies exposed on the low desert below the eastern cliffs. It is positioned just southwest of the Tomb of Panehesy, essentially in front of the axis of the tomb (Figure 1). The desert here is flat but not entirely featureless, being divided into low embankments by shallow east-west running water channels. In the Amarna period, the desert here bore an elaborate network of roadways. Some of these still survive, including one which was passes c. 20m north of the North Cliffs Cemetery. Most of this group of roadways is likely to have been used as transport alleys for the North Tombs, especially for chariot traffic.

At surface level, the North Cliffs Cemetery is marked by a concentration of looters’ pits, partially filled with windblown sand, with occasional pieces of weathered human bone, pottery and limestone boulders. The pits and disturbed burial debris cover the better part of two low but fairly distinct embankments, and extend slightly beyond these to the north and south. Looters’ pits are much more obvious on the surface of this cemetery than at the South Tombs Cemetery and overall at the North Tombs Cemetery, although parts of the latter are also heavily pitted.

Fieldwork methods

A priority for 2018 was to open sample areas widely across the site to test for variation in the burials, and to establish the limits of the cemetery. A five-by-five metre grid was set out and excavation undertaken within a sample of grid squares both across the interior and around the edge of the site. Forty-three grid squares in total were investigated. Most were excavated fully, although some were only partially cleared to test whether they contained graves and so lay inside the boundaries of the cemetery.

Ind. 1160, wearing a necklace of glass and faience beads  (obj. 41419).Figure 2: Map of the North Cliffs Cemetery. Those squares that were fully excavated are labelled. The map incorporates survey data collected and plotted by Helen Fenwick and Barry Kemp.

The excavation method at the Amarna cemeteries is to first remove the layers of overburden: here a surface deposit of gravel and sand, followed by a thin crust of orange-brown ‘marl’ (Figure 2). Below this, oblong patches of softer brown sand typically began to emerge, being deposits that have accumulated in robbers’ pits and ancient graves. These deposits, and the burials below some of them, were then investigated one-by-one. Each individual set of human remains was given its own ‘Individual Number’, beginning at 2001, and skulls likewise numbered in sequence from 2001.

Ind. 1160, wearing a necklace of glass and faience beads  (obj. 41419).Figure 3: Surface sand and gravel is removed.

The natural desert surface into which the graves have been cut here is much coarser than at the North and South Tombs Cemeteries, being a mix of gravel, sand, and powdery white limestone and red-brown marl that forms the crust of the underlying limestone bedrock proper. The grave walls were sometimes difficult to define in this irregular, crumbly horizon. Identification of graves was hampered further by the disturbance to the site, with most burials excavated this season having been looted.

The North Cliffs Cemetery is the most heavily disturbed of the Amarna cemeteries investigated to date. There seem to be at least two phases of robbery. The visible surface pits are fairly modern, probably cut sometime in the last century to judge from the occasional pieces of paper, and probably a pair of leather shoe soles, found within some disturbed deposits. There is also likely to have been a much earlier phase, the date of which cannot be pinpointed and which is often not clearly distinguishable within the stratigraphic record from the later robbery. Many of the graves excavated this season are likely to have been robbed twice. Sometimes, the looters seem to have hauled most of the burial up onto the surface of the desert where it gradually eroded away. Usually, some trace of the burial remains in the grave, even if just organic staining on the base of the grave, although several pits this season contained nothing of this nature at all. In these cases it was difficult to determine if the cut was a grave or simply a hole left by robbers.


A total of 72 likely graves were excavated, which yielded 48 individuals. Individual numbers are assigned during the excavations only when a set of human remains can be matched with certainty to a grave. A small number of additional individual numbers may be assigned when the human remains are studied. Preliminary observations in the field suggest the excavated sample represents individuals of a broad age range. Most excavated graves appear to have accommodated just a single individual. The one certain exception was a grave containing three individuals, an adult and two subadults, laid out side-by-side and slightly overlapping. Each had been wrapped separately in textile and matting, although they were placed closely together and almost certainly interred at the same time.

Cemetery size and development

The cemetery appears to covers a distance of approximately 180m northeast-southwest and 80m northwest-southeast. Its limits correspond generally to the area covered by surface pitting and disturbed burial material, apart from the eastern edge, where the robbers’ pits extend much further to the east and south-east than the graves themselves obviously continue. These robbers’ pits, as they come close to the base of the cliffs, can be quite large and in one or two places look like they could have been created by mechanical diggers. There was no time this season to place test squares out here, but there is little disturbed burial material on the surface in this area, and it seems unlikely that the cemetery extends this far. It is puzzling that the looters would have expended so much energy digging without return, although they were perhaps expecting to find more elaborate or deeper tombs closer to the cliff face and the rock-cut tombs above.

Each 5 x 5m excavation square within the cemetery limits contained between c. 3–4.5 graves, most of them apparently for a single individual, allowing for a preliminary estimate of c. 900–1400 individuals interred at the North Cliffs Cemetery. The graves are quite consistently oriented overall, most of them running perpendicular to the line of the cliff face. A first impression is that the graves are more consistently oriented, and also more spaciously arranged, than at the South and North Tombs Cemeteries (which are also distinct from one another in these respects). The orientation of the head of the deceased was often difficult to determine because of the heavy looting, but does not seem to have been consistent. There are also areas where the graves run approximately parallel to the cliff face. This is not obviously in response to landscape features, such as the slope of the ground or water channels, and perhaps represents social factors like family or other group plots.

Grave architecture

Ind. 1160, wearing a necklace of glass and faience beads  (obj. 41419).Figure 4: Oblong grave pits appear just beneath the desert surface.

The graves were simple oblong pits cut down into the desert surface, quite regular in shape with straight sides and vertical edges, although usually truncated through at least their upper edge by robbers’ cuts (Figure 4). No direct evidence for superstructures was found. Graves might often have been marked with simple cairns of unworked boulders as seems to have been the case at the South Tombs Cemetery, and perhaps also the North Toms Cemetery. Loose limestone boulders are occasionally present on the surface of the North Cliffs Cemetery and in the subsurface deposits and grave fills.

Fragments of at least four limestone stelae were also recovered, which were presumably grave markers. All lay on the surface of the site, where they had been redeposited during looting. Two have illegible remains of hieroglyphic inscriptions and two have traces of decoration: perhaps a standing person wearing a kilt, and an offering table respectively. One fragment preserves its upper edge, which forms a triangle, a shape incorporated into most of the funerary stelae from the South Tombs Cemetery.

Treatment of the body

Most individuals were wrapped first in textile and then rolled in a mat made of plant material. Preservation of organics is particularly good at this cemetery. Textile body wrappings often survived in good condition and it was possible to identify both strips and larger pieces of textile on some bodies. Preliminary observation of the matting suggests it is often of reed or tamarisk. Interestingly, there was little gereed matting, which was quite common at the South Tombs Cemetery. Gereed was also rare at the North Tombs Cemetery. The human remains were also often well preserved and several intact or semi-intact mummies, presumably natural, were recovered, preserving large amounts of desiccated human tissue.

Two graves this season contained the badly preserved remains of wooden coffins. One has small patches of blue and yellow paint, but no obvious trace of a black background as found on most coffins from the South Tombs Cemetery. Small displaced pieces of several other wooden coffins were also recovered.

Burial goods and offerings

A small but varied assemblage of objects was recovered. These remain to be recorded, but seem initially consistent with the South Tombs Cemetery artefacts in terms of their range and frequency. A preliminary assessment of the pottery recovered from the site by Pamela Rose suggests that it too is broadly consistent with the South Tombs Cemetery assemblage.

Ind. 1160, wearing a necklace of glass and faience beads  (obj. 41419).Figure 5: A wooden hair pin (?) shortly after discovery.

Objects from the North Cliffs Cemetery included faience beads, pendants and finger rings; kohl applicators and a kohl tube; a fragmentary wooden comb and possible wooden hair pin (Figure 5); a probable mud ball with internal cavity; and a broken travertine bowl. Objects in organic materials are again better preserved at this cemetery than at the North and South Tombs Cemeteries. One grave contained a simple textile bag and another contained pieces of barley that had been twisted into a piece or bag of textile. The sand beneath the textile contained emmer wheat, and lump of mud nearby also had pieces of impressed barley. These are perhaps connected with the sustenance or resurrection of the deceased.


The 2018 season of excavation at the North Cliffs Cemetery indicates that this is another pit-grave cemetery where the deceased is usually wrapped in textile and matting, or occasionally placed in a wooden coffin, which could bear painted decoration. Most graves contain just one individual. Burial goods are again uncommon, although the heavy looting of the site has certainly disrupted the artefact record. Preliminary observations in the field suggest the cemetery has a broad demographic profile, although analysis of the human remains awaits. An initial population estimate of c. 900–1400 individuals can be posited.

The North Cliffs Cemetery seems to be much closer in character to the South Tombs Cemetery in terms of the predominance of single burials, and its range of burial containers and objects, than the highly unusual North Tombs Cemetery.

Its character will become clearer as the human remains and burial materials are analysed, but it is unlikely to represent another ‘labourers’ cemetery’, as the North Tombs Cemetery has been tentatively defined. Its profile seems suited to a regular urban population and its northern setting must raise the possibility that it served the North Suburb and/or North City, the people buried here perhaps also having a connection to Panehesy or others of the officials who owned tombs in the cliffs above.





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