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Head of Akhenaten
Above: Head of Akhenaten from the Great Aten Temple
Conservator Hassân Ibrahim El-Amir (IFAO) finishes cleaning and consolidating the head.

A head of Akhenaten from the Great Aten Temple

Barry Kemp, Marsha Hill and Kristin Thompson

(with context information supplied by Anna Hodgkinson and Miriam Bertram)

Since 2012 the Amarna Project has been re-examining the site of the Great Aten Temple as well as marking the outlines of the main building with new stonework. A notable feature of the temple is the way it was surrounded by extensive areas devoid of other buildings, apart from numerous offering-tables built from stone blocks or mud bricks. Most of these had been buried beneath a layer of rubble when, seemingly during or after Akhenaten’s regnal year 12, the temple was rebuilt on a larger scale. This layer of rubble (the ‘levelling rubble’) sealed a mud floor which had first been laid down at the time of the temple’s creation and covered the huge surrounding space. This mud floor carries traces of activities which, if we can understand them better, should shed light on the temple as a cult centre serving the needs of part of the city’s population as well as Akhenaten’s own concepts for how the Aten should be properly honoured.

In the course of excavating an area of the rubble — square J26 in the Great Aten Temple excavation grid, excavation unit (17404) — at the end of September 2017, a small head of Akhenaten was found within it. (Walid M. Omar was the workman who found it, whilst working under the supervision of archaeologist Anna Hodgkinson.) It was given the object number 41430. The date of discovery was September 28th.

When first recovered from the ground, patches of sand still encrusted the surface. A broken fragment of gypsum (perhaps from the damage to the top of the crown) adhered to one of the patches over the position of the right eye. By good fortune and generous spirit of cooperation, Hassan Ibrahim El-Amir, conservator of the Institut français and a member of the French-British mission to Hatnub (then living in the Amarna expedition house during the course of their autumn season), cleaned the surfaces shortly after discovery and consolidated them. Thomas Sagory, photographer to the same mission, took photographs of the head before and after cleaning and subsequently, working with Benoit Touchard, prepared a 3D image (see below).



TA.GAT 17 #18 J26 (17404) — levelling rubble


Head of Akhenaten. Gypsum paste mixed with fine dark grit, the paste containing many tiny air cavities. Colour of paste: cream but the surfaces (including of the breaks) are mottled pale brown from chemical reactions during long burial in the ground. These, and the dark grit mixed into the paste, create a general impression of a darker and more uneven colour than is apparent when the paste is viewed under low magnification. The surface bears many faint traces of the smoothing and crinkling of the paste as it was worked whilst still plastic.

The head has suffered damage. A piece is broken from across half of the top of the crown on the head’s left side; there is damage to the right side of the mouth and down the bridge of the nose; a flake is missing from below the left ear; the point of the chin has sustained slight damage as has, shallowly, the back of the neck. The underside of the neck is rough. A slight patch of pale abrasion occurs above the left eye (possibly made during the course of excavation). The inner half of the left eye itself seems to have lost a shallow flake that creates a mistaken impression that a lower edge of the eye is marked (it is slightly darker and unlike the other eye).

Dimensions: max. ht. (bottom of neck to top of crown) 12.8 cm; top of crown (front to back) 10.0 cm; top of crown (side to side) 9.2 cm; ht. of face (chin to start of crown) 8.7 cm; width of face (between temples) 8 cm.

The head has been modelled with minimum detail, very noticeable in the case of the right ear, which is simply a flat, raised outline of an ear, and the eyes, which are rendered as oval swellings set off above by a deep groove from the brow ridge without indications of eyebrows, lower eyelids or other details. The cheekbones have a natural swelling that continues into a bony prominence extending to just in front of the ear. The cheek swelling changes quickly to concave cheeks below, which serves to accentuate the mouth area. The nose (its bridge damaged) is clearly separated from the rest of the face, the right nostril slightly undercut as it joins the cheek. The mouth is narrow from side to side, but the lips are full, the lower lip well advanced beyond the chin. The chin is relatively narrow and long, the profile beneath the chin rising rapidly towards the neck at a marked angle.

The crown is separately distinguished from the head only at the front, by means of an incised line which begins about 1.8 cm forward from the ears (the right side only fully preserved). The back of the crown rises at an angle from the neck but without a separating line. The edge of the break of the missing slice from the top of the crown, where it meets the front surface, corresponds to the place where a uraeus would have been. Between the bottom of the break and the forehead line two more-or-less parallel and vertical grooves seem to be shallowly modelled as if from the tail of a uraeus, but it is hard to be sure of this.

The general impression of the head is of something rapidly and confidently modelled by the fingers in a stiff clay by someone very practised at doing so, able to maintain a near-perfect symmetry during the course of the actions, and cognisant of the fine points of rendering the royal physiognomy.

As for comparisons, Berlin ÄM 21351, generally accepted to represent Akhenaten, offers good parallels for the shape of the face, the droop of the chin and the slight convexity of the upper line of the neck at the rear that characterise this king’s image. Seyfried, Im Licht von Amarna (2012), 332, cat. No. 120, illustrates all sides. Another parallel is offered by Cairo CG 753, Petrie’s gypsum ‘death mask of Akhenaten,’ which is similar in its strong characterisation with use of minimal detail. Pendelbury, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 19 (1933), 118, pl. 19/4 has the best photo.  Two gypsum heads of roughly the same size as the new head have been found in workshops: a small head usually taken to represent Nefertiti, Berlin ÄM 21353, also illustrated in Seyfried, 326–7, cat. 113; and Metropolitan Museum of Art 21.9.19, representing an unknown royal figure, with a photograph on the museum’s website

3D viewable image

A 3D rotatable image of the head, using Thomas Sagory’s photographs, with 3D digitization by Thomas Sagory and Benoit Touchard, is available below and also at:



Archaeological context

The layer of rubble in which the head was found is largely composed of pieces of mud brick, sometimes mixed with patches of sand. Tip lines are sometimes visible in excavated sections, marking individual moments in the throwing down of loads of debris. The most likely source of the bricks is a thick temporary retaining wall and service ramp built around the site of the twin groups of large sandstone columns at the front of the temple. Given that the rubble might extend southwards over an area of some 140 x 70 m, it is debateable whether this construction would, on its own, have provided sufficient material. Mixed within the rubble are numerous potsherds. They are predominantly from storage vessels, made from Nile-silt rather than from marl clay. Other finds are fragments from stamped jar-sealings, small basalt hammer-stones and numerous flakes from shaping them, and further examples of gypsum mouldings.

This cultural debris appears not to be evenly distributed but to occur in concentrations. One conspicuous concentration was excavated in 2014. It consisted of fragments of carved stone, including the torso of a beautifully rendered statue almost certainly of Nefertiti, a reworked piece of column and part of a slab carved with the later names of the Aten. The mixed character of the material implies the disposal of a small pile of discarded stonework presumably left over from whatever stone constructions had accompanied the first temple on the site. Apart from this group, carved stonework (including inlay pieces) is rare.

The rubble lies directly on the final mud floor without an intermediate layer of sand or ash or cultural debris. Nor do the potsherds derive from pots broken as they stood when the rubble was dumped in. The impression one gains is of a final event in the life of the first temple, when an area was cleared of standing offering-tables, a fresh mud floor was laid down and, on this, temporary constructions were put up, following which the area was cleared again and the rubble dumped over it, creating a fresh floor level higher up which remained the ground level until disturbed by archaeologists.

In general, the material does not resemble the characteristic debris found in Amarna’s housing areas, mainly in the infrequency of faience and glass pieces, signs of manufacturing (other than the hammer-stones) and absence of stone furnishings.



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