AWT Conference 2011 (Amarna) – Overview

By Andrea Byrnes and Kate Phizackerley. Published on Egyptological, Magazine Edition 2. September 9th 2011



AWT Conference 2011 - The AWT Team and Speakers

The 2011 Ancient World Tours Conference was held at UCL in London over the weekend of 3rd and 4th September.  The authors attended and offer this overview of the conference.   Over the next ten days or so, we shall also be publishing detailed reviews of about half of the sessions in the Magazine Reviews section of Egyptological (and will formally become part of the next edition).  When published, all reviews in the set will be hyperlinked automatically to this article and each other so they will be easy to find.  For presentational reasons, talks have been grouped by subject in this overview and are not addressed in the order they were delivered during the conference. For reference the formal programme is shown below.

The theme for 2011 was the Amarna period, and most of the lectures focussed exclusively on that topic as detailed below.

Saturday 3rd September 2011

  • 0900 – 0945 – Coffee and registration
  • 0950 – 1000 – Barry Kemp – Harem Politics at Amarna? Reflections on looking at some old excavation records
  • 1115 – 1230 – Paul Nicholson – Glass, Fience and Pottery Making at Amarna 045.1: an Ancient Industrial Estate
  • 1230 – 1330 – Lunch
  • 1330 – 1445 – Joann Fletcher and Stephen Buckley – Royal Mummies of the Amarna Period
  • 1445 – 1600 – Dylan Bickerstaffe – Hidden Treasures of Ancient Egypt:  Before and After Akhenaten
  • 1600 – 1630 – Afternoon Tea
  • 1630 – 1740 – Barry Kemp – Plans for the Future

Saturday 4th September 2011

  • 0900 – 1015 – Jo Marchant – Curse of the Phraoh’s DNA
  • 1015 – 1130 – Bill Manley – “Millions of happenings out your oneness.”  The Creator and Creation in the Sun-Hymn
  • 1130 – 1200 – Coffee Break
  • 1200 – 1315 – Gillian Pyke – Christianity on the Edge:  The North Tombs Settlement at Amarna
  • 1315 – 1400 – Lunch
  • 1400 – 1515 – Kate Spence – House and Home at el-Amarna.  Some Thoughts on Domestic Architecture (Kate Spence is not shown in the speakers pictures as she was not present on the first day, when the photograph was taken.)
  • 1515 – 1630 – Steve Cross – Excavating in the Valley of the Kings:  The Missing Amarna Royalty, and where are they?

Barry Kemp – Harem Politics at Amarna? Reflections on looking at some old excavation records

Professor Barry Kemp of the University of Cambridge, Director of the Amarna Project and Chairman of the Amarna Trust gave the keynote lectures on the first day. The first opened the conference with a talk on Harem Politics at Amarna and the second closed the day by looking forward to the future work of the Amarna Project.  It was useful that in this opening talk he showed the layout of the Amarna site for those who are not familiar with it.

In “Harem Politics at Amarna?” he looked at the relationship, both temporal and political, between Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Meretaten and Kiya, putting his own research into the context of earlier excavations.  There has always been a question mark over the roles of Nefertiti and Kiya as wives of Akhenaten, and in this lecture Kemp introduced the idea that Nefertiti’s daughter Meretaten may have taken on some or all of the roles once carried out by Nefertiti and possibly Kiya.  His discussion of the topic focused on archaeological evidence from Amarna, looking principally at hieroglyphic texts where original texts were replaced by newer ones. Much of the evidence used was captured by earlier excavators in the form of reports, photographs (particularly those by F.G. Newton from the early 1920s), and illustrations of hieroglyphic inscriptions (principally records made by Duncan Greenlees).  He also referred to a number of the contemporary Amarna Letters exchanged between Akhenaten and the leader of the Mitanni.   Knowledge of the standard titles and epithets for both the individuals and the type of role they may have been given is key, and Kemp has drawn in expertise from around the world in order to give a detailed insight into what the textual changes might indicate.

Kemp’s evidence reinforces a growing view that Meretaten became increasingly important to the end of Akhenaten’s reign, perhaps replacing either Nefertiti or Kiya (or both) as Akhenaten’s female counterpart, although Kemp warned against discounting the possibility that Nefertiti had relocated to Memphis or Malkata to spread the influence of the royal family.

The relationship between the royal women and the Pharaoh Akhenaten will doubtless continue to be debated in the future, but in this lecture Kemp has raised the interesting possibility that Meretaten was given a very senior position in the royal court, perhaps equal to that of the king’s other wives.

Kemp’s passion for Amarna and his expertise are obvious.  Combined with a natural geniality and a presentational flair, it is easy to see why he is such a popular speaker.

A detailed write up and review of both lectures will follow as a separate article.

Paul Nicholson – Glass, Faience and Pottery Making at Amarna O45.1: An Ancient Industrial Estate

Dr Paul Nicholson started working with the Amarna Project in 1983, but is presently working at Saqqara.  As part of the Amarna Project  he excavated an industrial area close to the Northern Palace, today known by its  modern grid designation O45.1.   The area included a number of small kilns and larger furnaces.

In his talk Nicholson set out the evidence for the use of some of the kilns for pottery making and others for the production of faience.  He discussed pottery manufacture techniques and gave an excellent explanation of the method used to produce faience at Amarna, particularly useful for those of us who have always found it somewhat confusing.

Nicholson is confident that the two larger furnaces at 045.1  were used for glass manufacture.  Although Petrie had suggested that glass was manufactured at Amarna, and proposed a method by which this could have been done using the available materials at that time, some experts in ancient glass have challenged this view, questioning whether these furnaces might be too big to produce glass, suggesting that at best they could produce “frit” – a glass precursor in the manufacturing process.  The presence of glass in Egypt has often been explained, instead, in terms of imports from the Near East.  Nicholson, however, thought that the evidence at 045.1, together with Petrie’s proposals, might argue for glass manufacturing at Amarna. He successfully interwove archaeological evidence from the excavation with experimental archaeology in which he and a colleague built a replica furnace, successfully producing glass on their first attempt.

O45.1 demonstrates the rapid development of Amarna.  The site was initially used as a cemetery before adoption as an industrial site (perhaps to keep key, high value industrial processes under the watchful eye of Palace overseers).  Nonetheless production only lasted for about 5 years before the site changed use again to become a “casemate” site, although unfortunately he didn’t explain what this was.

It was welcome to have a talk on industry rather than the usual topics of religion, mummies and domestic arrangements, and Nicholson delivered the topic well, bringing the subject of manufacturing and production to life.

A detailed write up and review will follow as a separate article.

Jo Fletcher – Royal Mummies of the Amarna Period

Dr Jo Fletcher, an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of York, is a familiar figure from our TV screens and a very adept TV presenter.  There can, however, be a disappointment when meeting TV presenters in the flesh, and both of us felt her style works better on TV than in a lecture theatre.  Fletcher’s strength is the high level comments, the challenging ideas.  That works well on television, especially when explanations and evidence can be in-filled with later graphics and voice-overs to reinforce her message.  In general the audience seemed to prefer more formally structured lectures, and Jo Fletcher’s more spontaneous style was sometimes difficult to follow.   To be fair to Fletcher, she was sharing a slot with Stephen Buckley and had half the time of most speakers. This meant she didn’t have the time to include the details she, and we in the audience, may have wished.

Fletcher was the first speaker to offer biographies of the dramatis personae of the Amarna period, something which was very welcome, and was well done.  As usual she also had some interesting things to say about the Royal Mummies of the Amarna Period.  She returned to familiar territory in continuing to suggest that the mummy of the Younger Lady from tomb KV35 in the Valley of the Kings (so called mummy KV35YL) is that of Queen Nefertiti.  She explained two relatively new arguments, neither of which we found very compelling.  She suggests thinning of the long bones indicates that the lady had had multiple pregnancies which is consistent with Nefertiti, but hardly unusual in a world before contraceptives.  She also suggested that the facial measurements of KV35YL accord with the Berlin bust generally presumed to be a likeness of Nefertiti.  With so many missing mummies of the Amarna royal women, this would seem to do no more than indicate that KV35YL is one of the Amarna women, who probably shared a familial likeness. And as Fletcher identified, the bust is only assumed to be Nefertiti: it is not inscribed with her name, which still leaves the identification of the mummy as Nefertiti open-ended.


Stephen Buckley – Royal Mummies of the Amarna Period

Joanna Marchant – Curse of the Pharaoh’s DNA

Although they were not presented together and were, in fact, scheduled on different days, we have presented these two lectures together as there was considerable overlap on the subject matter.  Both authors looked at recent claims for identifying Eighteenth Dynasty mummies on the basis of their DNA, tackling the difficulties of DNA analysis, and both discussed earlier investigations and the discrepancies between the newest proposals and the earlier findings.

Stephen Buckley from the University of York delivered the second half of the lecture started by Jo Fletcher.  In a theme picked up on the second day by  the journalist Jo Marchant, Buckley highlighted some of the reasons why many experts do not believe that DNA can be successfully harvested and analysed from ancient Egyptian mummies.

He went on to deliver several criticisms against Ancestry and Pathology in King Tutankhamun’s Family (Hawass et al, JAMA 2010), which were reinforced by Marchant the following day.  For instance while the Hawass paper describes Tutankhamun’s supposedly missing toe as a congenital defect, 1960s X-rays show the toe was present has been lost subsequently through mishandling of the mummy.  Other missing bones like the sternum and ribs were also probably present when first investigated by Carter and Derry.   Buckley also suggested that Tutankhamun’s famous leg injury was actually inflicted post-mortem.

He next debunked the age of the KV55 mummy in the Hawass paper, observing that statistical tables based on poor, modern Americans are not a good basis for analysing the bones of an elite, fit ancient Egyptian who had a nutritious diet.  He also suggested that from measurements the hands and feet do not belong to the KV55 mummy, but he didn’t have time to explore the topic in much detail. It is a shame that Buckley only had a half slot.

In her lecture the following day Jo Marchant covered similar ground, but concentrated on aspects of the DNA.  She began by giving highly lucid explanations of both DNA and DNA testing methodologies. She also helpfully set out the dichotomy in the field of ancient DNA research.  So some experts believe that DNA cannot be collected and analysed from Egyptian mummies due to problems like contamination and the degradation of samples caused by environmental conditions like heat and humidity in the tombs; other experts believe that the high standards of mummification enjoyed by the elite mean that in royal mummies DNA is well preserved.  Marchant demonstrated an exceptional ability to explain difficult ideas like “single tandem repeats” in a very concise and accessible way.  Marchant also informed the audience about research that is expected to be published in the near future, including the results of important Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA studies.

Both talks were very well received based on the informal feedback we got from the audience over coffee.    Scheduling is obviously a challenge in the organization of conferences but it would have been helpful for members of the audience who were not familiar with the science of DNA to have this lecture before Stephen Buckley’s. We are intending a detailed review and write up of one or both of their sessions.

Dylan Bickerstaffe – Hidden Treasures of Ancient Egypt: Before and After Akhenaten

Dylan Bickerstaffe

Dylan Bickerstaffe

The well-known writer and presenter Dylan Bickerstaffe gave the only lecture which claimed only a few links to Amarna, using his time to present photos of various minor sites or aspects of sites which visitors might miss.  Consequently, it is almost impossible to do the presentation justice in a write up. An interesting theme that recurred throughout the lecture was the discovery of objects and monuments from the reign of Amenhoteop III in all sorts of unexpected places, including a colossal head  at Medinet Habu, the mortuary temple of Ramesses III.  It was also good to see some unusual locations, like the White Monastery of Sohag where Pharaonic building materials were re-used in the construction of the more modern building. It was the last presentation on the first day; everybody was tired; most people were thinking about food.  Something which didn’t require much concentration, and a presenter as relaxed and entertaining as Bickerstaffe, was an intelligent choice.  Although the lecture lacked the erudition of some others, it had some beautiful photographs and it suited its time slot perfectly, which is ultimately the mark of a highly successful presentation.

Barry Kemp – Plans for the Future

Kemp opened the lecture with images of the site from the past – maps which show the extent of the ancient city of Amarna in the 1920s, recorded with great precision by the German mission in Amarna in the pre-war years.  Beginning in 2000 a project began to produce a work looking at survey work in both past and present, with plans and photos to compare changes at the site, and the changes displayed during Kemp’s lecture are clear.  Most disturbing is that a huge area of the desert plain surrounding the city of Amarna has been reclaimed for cultivation.  Where once there was potentially archaeologically rich desert there are now green fields.  One of the archaeological losses was the site of Meru-Aten.  Other areas have been more fortunate, including Kom el-Nana, although resisting a

The laws of land ownership in Egypt are complex, with great expanses of the more undesirable land designated public, but at the same time available to be claimed by certain interested institutions and parties.  The Supreme Council of Antiquities claimed much of the site but certain parts were missed and only in the last few years have certain parts, like the Royal Tombs, been claimed, with the status of other areas unclear until recently and therefore under threat.  Fortunately this situation seems to have been clarified and although local farmers have attempted to cultivate some areas of land, the SCA have been diligent in holding that threat at bay.

Other future plans include the preservation and reconstruction of areas of the site that have suffered from neglect and decay, partly to preserve the value of those sites, partly to encourage tourists to understand Amarna and partly to encourage local farmers to see and appreciate the character of the ancient buildings.  Kemp gave details of some of the ongoing projects.

Kemp suggests that the best combination for preserving Amarna is for:

  1. the SCA to keep up their guardianship,
  2. for archaeological expeditions to continue their work preserving the site;
  3. increased tourism would demonstrate the importance of the site

The Amarna Visitor Centre is nearing completion, and Kemp gave the audience a preview of the new building with photographs of some of the exhibits and models that will be on display.

It is a shame that this second talk, which looked forwards, could not have been the closing lecture of the second day, ending the conference with plans for the future management of Amarna.  Sadly Kemp had other commitments for the second day.

Bill Manley – “Millions of happenings out of your oneness.” The Creator and Creation in the Hymn of the Sun

There were certain lectures for which we had low expectations but which turned out to be brilliant.  Manley’s evoked the opposite response.  Dr Bill Manley is well known as the co-author with Mark Collier of How to Read Hieroglyphs, a book which graces many an Egyptophiles bookcase, and author of the excellent Historical Atlas of Ancient Egypt.  We hoped he would talk about the textual aspect of the Hymn of the Sun.  Instead of the content he spoke about the theology of the hymn.  This exploration of a subject outside his immediate expertise seems somewhat inconsistent with his criticism, at the start of his talk, of writers like Flinders Petrie, Sigmund Freud and Dr Jan Assman for straying outside their own areas of specialism – Petrie, for example, writing about social theory and Assman about broad theology.  [We would question whether Assman did in fact step outside his area of expertise when we wrote the Price of Monotheism.]

His main conclusion seemed to be that the Aten hymn resembles many of the key ideas of religious belief as they have been expressed from the origins of Homo Sapiens, capturing ideas of creation, belief and a desire for meaning that are common to many cultures past and present.

To our minds, Manley strayed very seriously off piste, delving deeply into an analysis of the Hymn of the Sun, comparing it against the quinque viae (from Thomas Aquinas in his book Summa Theologica) and the ideas of other mainly Christian thinkers.  It was more in essence a comparative theology lecture.

For his fans, Manley will return to more familiar ground next year with a full day on hieroglyphs.

Kate Spence – House and Home at el-Amarna: some thoughts on domestic architecture

Cataloguing houses by type may sound like a dry and challenging subject for a lecture, but Dr Kate Spence of the University of Cambridge made it exceptionally interesting.

Beyond the formal areas of Amarna gathered around the palaces and temples of Akhenaten’s carefully planned royal city are extensive residential suburbs consisting of well over 1000 houses of various sizes.  Well recorded by the pre First World War German mission to the site, there is a vast body of evidence available for the analysis of these structures.  An existing typology for the houses also helped Spence to develop her analysis.  Many studies of Amarna have suggested that the residential areas were as carefully planned as the formal zones, with Akhenaten dictating a standardized model for accommodation, but Spence’s findings do not support that idea.

At the core of her attempts to assess the way in which the internal layout of houses was arranged was an analysis of “access arrangements”, using a methodology proposed by Hillier and Hanson (1984) under the name “gamma analysis”.   Spence showed how Amarnan houses share a similar functional topography, regardless of the number of rooms.  Spence showed this wasn’t a regimented, planned development under an authoritarian Pharaoh as some suggest, but rather natural, organic development conforming to a basic idea of how people should move through the domestic space: houses acquired a similar topography in reaction to social structures, which governed expectations as to how a house would be used to greet visitors.  Comparisons with the regimented workers villages at El Lahun and  Amarna support her view.

Spence noted that one difficulty in understanding domestic architecture and the status of different buildings is that no upper storey has survived – and houses are now believed for various reasons to have at least one upper storey, possibly in some cases two.   The idea of two storey houses always seems to make the ancient seem more real and less remote and this was strengthened further by computer generated images that Spence and colleagues have developed showing how the houses might have looked.

This was the lecture which brought the non-royal residents of Amarna to life.  It was engaging, well-structured and thoroughly enjoyable and we will be offering a detailed write up over the next few weeks.

Gillian Pyke – Christianity on the Edge: The North Tombs Settlement at Amarna

In a lecture called “Christianity on the Edge: the North Tombs Settlement at Amarna, Dr Gillian Pyke presented her work at the Christian site in the area of the North Tombs, in the higher areas that surround the Amarna plain and which date from the Fifth Century AD .

Since the site management plan is to avoid excavation, or even the collection of any more surface pottery than is necessary, Pyke’s work has largely been confined to documenting structures, understanding their relationship to the surrounding topography and attempting to interpret them in terms of functionality and the social status of residents.  The centrepiece of the settlement was the Christian church, which adapted the Amarna period tomb of Panehsy, and Pyke rightly spent a lot of time on this.  The team has also identified over 50 dwellings, within tombs, natural caves and in some cases constructed as stone bothies.  More may be found in future seasons in the high desert beyond the main settlement.

Pyke looked at how these small households were managed in such a hostile environment, discussing lines of communication both within the settlement and beyond.  An analysis of the pottery has suggested that the settlement was supplied with produce from other areas within Egypt, like Aswan and from outside Egypt, including supplies from Syria and north Africa.

Although the settlement cannot conclusively be said to be monastic, its isolation from the fertile strip along the Nile suggests that this is one possibility.

When asked how long the North Tombs settlement survived, Pyke explained that it is very difficult to provide an estimate.  However, it seems to have outlived the the Pharaonic city of Aketaten (Amarna), which had only a fleeting existence of 15 years or so.  The 5th-6th Century AD intrusive development within the North Tombs area may have lasted perhaps half a century, possibly longer.

Personally we thought that Pyke’s presentation was a good and valuable contribution to the conference, broadening the subjects covered.  It was informative, entertaining and well-illustrated, providing details about a period of Egypt’s past that has only been researched seriously in the last few decades.  Feedback from some members of the audience suggested that it could have been structured more formally. It was not, to our mind, less well-structured than lectures by some of the other speakers. It is possible that the rather fragmentary appearance of the small settlement structures ,which may have been difficult for members of the audience to distinguish between, but it may simply be that it was the third session of a long morning.

Stephen Cross – Excavating in the Valley of the Kings

Cross has developed a somewhat controversial theory about the Valley of the Kings based on flood debris in the Valley of the Kings, but as it was presented in the academic Journal of Egyptian archaeology not everyone has had access to it.  It was therefore welcome to hear him present his ideas in person.

Cross said that he started with a question, “Why was Tutankhamun’s tomb undiscovered for so many centuries?”  He considered that it had been buried by faulting, but determined that the faults in the Valley of the Kings are not geologically active.  His second theory was that it had been buried by silt carried by flash floods and deposited in the central area at the confluence of the streams from the side wadis.   He believes the flood occurred in Year 1 of Ay’s reign but his argument for such precise dating was not entirely convincing, although his evidence for the flood itself is persuasive with clear signs of a 1m – 2m layer of solidified silt clearly visible in photographs of trenches in the Valley of the Kings.

As reported on News from the Valley of the Kings, he believes there is a capacity for another unknown tomb, or tombs in the central area of the Valley of the Kings with an entrance cut immediately below, and sealed by, this flood deposit.  That is, and an elevation of about 170m above mean sea level.  Dr Hawass arranged for the Glen Dash Foundation for Archaeological Research to conduct a radar survey of the central area and Cross reported to conference that this revealed an anomaly beneath the Rest House which could be a tomb.  As Cross himself says, this can only be a matter of speculation until excavated.  Kate has covered Cross’s theories in greater detail in her separate, full report on this lecture.

The whole issue of potentially unexplored tombs in the Valley of the Kings and the search for KV64 is somewhat contentious, with multiple claims and counter claims, but it was an exciting way to end the conference and certainly a crowd pleaser.


Some of the Conference Audience Relaxing

The AWT Conference is aimed at a popular rather than an academic audience.  Held at the weekend, most of those who attended were mainly enthusiasts rather than academics.

Ancient World Tours has a loyal following amongst its travel clients and a substantial number of the audience were quite clearly those who had been on and were planning to go on AWT holidays, as well as those who are members of UK Egyptology societies.  It seems likely that this had an impact on the demographic of the audience.  Whilst it presented a good mix between male and female most of those attending were most over the age of around 45, with a lot of people at retirement age.  This is consistent with memberships of many Egyptology societies and those who attend courses on Egyptology and begs the question why so many young people seem to be missing from these excellent events.

Over lunch one observation we heard from a member of the audience was that at the start of the day nobody had introduced Amarna as a period or talked about the key people.  It is easy to assume that everybody knows about Amarna, and many people would of course have found such an introduction tedious.  It can be a dangerous assumption though and in general it may have been better to have an optional pre-conference orientation session during registration and coffee for the benefit of any Amarna neophytes in the audience.

Based on other conversations that we had with those we talked to in the coffee and lunch breaks, the audience seemed to both appreciate and enjoy the lectures, particularly welcoming those that were formally structured.

For those wanting to plan for the 2012 AWT Conference, it will be on 19th and 20th  May 2012, again at UCL in London.  The format will be somewhat different with the Saturday featuring lectures on the use of technology in archaeology.  This will not be restricted to Egyptology.  On the Sunday, Bill Manley will be giving an introduction to hieroglyphs concentration on reading some of the common inscriptions in tombs in the Valley of the Kings.  Booking details from AWT in due course.


Peter Allingham

Peter Allingham

Ancient World Tours presented an highly engaging conference with speakers of a universally high standard, even if on the day (and perhaps inevitably) a couple– and only a couple – were not quite on their top form.  The housekeeping was of a similar standard and the lecture theatre used was a very good space.  Taking notes, however, was a considerable challenge in the deep dark and it was a shame that detailed summaries of speakers’ presentations were not available to attendees, perhaps online for a few days after the conference.  Admittedly this is not something which is unusual at Egyptological conferences, although expected in some other fields.  This is, however, a very minor observation in the context of an all round excellent conference and

The conference raised £2,436 for the Amarna Trust for which AWT should be roundly congratulated.

Our thanks to Peter Allingham and his team at AWT for a very enjoyable weekend, and for permission to take photographs for use in this overview.


Photo Credits:

  1. Conference speakers – Kate Phizackerley
  2. Dylan Bickerstaffe – Kate Phizackerley
  3. Conference audience – Andrea Byrnes
  4. Peter Allingham – Kate Phizackerley

The speakers from left to right are as follows.

Top row: Peter Allingham, Bill Manley, Dylan Bickerstaffe, Stephen Buckley, Steve Cross

Bottom row: Joanna Marchant, Janet Shepherd, Barry Kemp, Gillian Pyke, Joann Fletcher, Paul Nicholson

Photographs for this article are offered under a Creative Commons attribution licence, version 3.0.