AWT Conference 2011 Review: House and Home at el-Amarna by Kate Spence

Review by Andrea Byrnes.  Published on Egyptological, Magazine Reviews, 29th September 2011.

AWT Conference 2011.  House and Home at el-Amarna: some thoughts on domestic architecture by Dr Kate Spence



Dr Kate Spence of the University of Cambridge introduced the audience to an area of the city of Amarna which formed an equivalent of modern urban suburbs.  Challenging the view that this residential area had been built to a formula set down by the Pharaoh and his advisers, she set out to show how this part of the site had evolved and developed, with interesting variations on a basic concept of how space should be organized.

Lecture Summary

Kate Spence began by explaining that her lecture is based on a research project that is very much in progress. She put her lecture into the context of the design of the city as a whole, with its carefully planned zones, all connected very precisely to a formula set out by the Pharaoh.  She then introduced us to the area beyond the planned centre, where there are extensive residential suburbs consisting of well over 1000 houses. A major German project just before World War 1 excavated and published a large number of these houses, providing an excellent dataset, and John Pendlebury and others added to the corpus of knowledge, also in publication. Considerable parts of residential Amarna have yet to be excavated.  Spence referred to these as “an unparalleled resource” for looking at domestic architecture.  She explained that while there is information from other sites Amarna remains the major source for understanding daily life and architecture.

The majority of the larger houses can be made out clearly with smaller houses in between which have not survived so well.  Some of larger houses have walls of up to 1m thick and are set within their own grounds with storage areas,  Smaller houses clustered around.

Most of these areas in the main city just north of current dig house are fairly badly degraded but it is still possible to see substantial outlines.  House Q44.1 has been partially restored so that some idea of what it would have looked like.  It has a big entrance hall with a central hall and other rooms around back.  Floors were made of mudbrick.  A first court has four columns, the second two.  Many of the walls of the houses were undermined by rain, dew and wind.  Some of them were not very well built and some of the mud brick consists of more pebble than mud.

Spence explained that there is also an example of planned architecture in the form of a walled village at Amarna which was excavated in the 1970s and 80s.  It shows that the planners of Amarna were perfectly capable of producing planned domestic architecture, like that at Lahum.  However, Spence argues that it was not employed throughout the site.

Spence explained why the examination of domestic architecture is of value, saying that it does tell us something about Akhenaten and his city.  Books on the period describe it as a planned utopian city in order to change society.  In the domestic architecture you can see something of the impacts of Akhenaten’s ideas on society.   We don’t have any other city site which has grown in this way and used for only 15 years.  It is possible to see the interaction between types of building and they way in which they were used.

Spence suggested that it is possible to get into the mindsets that allow us to read into people’s lives and the differences between them.  She suggested that one should begin with societal norms so that it is possible to perceive what the differences are going to be so that one can see where people begin to start stamping their own individual personalities onto those norms.  She highlighted the differences between norms and aspirations.  It is a site that has not been built over and had no space constraints so 20,000 people arrived and started building their own ideal home.

Big houses started with an enclosure, and later on smaller houses were built between the enclosures.  the first ones were at a distance from each other.  Roads ran between blocks of houses but these were not straight or planned.  Passageways also run through the area.  Larger houses hde extensive grounds with their own wells, some of which were sunk many metres deep down into the soil.

Spence referred to a study by Pierce Crocker study of house sizes and numbers of houses of different scales.  There were many more of the small houses than the large one, providing a fairly normal distribution curve for what we would expect in a city.

Spence has found a typology of houses developed by an earlier researcher extremely effective for applying to the houses.  Larger and more complex houses tend to be characterized by porches on the front of the houses, advertising entrances.  But some of the small dwellings were built with economy in mind sharing a dividing wall with adjacent properties and walls as thin as a half-brick.  There is increasing complexity as houses get bigger.  All tend to focused around a central square-ish room.  If  the house is small this is at one end of the house.  In larger houses this was surrounded by other rooms.  Most of the houses are organised on a tripartite system

  • front rooms with big hall after entrance;
  • central rooms with largish central space with a staircase up and rooms to the side; and
  • the argest houses, the most private parts are the inner rooms with inner square-ish hall some of which had bedrooms, some of which have windows for a cooking breeze.  Some had fabulous bathrooms too.

Structures were repeated across all houses, although smaller ones don’t have quite the complexity due to lack of space.  But every single house is different with no two houses the same.  These houses are therefore not planned houses and it is difficult to sustain that Akhenaten created the model to which his people should conform.  The house of Thuthmose the sculptor conforms to this tripartite idea, but its layout is one of the most unusual in whole city and therefore it is slightly undesirable that this house is sometimes used as an example of a typical Amarna residence.  A secondary house is often in the grounds too, perhaps for a son or steward, and small houses along the wall of the enclosure were perhaps for workmen or household servants who presumably built their own houses.

In a different part of the city medium and smaller houses were built in close proximity to each other.  It is possible to begin to build up a sequence in which people were beginning to colonize these areas.  Smaller houses get very complex and it is difficult to work out where some of the boundaries of one house end and another begin.

Almost all contemporaray representations of houses come from Thebes and many are very schematic representations.  They show some occasional details of windows and wind hoods which catch breezes and elaborate doorways.  Some of the houses depicted from Thebes seem to have more than one storey.  It is difficult to reconstruct the houses on the ground because only a few feet of the levels left. There are difficulties in deciding whether those that appear to show more than one building are in fact plans rather than elevations.

Spence suggests that some of the Amarna houses are two storey.  Professor Barry Kemp did a study that suggests that there is too much debris in some buildings for a single storey building.  The team has also identified decoration that doesn’t belong on the ground floor.  Extra pillars also seems to support the idea of another floor.  The house P47.24, close to that of Tuthmose, was a fairly small house which had been expanded as the individual concerned became wealthier. Its column bases appear to have dropped from a first floor level as the house disintegrated.  Spence suggests that it may have had three storeys.  The idea of additional storeys is supported by the Amarna workmen’s village where evidence of an upper storey in many of the houses was found.

Spence has worked to produce three dimensional reconstructions of what multiple storey buildings might have looked like, with a team based in Bordeaux.  They are producing some very useful results because the team argues on the basis of each person’s own specializations and theories about how something really ought to look.

Spence asked: what do the buildings say about society at Amarna?  Why are the main features the same and why are the relationships between key components always the same?  She suggested that the answers could be approached by exploring ideas put forward in the 1980s book The Social Logic of Space (Hillier and Hanson, Cambridge University Press), which presented ways of modeling relationships between spaces graphically as modular components.  With Amarna houses it does not matter how big the house is – the relationship diagram is always more or less the same meaning that they share an underlying concept and are designed to meet a consistent view of an ideal home, subject to the constraint of what the owner can afford in terms of size and complexity.  By breaking the internal arrangements down into graphic representations of the spatial logic, Spence was able to reveal a very structured set of patterning with everyone in the area aspiring towards the same sort of house, even when that house was minute.  Anyone visiting these houses would know where they were within the system.  The entire design was intended to structure a relationship between the owner and the visitor.  It is not often that one sees that same patterning in other cultures, but it is true of Greek and Victorian British architecture.

All houses only have one air conditioned bedroom for one person who is singled out for a different type of life within the structure, presumably the head of the household.  Everyone else must be sleeping somewhere but not a specific room with a vent.  (Spence did not consider that other similar rooms might have existed on the now destroyed upper storey (or stories).)

Each layout which was consistent and would have been very familiar to all residents, but variations show that the design of homes was not imposed or planned.  People were building where and what they felt like.

In conclusion, Spence’s main findings were that

  • the residential area was not planned in the way that the workmen villages at Amarna and Lisht were planned and people were building autonomously
  • house plans were not identical, although they complied to a basic scheme, whether big or tiny
  • small houses clustered around large houses and probably housed those who worked at the large houses
  • there is evidence for multi-storey homes
  • it is possible to understand how people used the internal space of their buildings


Doubtless anticipating some resistance to talking about the less glamorous end of Amarna, Spence asked: “Why bother with domestic architecture when you have palaces and temples of the royal family?”   The answer, of course, that no study of a society and a culture is complete without looking at all levels of society and the architecture that is produced at and by those levels.  Where and how people lived says as much about a city as its royal and political buildings, if not more.  One of the benefits of Amarna is that it was build in a very short period and after it was abandoned it was not built over, meaning that as well as the foundations of royal and elite buildings, domestic areas also survive, providing invaluable data about how ordinary people lived their lives. Spence’s emphasis on the non-palatial provided a much-needed balance that is sometimes not found in discussions of Pharaonic Egypt.

As with Barry Kemp’s lecture on the harem area in the Northern Palace, Spence highlighted the importance of earlier records for her research.  As well as plans drawn up as Borschardt’s team, which she described as an “invaluable resource” she was also able to use a later typology of houses created by Hillier and Hanson in the 1980s. It was very refreshing to see existing work being employed to shed new light on the city, and for the excellent work of earlier teams to be highlighted and appreciated.

One of the most interesting aspects of Spence’s lecture was her attempt to learn something about both the society and the individuals that created these ordered but not identical constructions.  Spence was able to convey the sense of the many personalizations of the uniformity of a basic concept.  Although she emphasised that these buildings were not unique in terms of layout and design, all conforming to a basic model, there were variations.  Her description of how traditional Victorian terraces were laid out according to a fixed ideal was a useful way of emphasising that societies have an idea of what sort of space is required for their social and functional needs.  In the case of the Victorian terrace, of course, the society did determine the layout of the buildings, in terms of mass construction projects with each shouse identical to the previous one.  Modern housing estates are still often planned in the same way.  The difference in Amarna, Spence emphasised, seems to be that whilst the basic ideal of how space should be organized could be recognized at all scales of domestic structure, the variations can be used to understand something about the individual home owner because personal choices can be identified and interpreted.  Her example of the house of the sculptor Thutmose demonstrated how a product display or sales area was incorporated into the public area of his home, very clearly separated out from the private areas on the other side of the central rectangular focal point of the building.  Spence also demonstrated how the private space could be understood, this time in terms of the status of the home’s occupants.  In each house one bedroom was provided with an air vent, which provided a cooling function – the equivalent of a master bedroom.  For those interested in locating the individual person in the archaeology of Ancient Egypt, Spence’s findings are very valuable.

Like Kemp, Spence is interested in making her research accessible in three dimensional terms.  In her case the impression of three dimensions is achieved through computer graphics, using both the available data and some educated extrapolation to recreate Amarna is it might have been in the Eighteenth Dynasty.  This sort of work will have great value in bringing the archaeology of largely destroyed places like Amarna to life for the public, which is always a challenge.  With greater public understanding will hopefully come greater public support.

See the Amarna Project website for more information.