The Amarna Coffins Project
The South Tombs Cemetery is located in a wadi below the southern tombs of the nobles at Tell el-Amarna. It was used as a public graveyard for about 6000 inhabitants of Akhetaten during the turbulent reign of Akhenaten and his queen Nefertiti (about c. 1349-1332 BC). The cemetery was discovered in 2003 and excavated between 2006 and 2013. A sample of 381 graves have been examined. The Amarna Coffins Project was started in 2015 for the analysis of all coffin fragments found in the cemetery.
The South Tombs Cemetery during excavations in 2007. Photo: Gwil Owen/Amarna Project.
The graves in the public cemeteries at Amarna are for the most part simple pits, usually without any architectural elements either below or above ground. Most of the bodies were wrapped in linen textiles and rough plant fiber matting, and the pits filled up with sand after interment. In about 10% of the graves, the archaeologist found traces of wooden coffins. In 2010, two relatively intact coffin cases were discovered. Like most private coffins from the 18th Dynasty, they were mummy-shaped, with yellow decoration painted on a black background. The decorations themselves, however, are quite unusual. In place of the traditional images and incantations of the Netherworld deities, the scenes and texts showed living people engaged in activities associated with the funerary ritual, particularly mourning and the presentations of offerings.
Left, Anders Bettum records pieces of painted plaster from a heavily fragmented coffin, looking for diagnostic pieces to determine its decorative scheme. Photo: Amarna Project
The Amarna period has long been a black hole in the typology of New Kingdom private coffins. Given Akhenaten's religious revolution, one would expect that a new decorative program for private coffins was developed, but up until now, hard evidence for such a program has been meagre.
21 decorated coffins from the south tombs cemetery have been identified. Their state of preservation is variable, ranging from a handful of painted plaster pieces to near complete coffins cases. In part due to robberies, the lids have rarely survived. Nevertheless, careful study of the fragments has made it possible to reconstruct two decorative schemes for coffins in use in the cemetery: the ‘traditional’ composition, based on chapter 151 from the Book of the Dead, and a new 'Atenist ' type of coffin decoration, devoid of references to the traditional Osirian afterlife. The excavated specimens provide a key to identify coffins in existing collections as members of the Amarna-corpus, thereby filling the gap in the typology of New Kingdom coffins and contributing to our understanding of private burial customs in this crucial phase in the history of religions.
Lucy Skinner cleans and consolidates the wall of one of the coffins with traditional decoration. Photo: Amarna Project
The new coffin type shows both continuation of traditional patterns and a strong tendency of archaism, i.e. a revival of ritual motifs seen on coffins in the early New Kingdom. At the same time, we see in some of these scenes the origin of certain motifs that were to be continued and developed further in the Ramesside era.
On-site study and recording of the coffin fragments were concluded during the spring season 2018. A full catalogue and analysis of the coffins will be published along with the other finds from the South Tombs Cemetery.
Anders Bettum and Lucy Skinner recording the last coffin fragments in their improvised outdoor studio. Spring 2018.
Bettum, A. & L. Skinner, (2015). The Amarna Coffins Project: Coffins from the South Tombs Cemetery, in B. Kemp (ed.) Tell el-Amarna, 2014-15. JEA 101, 337-342.
Stevens, A. (2017). Death and the City: The Cemeteries of Amarna in Their Urban Context. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 1-24. doi:10.1017/S0959774317000592.