Updated: Nov 21, 2021
By Thais Rocha da Silva, Research Fellow at the University of São Paulo and Harris Manchester College (University of Oxford) and archaeologist of the Amarna Project.
When talking about Egypt, it is inevitable to think about mummies and pyramids. It seems that everything that comes to us from this civilization refers only to the world of the dead, as if Egypt were a great graveyard. But what was the Egypt of the “living” like, their homes and cities? The "dead" Egypt excludes the vast majority of Egyptians. Only a very limited and privileged group was literate and could be mummified and buried in sophisticated tombs. How did ordinary people live?
As the English anthropologist Daniel Miller says, it is the banal things of everyday life, of the material world, that inform us about our ways of living. New archaeological approaches to ancient Egypt make it possible to access this dimension of ancient Egyptian society through other lenses and to understand the everyday life of ordinary people. Recent surveys of ancient Egyptian homes have shown us a less glamorous but also fascinating ancient Egypt.
In this text, I present the houses from the ancient city of Amarna (Akhetaten), the capital of Egypt under the reign of Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV) between 1347-1332 BCE. The city is in Middle Egypt in the modern Tell el-Amarna, and is an important example of the cityscape of ancient Egypt and its forms of housing. What makes Amarna special to researchers is that it was quickly built and soon abandoned after 20 years of occupation. It thus became a unique record – a kind of “photograph” of life in that period. Many other cities continued to be inhabited and, therefore, were constantly rebuilt and adapted over the centuries.
Modern archaeologists have divided the ancient capital into distinct neighbourhoods and settlements.This division was based on the types of houses and the grouping of nearby houses.Two settlements further away from the main urban fabric, the Workmen’s Village and the Stone Village, were linked to other parts of the city by an old network of roads.As these "villages" were located between the Main City and the path leading to the tomb of Pharaoh Akhenaten, some scholars believe that their residents were responsible for building the royal tombs.
The Workmen’s Village of Amarna was a settlement planned and built by the Pharaonic State to house a group of workers involved in royal projects: 72 houses distributed in 5 parallel streets, surrounded by a mudbrick wall. In general, the houses had 3 inner rooms on the ground floor and possibly an upper storey, which were used in different ways. According to the Egyptologist Barry Kemp, director of the Amarna Project who excavated the Village in the 1980s, it is possible that the ancient Egyptian government only defined the location of the settlement and established the foundation of the wall and some houses, allowing the villagers to finish theirown house.
Recent ethnographic work in modern Egypt and Sudan has shown how mudbrick houses can be completed in just one day and quickly modified from their original layout. A detailed observation of the Village plan, produced in the 1920s, reveals that, despite the apparent similarity of the plans, no house is identical to another, which shows us that the inhabitants were free to adapt their houses to their needs.
As they were far from the Main City, the workers received regular deliveries of water and supplies, which is attested by the evidence of pottery sherds of broken water jars, both on the roads connecting the City to the Village, as well as in the so-called zir-area, a structure designed to store deliveries before they could be distributed to the residents.Since there was limited space for the expansion of individual houses, the villagers built a space for collective use outside the walls.This area included a large pigpen, an area for burning garbage (quarry) and chapels, where rites and celebrations were held. The presence of the state was marked by a small building, similar to a house (X1), which housed those responsible for controlling access to this community.
People spent most of their time outdoors. Food production activities (preparing flour, baking bread, etc.) and textile production—common tasks in the Workmen’s Village—required good ventilation and light, which explains why many areas of the houses were open or had temporary roofs, such as awnings or light wooden structures, that have not survived in the archaeological record. Collaboration between neighbours can be seen, for example, in the distribution of equipment for flour making and ovens, which did not necessarily exist in every house and required time and physical effort.
The absence of written sources in the Workmen’s Village pushed researchers to develop specific methodologies for the study of these houses and everything that involved domestic life. Even so, we know little about its residents. After the Village and the City were abandoned, the archaeological site was systematically looted, which makes it difficult to access more precise information about these dwellings.
The architectural structures and artifacts of the houses in the Workmen’s Village show us a complexity of domestic life that cannot be explained using the doll house model, in which each room had a specific function. The work and social spaces overlapped and were adapted for different purposes depending on the time of day and who was at home. The material available in the Workmen’s Village demonstrates that domestic space was not limited to the four walls of the house, but extended into the streets and the area outside the Village wall. Despite their small size, the houses were still part of a privileged group within ancient Egyptian society, especially considering the type of life of their inhabitants. They were a specialized workforce, which could be recruited by the government and then moved to another community.
The study of the Workmen’s Village can bring us closer to a type of documentation that has long been neglected in Egyptology. It is possible to see in the archaeology of houses the actions of groups and individuals, strategies for adapting to different environments, and creative solutions for maintaining the daily needs that the written sources do not show and that were not taken to the next life in a tomb. This kind of documentation helps us to get closer to the lives of ancient Egyptian workers and their families, to see their activities and the conditions in which they lived.
[Translation: author, revised by Ellen Jones]