The North Palace was completely cleared of its debris by the Egypt Exploration Society in two seasons, of 1923 and 1924. A detailed photographic record is in the Society’s archives. The building was then left exposed and unfenced. By the 1970s the walls had eroded considerably, losing much of their original surfaces and part of their volume (perhaps up to a half in places). Local farmers drove their animals diagonally across it on their way to and from their fields. In 1983 the Egyptian Antiquities Department (as it then was) cleaned the accumulated sand and dust from the rear (eastern) part of the palace and added it to the embankment of spoil which is heaped against the outer wall and helps to protect the palace from wind erosion. At the same time the entire enclosure was protected by a barbed-wire fence with a small gateway in the southern side. Since then the palace interior has been closed to visitors who view it from the top of the embankment on the east, outside the fence. This is necessary in order to protect the still fragile brickwork.
Deterioration of the brickwork nonetheless continued, perhaps accelerated by an increase in humidity brought about by an extension of irrigated agriculture on to the desert behind the palace. It had reached alarming proportions by 1997 when the expedition began a programme of consolidation and repairs, which has extended in some places to clarifying the plan for visitors by marking the positions of missing elements.
The walls of the North Palace are built from mud bricks some of which are of poor quality, although in other places the bricks have hardened through a build-up of calcium carbonate. Erosion has been intensified by the ancient practice of strengthening the walls by inserting lengths of timber amongst the courses of bricks. The wood was subsequently eaten by termites, leaving a line of weakness which weathering opens up, leading to the collapse of overlying top-heavy sections of brickwork.
The expedition’s approach is to:
- replace badly eroded bricks where they form the face of the wall especially towards the base where erosion creates a danger of collapse
- cap the tops of walls with new bricks where the existing top is soft
- recreate in a few new courses walls and brick columns which are either entirely missing or are represented by only a low mound of decomposed bricks
The replacement bricks are newly made at the site, on a patch of flat desert outside the enclosure wall. The new bricks are made from locally available materials using a formula which is the result both of analysis of the old bricks and of testing alternative formulae. The ingredients are:
- local soil from the fields mixed with plant material
- small stones
- fire ash
- animal dung
- slaked (burnt) lime
Two important stages in manufacture are:
- dissolving the slaked lime in water and soaking the soil in it in order to impregnate the mud mixture with the lime, to add to the hardness and, in effect, to simulate the build-up of calcium carbonate which occurs naturally in the course of time
- making the bricks from a relatively dry mud mix which can be compressed through manual hammering in very strongly made moulds (specially made in England to the correct ancient dimensions).
The resulting bricks are quite hard and dense and relatively free from the organic content which attracts termite attack.
Where a timber slot exists it is filled with mud to just below the wall surface so that it remains visible as a separate structural feature. In the ‘garden court’ part of the palace (which occupies the north-east corner of the palace), a wood-coloured compound has been applied experimentally to the mud filler and coated with dust before drying, in order to convey more clearly the significance of this feature.
The plan has been to carry out repairs along the rooms of the rear part of the palace. These are the best preserved and also the part most visible to visitors. The work has proceeded since 1997 from north to south, taking in the central columned hall in 2004.
Column basesColumn bases. The rear part of the palace originally possessed many columns set on stone column bases. Several of them survive. The positions of the missing ones are visible from traces left in the mud-brick floors, often as patches of gypsum plaster. For the garden court at the north end of the site, in 2000 the missing column bases were replaced with new ones. These were made from a mixture of white cement and white sand poured into a special mould and strengthened internally with iron rods. In 2004 the positions of the missing columns in the central hall were marked not by replacement column bases but by plain circular white-concrete pads laid flush with the floor itself. The mud-brick floor had eroded for much of its depth. To protect what was left and also to bring the floor back to its original level, a layer of mud-brick dust was spread over it.
StoneworkIn places the builders of the North Palace used limestone blocks, all of which were removed after the end of the Amarna Period, although their positions often remained marked in an underlying layer of gypsum concrete. One of these places lies in the front part of the central columned hall. The shape of the foundation layer points to a broad staircase leading to an external platform originally made from limestone blocks. The gypsum underlay has survived well and still bears clear imprints of the lowest layer of blocks. A detailed plan of this has been made and it is now protected beneath a thick layer of clean sand. Over the top of the sand-bed the shape of the staircase and external platform has been reproduced in new limestone blocks. These have been cut to approximately the dimensions of the original blocks (which were one cubit in length, that is, 52 cm).
Stone was also used for door thresholds. We have replaced several of these with new stonework.