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Limestone figurine of a monkey straddling a heap of fruit (object no. 34119, Grid 12).

Material Culture


Ancient Egypt has always been studied primarily through the written and artistic sources that have survived. They reveal an ancient Egypt directly experienced by Egyptians themselves. Only a tiny proportion of the texts and works of art that were created has survived, however, and in any case they can never have covered the full spectrum of experience. In their writings the Egyptians were limited in their reflections on their own behaviour and society, and in their art they were strongly guided by conventions and propriety.

Excavation on settlement sites yields large amounts of objects of diverse kinds. They are usually broken and had been discarded rather than lost or deliberately buried. Often they require skilled examination and recording to determine what they were. They, too, offer an incomplete picture of the material accompaniments of life. We have to take it for granted, for example, that even broken bronze objects remained sufficiently valuable not to be thrown away. Nonetheless, artefacts reflect aspects of the lives and activities of people, often ones that are poorly documented by other kinds of source. They deserve detailed and sensitive consideration. Sometimes even the basic purpose of a particular object is not yet established. But it is only through educated speculation supplemented with fresh observation that progress in understanding is likely to be forthcoming.

The study of material culture has to take in not only the user’s experience of things but also how they were manufactured and how they reached the user. Thus the history of technology and the study of distribution networks are also served by the study of excavated artefacts.

Some classes of objects reflect a heightened awareness of spiritual forces. They form an important body of evidence for private religion at Amarna. This aspect of study is separately represented in the section of the website Research Frameworks/Investing in religion.

The excavations of the first half of the 20th century were conducted on a large scale. It was possible to do this only by being highly selective in the choice of objects to be kept and recorded. As soon as one accepts that fragments, if studied with care, can yield more or less the same information as complete pieces, and as soon as one introduces the sieving of loose debris as it is excavated, the number of artefacts to be kept and recorded hugely increases. Amongst small houses the increase is probably around one hundredfold for objects, far more for potsherds. Even though the most common categories of material are inevitably repetitive, part of the unique value of Amarna lies in the scope for analyses based upon datasets that are statistically of reasonable size.

In this part of the website five of the sections – Canaanite amphorae, New Kingdom pottery, Small finds, Statuary and Textiles – represent individual expert studies. Others, notably on leather and metal smelting, are in earlier stages of development and will be featured in future updates. Three further sections – Roman glass, Roman pottery, Roman wall plaster – derive from Amarna’s second period of substantial occupation, by Christian communities during the later centuries of the eastern Roman Empire.

 
 

Website first posted September 2000; last updated November 2010 | enquiries concerning website: email bjk2@cam.ac.uk