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Bayt Doctor Barry; Progress and ritual.

Article by Gwil Owen, University of Cambridge

‘Yet amidst these various strides and stumbles towards modernity, some of us experience moments of doubt. Will iron beds, tiled floors, hot showers, and formica cabinets spoil the oddly rustic charm? I know I shall continue to use my shallow tin bath, or “tisht”, in the privacy of my room, and keep my bed of palm reed (gerid) for a good while to come, and support the retention of naked toilet rolls in place of napkins on the dining table. That is the essence of tradition: assigning value to outmoded and otherwise ridiculous necessities’.

(Kemp 1987: 3).

Dig houses become central to the dig story because they are the material glue that holds a team together. They provide personal shelter, academic space and

communal ritual. Without these, guiding a team of, quite properly, self-centred experts would be like herding cats.

Evidence of the house’s occupation in those early years still turns up from time to time. Between the west wall and the current toilets lie the foundations of a range of rooms dating from the 18th dynasty; these were used in Borchardt’s time.

In 2002 the grain silos against the north wall, clearly visible on aerial photographs, were found to contain a large pottery dump from the 1920s. Some of these pots had been described and numbered then, but had not seen the light of day for 80 years. Apart from a short season in 1932 the house remained empty and became progressively more ruined until Barry decided to reoccupy it thirty years ago.

Long-term excavations become institutions in their neighbourhood, and their directors something of a celebrity. Amarna is no exception.

Nevertheless, that Bayt Doctor Barry is famous in its own right is not just a function of local knowledge and of Barry’s esteem among the Egyptians with whom he works.

Bryan Emery at Amarna in the 1920s. Copyright Egypt Exploration Society

Fig. 1. Bryan Emery at Amarna in the 1920s. Copyright Egypt Exploration Society

A picture from the inter-war years (fig. 1) shows that little had changed since the German expedition left. The original front facade of the 1920s is not obvious today. It is now the inner wall of the dining room.

Indeed, in 1977 all the front wall still stood, although the roof had mostly fallen in (fig. 2). On the north side the end room of the mud brick range became in turn a kitchen and then the cook’s bedroom. To the right is a tower now with access to the roof, and a set of rooms and a courtyard that became the ‘old’ magazine.

A roofless ruin. photograph by Barry Kemp

Fig. 2. A roofless ruin. photograph by Barry Kemp

Also visible to the right of the gateway are walls that now incorporate a group of bedrooms with distinctive domed roofs. Only relatively recently has that style of roof been superseded by flat concrete. The last two domes built at the house were less than successfully constructed, and led to the change in building practice. On one the builder promised a dome but failed to say that such a technique was beyond him. The roof now rises in a long thin cone to a flowerpot crowned point. The second was truncated two feet up for fear of a repeat performance. Much ribald humour is attached to their shapes.

In 1977 Barry arrived to start work at Amarna, living for the first two years in the medical clinic in Amariyya, a local village, while planning the repairs and alterations that would make the house habitable. He and colleagues Mark Lehner and Michael Jones moved in in January 1979 (fig. 3). The house had no electricity nor water nor windows; it was bitterly cold. Hard times.

Bayt Doctor Barry in 1979: An inhabitable home. photograph by Barry Kemp .

Bayt Doctor Barry in 1979: An inhabitable home. photograph by Barry Kemp .

The first building work in 1978 was, and remains, the defining feature of the house: across the facade a high wall with great arches created a court before the main door.

On top of this wall crenellations give the building a rather raffish personality. Barry admits to the concept, but insists that the detailed execution was entirely Egyptian. Even now, when more recent additions to the complex have restricted the view it is possible to sit outside of an evening watching the rising moon, and be transported to some mythical Mexican hacienda.

In 1979 three domed rooms were completed on the south side, and in 1982 the group of rooms known as Washington Square was built in the northwest corner of the site, on what was Nekhuempaaten’s garden (fig. 4). The aforementioned failed domes appeared in 1985 (fig. 5), and in 1988 the stone built range of rooms along the north side was completed.

This houses a kitchen, photographic studio, and workroom. An extra bedroom was tacked on the end later. By the mid-1990s the complex had assumed for the most part the shape in which it exists today. Large magazines have been gradually put up along the west side, blocking off the view to the cultivation along the river, and the block of shower rooms has been extended.

Most recently, bedrooms have been added along the original west wall of the compound, behind the magazines, and in the centre of the compound.

Altogether there are 17 rooms for team members with others available for SCA inspectors if needed. A small prayer room now sits behind Washington Square.

1985: A variation of domes – view from the west. photograph by Barry Kemp

1985: A variation of domes – view from the west. photograph by Barry Kemp

1982: Washington Square under construction. Mohammed Omar, in the archway, has been the house caretaker since 1979. photograph by Barry Kemp

1982: Washington Square under construction. Mohammed Omar, in the archway, has been the house caretaker since 1979. photograph by Barry Kemp

Set against these major building projects, the alterations to the house for creature comforts seem minor. For example there is now a very large marble dining table which is both more functional and hygienic than its predecessor. Electricity has progressed from a six inch nail in the fuse box to modern 13 amp sockets all round, though it has to be said that the local electricians took a long time to recognise that an earth circuit is a good thing.

Since the first Gulf War the house has been guarded by the military. The Egyptian government takes very seriously the welfare of its visitors, to the extent at Amarna of billeting a permanent garrison at the house when excavations are in progress. The overall feel of the house is quite different with guards and guns to the fore. Visually their presence is advertised by pillboxes on the roof and a guardroom at the front of the magazines by the road. Extra walls and lighting have also been put up for ‘security reasons’ (fig. 6).

2007: The whole complex.<br />  A – 18th dynasty core;<br />  B – Toilets;<br />  C – Washingto Square;<br />  D – Kitchen;<br />  E – Magazines;<br />  F – 18th dynasty silos.<br />  photograph by Gwil Owen

2007: The whole complex.A – 18th dynasty core;

B – Toilets;

C – Washingto Square;

D – Kitchen;

E – Magazines;

F – 18th dynasty silos.

photograph by Gwil Owen

It has to be said that the daily schedule at Amarna is quite relaxed, and the living, if not easy, is comfortable. Formal timing revolves round the needs of the digging teams and those working elsewhere on site. Their transport arrives at 07:00. First breakfast is therefore from 6:00, though many of those working ‘at home’ are somewhat flexible on this point. In the good old days, the diggers would walk to and from work and all schedules were earlier. Indeed at one time Barry used to circulate the compound at an ungodly 5:30 to wake the team. To ‘knock them up’ was his phrase, until the transatlantic members suggested that this was open to misinterpretation, and it became an early morning call.

Second breakfast is at 10:00 or thereabouts. The cook has a watch but….. Meals are a good thing, socially. Large team excavation is not currently done, and many of the house workers operate in isolation in the workspaces dotted around the house and magazines.

Second breakfast is the first social event. Lunch, the second, is at 14:15 – again to fit the schedule of those in the field. Lunch can be a mystery meal. The unexpected appearance of omelettes or a special delicacy one day can be balanced by last night’s leftovers on another. By contrast, dinner at 19:00 has a pre-arranged menu and holds few surprises – terrors, maybe, but no surprises (fig. 7). No, that’s a cheap shot. It is always ‘tasty food’, if a little rustic. Mohammed the cook’s lentil soup is truly a tour de force. Water buffalo stew, baked tomatoes, and stuffed things are frequent, as is an undefined but nutritious bean slop. Mohammed’s alter ego is as a pastry chef for local weddings and suchlike. Coffee and cakes after dinner? No one refuses that. There is a long tradition, too, of passing round the tin of Quality Street chocolates after dinner, with equally long established protocols. Woe betide he or she who lingers too long over a choice of favourite! It has been known, too, for a digestif to be circulated when the crew is particularly relaxed or a special day is celebrated.

2007: After dinner. photograph by Gwil Owen

2007: After dinner. photograph by Gwil Owen

Which brings us neatly and inexorably to the subject of alcohol. It is not a confession of sin to admit that the tradition of G&T on the veranda – on the mastaba in Amarna terms — after a days work is alive and well in the archaeological community, and nowhere more established than in Egypt. Bayt Emery at Saqqara, for example, has a particularly fine terrace; some of the Amarna team have honed their skills there too. In the 1980s, before the magazines were built, aperitifs were taken on the mastaba, watching the sun set over the trees by the river. Since the compound has become more enclosed the stoop has moved to the courtyard below, which has a convenient bar height wall. One of the team, who shall remain nameless, has a room onto that court. He is generally held to be the presiding officer over the jollifications.

It used to be the case that all drinks had to be brought in by the team either from duty free at the airport or in Cairo. Minya is a ‘dry’ province generally speaking. Latterly, however, an outlet for beer has been found in Mallawi. Its front is as a general bulk food store opening on one street, and its back door on another street deals with the likes of us. Knock firmly on the green door, carry the bottles in a box, and be discrete is the sensible and honourable way to behave. There was a time when some team members had close contacts with the Coptic community in the district. They brew a concoction called zebib – arak in other countries. This appeared from time to time in anonymous plastic bottles: it was revolting.

Another social practice that has developed over the last few years is for films to be shown on a laptop computer after dinner. In fact this started long before the laptop era, when a television set was put into the kitchen. At that time, video cassettes were the up-todate medium, and it was possible to play them through a video camera into the TV set.

The first showings were the ‘Ripping Yarns’ series by Michael Palin. We all squeezed into the kitchen, house staff too, to watch and giggle; at least the foreigners did. The Egyptians were puzzled and horrified in equal measure to see, amongst other atrocities, that we used to nail schoolboys to the walls as a part of their education.

As an aside, it had always been difficult to decide where the cook’s living quarters stopped and the cooking area began. The present kitchen was built precisely to allow the cook not to have to sleep where he worked, but the demarcation has been honoured in the breach more often than not. For the house staff, the inspectors and visiting Egyptians the kitchen remains a social focal point.

If social activities are as they ever were, living standards have improved beyond measure. The kitchen, the dining space in the roofed over courtyard, the space to show videos, which is now available as more storage and workspace has been added to the house, these additions are all beneficial. But the biggest and best development has been the steady progression to hot showers.

2006: The lower court and shower block. photograph by Gwil Owen

2006: The lower court and shower block. photograph by Gwil Owen

In the beginning was the zir, the huge pot recognisable from antiquity to today for liquid storage. All the water for Amarna was brought in on donkeys for the house zirs. One pot was for drinking and cooking and the other was for hot water, heated in cans on a little gas stove. Piped water then came, but still needed the gas burner for heated water. In fact, however, there was a hot supply that few knew about. The first piped supply ran across the courtyard to the photographic darkroom, which had a sink. Unprotected in the sun this pipe had in it just enough water for a hair wash. Happy photographer. Otherwise personal hygiene was courtesy of that other Egyptian standard, the tisht. This a roughly one metre diameter shallow dish in which all ones ablutions can be completed. How difficult can it be? Stand up or sit down and pour water over oneself; no problem. The snag is that a tisht has rarely a flat bottom. A shallow curve is the norm, so any twisting action to gain access to body parts beyond peripheral vision generates a spin. A dog chasing its tail is the effect produced.

So showers came, rudimentary and cold at first, to replace the bucket and gravity approach used in the tower. There were many problems with construction standards, tiling, drainage, plumbing and such like. The first hot water boiler came, resplendent in new white enamel. It lasted only a short time before failing. It was then that it became apparent that only the outer casing was pristine. The workings were old and completely blocked by calcium deposits. Now there is a fully tiled bathroom with two basins and two shower rooms each with its own heater (fig. 8).

Of course civilising comforts do not stop there. All the courts have been tiled, and bougainvillaea and other shrubs planted around the complex. Attached to the mastaba is a brick barbecue stand. It is a matter of conjecture which came first, the barbecue or the, by now, well established Australian contingent. Progress continues. Only this past year have two small rooms on the north side of the house been converted into a sitting room with views towards the central city, and a fireplace for those colder months. It does indeed get very cold and windy in the winter at Amarna.

Which reminds us of that first year and a windowless, waterless, powerless Bayt Doctor Barry. Despite the changes to the building and the new creature comforts, the teams who use the house remain just as badly behaved as they ever were. Fortunately.


KEMP, B. 1987. ‘Dig Houses of Egypt – no.1 Amarna’, EES Newsletter 1: 1–3


This article has been reproduced, courtesy of Gwil Owen, University of Cambridge

Photo’s courtesy of Gwil Owen, Barry Kemp and the Egypt Exploration Society.

Original publication:

G. Owen, ‘Bayt Doctor Barry: Progress and ritual’, in Beyond the Horizon: Studies in Egyptian Art, Archaeology and History in Honour of Barry J. Kemp, edited by S. Ikram and A. Dodson, 339–46. Cairo: Supreme Council of Antiquities, 2009.