The Amarna dig house

EES Dig Houses in Egypt.

(article & Photographs courtesy of Dr. Chris Naunton, EES)

This occasional EES series describes the houses that archaeologists have chosen to build for themselves while conducting excavations, survey, epigraphy, etc.

For some, like Flinders Petrie, it might be a simple rock-cut tomb, furnished in Spartan style; for others, nothing short of a minor palace would suffice.

No two expedition houses are the same: they know a great variety of styles, reflecting the local conditions and the personality of the archaeologist, and each has its own peculiar character.

Latest change / addition to this article: 1 February 2014, courtesy of Professor Barry Kemp.

The Amarna dig house

(By Professor Barry Kemp)
ProfessorBarry Kemp.

Barry Kemp.

Professor Barry Kemp is Emeritus Professor of Egyptology at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge. He has been Field Director at Tell el-Amarna since 1977, pioneering excavations formerly for the Egypt Exploration Society, and now as The Amarna Project supported by the Amarna Trust. His important publications include Amarna Reports, I-VI (EES, 1984-95) and Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilisation (Routledge, 2nd ed., 2006).


The EES Amarna dig house.(Copyright EES)
The EES Amarna dig house.(Copyright EES)

If the spirits of the ancient Egyptians hover around their homes, the Amarna team must come under the quizzical eye of one “chief of Bowmen” . For his was the house that we live in (1). Perhaps he approves, for it is a compliment to his (or perhaps his wife’s) choice of location, on a local high-spot on the edge of a slight slope which now runs down to the dust road leading out of the south tombs.

Ludwig Borchardt was the first, in modern times, to appreciate its attractions, and chose it as the site for his headquarters. Indeed, it now has advantages which Nekhu-em-pa-Aten could never have foreseen: it is well located for the archaeology, offers a beguiling view of the trees of the cultivation only 300 metres away, is close enough to the modern village of El Hagg Qandil for the essential support which the villagers provide, yet it is far enough to bring a feeling of privacy and isolation.


Borchardt rebuilt the core of the house in 1908, and it served his expedition for the four seasons which he directed between 1911 and 1914. In one of the rooms the painted Berlin head of Nefertiti must have stood for a while, following its discovery in December 1912.

The Society inherited the house when it took over the Amarna Concession in 1921. Peet, Woolley, Newton and Griffith stayed there for successive season, Newton, an artist, decorating the interior with painted copies of Egyptian designs (as can be seen in an illustration of the interior published in Excavating in Egypt, p. 97, fig. 39).

These were the seasons of discovery at Maru-Aten, the workmen’s Village and larger parts of the Main City, sites which lay within about half an hour walk from the house.

Ludwig Borchardt
Ludwig Borchardt

Griffith chose the easiest course, carrying the excavations almost to the front door. But rejection was already nigh, in favour of a new house at the far northern end of the site. Newton had begun work at the North Palace, over an hour’s walk away, and he repeated what Borchardt had done: he cleared and then rebuild a large pharaonic house in the North City. Henceforth Amarna was viewed from the perspective of this far northern residence, which made the North City and North Suburb seem very convenient, but put the Central City at the limits of what could feasibly be reached by excavation.

The Northern dig house became the Society’s Amarna headquarters, and it was here that Pendlebury lived with the team described by Mary Chubb in Nefertiti lived here.

The last person to stay in the old southern house seems to have been Hilary Waddington, in 1932, while carrying out a survey of the whole city. Thereafter it was used by the Antiquities Service guards from el-Hagg Qandil, presumably until the roof fell in.

I first saw the house in the spring of 1977. It was, by then, a picturesque ruin. The main walls, of mud brick, were thick and well built, resting on Nekhu-em-pa-Aten’s foundations, and were still standing nearly to their original height. All the roofs had gone, their wooden beams eaten by termites, which had also devoured the doors and innumerable window frames. But it was still a place which justified the thought of repair rather than rebuilding. By next year, the restoration was already on the agenda.

My base for those first two seasons was the village clinic at el-Amariya, with long donkey journeys each day to take the journey into and beyond the Central City. I could not simultaneously supervise building work, but was very fortunate in that the Antiquities Organisation Inspector accompanying me, Mohamed Abd el Aziz Awad, was willing to do this, and managed it very well. Mud bricks were made in front of the house, and other materials began to arrive and pile up. Only ten years ago, there was no motor ferry, other than for occasional tourists at et-Till, and only very few tractors, all of some vintage and difficult to hire. The red Bricks and iron girders needed for the roofs came by felucca from the west bank, and were then borne to the house by lines of camels.

As the days of survey surpassed, the tops of the walls were rebuilt, the vaulted brick roofs spread across, and by the end of a two-month season we had a recognisable house. The old house had possessed a tower, which had to be partly demolished, and this suggested the idea of adding battlements to the top. The builder, unused to this idea, freely interpreted the instruction, and in a single day added a whimsical collection of little pinnacles, which still gives the house its distinctive silhouette.

The repaired house was, however, only a shell, a huge brick tent or Wendy-house. The first excavating season began the following January, always a time of near-freezing night-time temperatures. We moved into a house with nothing to fasten the doors and windows, no lavatories, no form of heating, and only a few oil lamps for light. We faced up to it stoically, but as the seasons have passed I have become educated to the truth that if you want to attract good people to work, and obtain the best from them, fair living and working conditions are essential.

Improvement has been a slow process, but the cumulative effect is impressive. We have gradually extended over Nekhu-em-pa-Aten’s courtyards, and the house has become a slice of architectural history in its own right. Mud brick has given way to red brick, and this in turn to limestone from the numerous prosperous local quarries. We have, in addition to a kitchen, dining room and various storerooms, twelve bedrooms, mostly domed with whitewashed cells in outside courtyards; two general and two specialised workrooms; and, of course, the EAO magazine, object of the celebrated ceremonial sealing at the end of each season.

More is in progress: a new kitchen, a photographic studio, a drawing office, an even larger magazine, and a bathroom with showers. This last will take advantage of the new condition to the public water mains, an event second in significance only to the connection, at the very end of the 1983 season, to the electricity supply. How this has transformed us, since the first hairdryer switched on in 1985 (dimming all the lights): the powering (not always continuously) of a computer, woodworking tools, a refrigerator, and soon an industrial vacuum cleaner (by courtesy of Mr. Stanley Hattie.

And the great challenge to come? New and better lavatories, of course; whilst I daydream of the satellite dish on the mud roof, linking us to the University of Cambridge computer, and the gardens and fountains that I will get around to organising, one day.

The credit for much that has been done belongs to the Society’s caretaker at Amarna, Mohammed Omar from El-Hagg Qandil: regarding us with faint amusement and tolerance, he is the one who makes things happen in the Water Board and the electricity network across the river, and it is his timely application of good village commonsense that rescues us from practical blunders.

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 (gerîd) 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 ridicpa-Ateulous necessities.

Whatever we have done, old Nekhu-em-pa-Aten, fierce bowman that he (presumably) was, has not returned to haunt us, even though I belatedly realised, only last year, that by pure coincidence (I hope) my own bed occupies precisely the same spot his did, in the alcove of the distinctive Amarna-style bedroom.

Whether facing out the storms, sprawling in the sun, or resting silently beneath the panoramic night sky, the house is a benign and tranquil home. It will never quite be Xanadu, but not for want of trying.

The Amarna dig house is now in ruins. The current Amarna team (Amarna Trust) resides in the re-built German house at Amarna. (2)


The above mentioned identification of the original, ancient house with the house of a man named Nekhu-em-pa-Aten was based on the publication, in 1980, of the account of the Borchardt excavations. It subsequently emerged that this provenance information was wrong and that no such piece was found at the house, and so we do not know to whom it belonged.
(Barry Kemp, 01 February 2014)

A. The original EES expedition stopped using it regularly after 1924 and instead built another house at the northern end of the city, more convenient for their excavations which were for several seasons located at the north. This house became the Pendlebury house that features in Mary Chubb’s book, Nefertiti Lived Here.
This house (Beit Abu Osman) is now in ruins.
(Barry Kemp, 01 February 2014)

Reference for this article:
B. Kemp, ‘Dig houses of Egypt – no. 1 Amarna.’ EES Newsletter 1: 1-3. (1987)

Status of historical research Ongoing
Status of article Open