Amarna: Ancient Egypt's Place in the Sun

Discover the curious story of the ancient Egyptian city of Amarna (1353 to 1336 BCE), and its royal family, the "heretic" pharaoh Akhenaten, his wife, Nefertiti, and his famous son, Tutankhamun in Amarna: Ancient Egypt's Place in the Sun . A long-term exhibit in our Egyptian galleries, Amarna features more than 100 artifacts—some of which have never before been on display—including statuary of gods, goddesses and royalty, golden jewelry as well as personal items from the royal family. Gaze upon the impressive monumental wall relief depicting the solar deity Aten, whom Akhenaten declared Egypt’s sole deity after centuries of polytheistic worship. Come face to face with statues of the boy king, Tutankhamun, who would inherit his father’s experiment, but would oversee a return to traditional beliefs and practices until his early death at the age of 19.

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The Penn Museum’s considerable collection of artifacts from this significant period provides the evidence for the exhibition's storyline, which takes the visitor on a visual and intellectual journey from before the Amarna Period through to the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty (circa 1500 to 1292 BCE). Since the ancient Egyptians were thorough in their efforts to dismantle the royal city, excavators at Amarna in the 1920s found fragmentary evidence—hieroglyphic texts, small royal stamps, tiny molds, half-finished sculptures, and artifacts bearing glimpses of the royal family. Through drawings, maps, photography and computer recreations, the exhibition helps the visitor use these archaeological "clues" to rediscover this once-thriving royal court and city.

About the Amarna Period

The Amarna Period in ancient Egyptian history (circa 1353 to 1336 BCE) has long fascinated archaeologists, historians and the public—and not just because of Howard Carter’s spectacular 1922 discovery of Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s intact tomb. Noted Egyptologist Dr. David Silverman, explains, "It is during this period that a still somewhat mystifying, short-lived experiment in religious, artistic and cultural change was happening at Amarna, and, from that seat of the royal court, quickly extended throughout Egypt." Located in a previously uninhabited stretch of desert in Middle Egypt, Amarna was founded by the Pharaoh Akhenaten. His wife, Queen Nefertiti, is still known worldwide for her exquisite beauty. She was not the mother of Tutankhamun, but it is likely that Akhenaten was his father. Sometimes referred to as Egypt’s "heretic" pharaoh, Akhenaten radically altered Egypt’s long-standing, polytheistic religious practices, introducing the belief in a single deity, the disk of the sun, called the Aten. The new era, however, proved short lived—by the time that Tutankhamun died, at about the age of 19, hardly a decade into his kingship, the "Amarna Period" was not only coming to an end, but the Egyptian people’s traditional beliefs and religious practices were being restored. Plans were also underway to abandon and dismantle the city.

The Art and Artifacts of Amarna

With the new religion came a dramatically new artistic style, one characterized by more naturalistic figures, curving lines, and emphasized gestures.

Central to the exhibition is a monumental wall relief depicting the solar deity Aten as a disk hovering above the pharaoh Akhenaten and a female member of the royal family. The Aten’s rays descend toward the figures, each terminating in a hand. Some time after the restoration of the traditional religion, this relief was cut down, placed face down on the ground, re-inscribed, and reused, probably as a base for a statue in the shape of a sphinx for the later pharaoh Merenptah (1213-1204 BCE). Ironically, this recycling accidentally preserved the decorated front of the relief from total destruction.

Other highlights from the exhibition, housed in two gallery rooms off the Museum's Egypt (Mummies) Gallery, include two statues that probably represent Tutankhamun: a bronze kneeling statuette and an elegant standing figure of Amun with Tutankhamun's features. The latter statue is an indication of Egyptian religion reverting to traditional presentations connecting the king and the god Amun at the head of the pantheon. Other statues of traditional gods in the exhibition include the lioness-headed goddess Sekhmet and the mother-son Isis and Horus. Personal items of ancient royalty—a seal and a scarab of Amenhotep III, vessel fragments bearing cartouches of queens Nefertiti and Tiye, a comb, an elegant statue of an Amarna princess—remind the visitor of the individuals who lived at that time. An ancient wooden mallet, fiber brush, unfinished statue and decorative molds for the making of glass items speak to the presence of a vibrant artisan community.

More than a decade before British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamun's extraordinary tomb in the Valley of the Kings, American explorer Theodore Davis found a nearby pit that contained vessels from the boy king’s funerary feast, among other things.

Amarna, Ancient Egypt’s Place in the Sun has been made possible with the lead support of The Annenberg Foundation; Andrea M. Baldeck, M.D., and William M. Hollis, Jr.; Susan H. Horsey; and the Frederick J. Manning family. Additional support was provided by the Connelly Foundation, the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation, IBM Corporation, Mr. and Mrs. Robert M. Levy, Margaret R. Mainwaring, and The National Geographic Society.

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