The Magazines of Amarna Holding the Wealth of Egypt

The Royal Tomb
At Amarna

by Jimmy Dunn

In a narrow side valley leading off from what is called the Royal Wadi at Amarna (ancient Akhetatan is situated the Royal Tomb of Akhenaten. It is usually called simply the Royal Tomb because it was apparently built for the burial of multiple members of the Royal Family of Akhenaten, as well as for himself. Plundered and damaged during ancient times, the Royal Tomb was discovered in the 1880's by local Egyptians. Its official discovery by the Italian archaeologist, Alessandro Barsanti, occurred in December of 1891. Howard Carter, famous for the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, visited the royal tomb in 1892 and copied some of the tomb scenes. His work was later published. Since its discovery, the tomb has been further damaged and in the interval between its discovery by the local Egyptians and its official discovery, considerable artwork from the tomb showed up on the international antiquities market. Most of this modern damage must have occurred in about 1931, for prior to that date, the renditions within the side chambers of the tomb were in reasonably good condition.

Though the excavations by the Egypt Exploration Society of the city at Amarna were published in three detailed volumes very early, their work at the Royal Tomb languished in the Society's archives until, supplemented by his own research, they were prepared for publication by Geoffrey Martin during the 1970s and 1980s.

The wadi seems to have indeed been intended to be royal in nature, for there are other large, unfinished tombs here that, by their size and location, were intended for other members of the Royal Family. Many scholars believe that Akhenaten's mummy may have been removed to an unknown burial in the Valley of the Kings on the West Bank at Thebes (modern Luxor), but regrettably, his remains have never been found (or at least positively identified). It is entirely possible that his mummy was destroyed by those who also wrecked havoc on his monuments, but were it to someday be found, many questions about his health might be answered.

The mouth of this wadi is about five kilometers from el-Till village, and the tomb itself lies about six kilometers inside the wadi. The mouth of this wadi is sometimes said to resemble the form of the hieroglyphic symbol for the horizon. It was perhaps this natural shape which determined Akhenaten to place his new city in this location. However, it should be noted that the wadi is fairly inaccessible made all the harder by the narrow boulder-strewn track up the small side valley.

Recently, it has been noted by Geoffrey Martin, that the remains of walls and hut settlements (perhaps for guards or other workmen) have been discovered. These may indicate that the wadi entrance was guarded during ancient times, though traces of these ruins will likely vanish as traffic to the area increases.

Akhenaten was almost certainly initially put to rest in this tomb, and it was also intended for princess Meketaten and probably Queen Tiy. It is also possible that an unfinished annex was meant to hold the body of Nefertiti, though this is highly questionable and raises more questions then what it answers.

The tombs design and proportions are similar to those of the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings. However, it is thought to be the first royal tomb built with an entirely straight corridor (those prior to this had a turn at some point), though many later pharaohs followed this plan. Uniquely, though, it had additional burial chambers for Akhenaten's family.

The eastern facing entrance to the tomb is from the valley floor by way of a steep flight of steps that includes a smooth central ramp. It is perhaps notable that the entrance facing east could have allowed the sun's rays to penetrate the tomb in the early morning. However, it is now noted that the orientation is somewhat south of east and thus not really aligned properly for this assumption. Within the entrance a long, wide, sloping corridor leads down to a second set of steps. This corridor is almost more of a hall, measuring some 3.2 meters wide and about as tall. It is somewhat over twenty-two meters in length and declines at a rate of sixteen degrees. Within this corridor are some rudimentary holes cut into the walls. At this point it is assumed that the holes were either starting points for other chambers (perhaps for other family members), or sockets to facilitate movement of the coffin.

About half way along this corridor, a doorway on the left opens into a right angle corridor that first leads to one chamber and then twists into a hook shape before leading to at least three more chambers. The whole consists of six unfinished corridors and small chambers. This area of the tomb was never decorated and indeed never even finished. In both size and design, this arrangement of corridors and chambers resembles a royal tomb in itself, and it has been suggested that it was intended for Nefertiti, though obviously never used for her remains. Others have also suggested that it may have been intended for the reburial of Akhenaten's father, Amenhotep III.

Returning to the main corridor, just before the second set of steps at the rear of this corridor, another doorway on the left opens into a suite of chambers intended as the tomb of Princess Meketaten, the second of Akhenaten's daughters. It consists of three chambers of which the first and third chambers are decorated. Since their discovery these chambers have been known as alpha, beta and gamma

In the first of these chambers (alpha), if we follow the walls around beginning to the left of the doorway, we first find the remains of seven registers representing foreigners with their arms raised in adoration of Aten. Turning the corner, there is next depicted the King, Queen and some of the princesses worshiping Aten in a temple as the sun sets in the west. Below them are courtiers. On the wall opposite the entrance and to the left of the doorway to the next chamber are nine registers showing soldiers and chariots. Here, a rarity is that some of the heads of horses are depicted in a frontal view. On the other side of the doorway to the next chamber were originally seven registers depicting soldiers, some of them foreign, raising their hands in praise of Aten. Turning the next corner, we find the King, queen and princesses once more worshiping Aten in a temple, though this time the sun rises over the eastern horizon. Outside of the temple we see attendants and chariots. Also, birds and other animals rejoice in the sun's rays at the left end of the wall, beyond the temple. It has been suggested that these scenes represent a visual portrayal of the Hymn to the Aten.

This leads us back to the wall to the right of the entrance, where two registers originally showed the King and Queen mourning what was initially thought to be a dead princess who is lying on a bier at the bottom left. Though no text provides the name of this princess, most assumed it to be Princess Meketaten because of the similarity with a scene in the last chamber (gamma) where she is named. In the upper register, as the King and Queen weep for their dead child, behind them we find distraught attendants. In the arms of a nurse is an infant, who is presumably the princess's baby. This is perhaps evidenced by the existence of a fan-bearer, suggesting that the child was royal. With the King and Queen are many high ranking court officials, including the vizier. The lower register is a near-duplicate of the upper register. Geoffrey Martin has suggested that there was really no good reason for this duplication.

The assumption that all three chambers belong to Meketaten, evidenced by the similar scenes in chambers alpha and gamma, has recently been challenged, however. It has been suggested by some that the body depicted on the walls of chamber alpha in the upper register may actually be another royal lady, perhaps even Kiya, a wife of the king and a candidate for the mother of Tutankhamun. She might also have been another daughter of Akhenaten's, but the reason that Kiya figures prominently in this discussion is that, from the surrounding details of the depiction, the child may have been an heir to the throne. Geoffery Martin pointed out that the lower register may depict still another daughter of the king.

The second chamber (beta) in this suite is undecorated. Its floor rests on two levels.

In the third and final chamber (gamma) of Meketaten's burial suite, beginning to the left of the entrance, we first find remains of a depiction of funerary furniture. Turning the corner, we next encounter a second scene of morning. Here, the princess also lies on a bier, and the mourners include two princesses who stand over it. Funerary offerings are depicted, and once again we find the young child in the arms of her nurse. As we continue around this room, we also find the princess Meketaten standing on a pedestal beneath a canopy decorated with leaves. In front of it stand the King, Queen, princesses and various attendants and courtiers. The design of this canopy is associated with childbirth, and so it has been suggested that Meketaten may have died while giving birth to the child depicted in the nurse's arms. These scenes convey a depth of personal emotion unique in Egyptian art.

At this time, we really do not know with any certainty whether the depictions in this section of the tomb represent only Meketaten, or as many as two or three separate princesses (or a queen), possibly all suffering the same fate of death during child birth. Geoffery Martin tells us that:

"The context strongly suggests that Akhenaten was the father in each case, presumably becoming increasingly desperate to have a male heir. The portrayal of the (supposedly divine) king and queen yielding to public displays of grief and anguish is quite unique. The presence of courtiers including the vizier suggests that the court had gathered to celebrate the birth, but turned to mourning as events took a different turn."

After returning once more to the main corridor, and after the second steep stairway there lies a shaft which is 3.5 meters deep (sometimes referred to as a ritual well in the Valley of the Kings' tombs). The walls which form a chamber at the top of the well shaft were once plastered and decorated with reliefs of the royal family. Beyond the shaft is the King's burial chamber. It has a raised platform on the left of its doorway, and the remains of two square pillars. We are told that this chamber originally had four pillars, but two had been cut away, perhaps to make room for the sarcophagus of his mother, Tiy. In the middle of the floor is a rectangular plinth where once stood his sarcophagus. A small chamber was also begun in the upper right-hand wall, but left unfinished. However, little of the decorations in his burial chamber survived the ravages of time, apart from fragile patches of plaster at ceiling level, with the titles of Aten, Akhenaten and Nefertiti. Early exploration of the chamber revealed scenes of women mourners from a depiction of the King's funeral, but alas these are now gone. We are also told from recent investigations by Geoffrey Martin that there are visible traces of mourners over the death of Queen Tiy.

Many objects from this tomb can currently be found in museums about the world. Probably the most important objects include:

  • fragments from two granite sarcophagi and their lids belonging to Akhenaten (restored and in the Egyptian Antiquities Museum) and to Meketaten.

  • fragments from an alabaster Canopic chest for Akhenaten (restored and in the Egyptian Antiquities Museum)

  • over two hundred shabti-figures belonging to Akhenaten

Though such objects evidence the burial of Akhenaten in this tomb, the tomb was later so thoroughly desecrated that the fate of the King's body is not known. There were early reports of body fragments that were found in the tomb, but such reports are now impossible to verify. However, one final interesting facet of this tomb should be noted. Most of the burial equipment is of an entirely traditional style, including a Canopic chest and various states. Many of these items are quite incompatible with what we known about the worship of Aten. Not surprisingly, there are many similarities between the funerary equipment of this tomb and that of Tutankhamun.