The Eastern Workmen's Village at Amarna in Egypt

The Eastern Workmen's Village at Amarna

by Jimmy Dunn

Prospective of the interior of a house at the Workmen's Village at Amarna

The Eastern Workers village at Amarna, which resembles in many respects that much more ancient worker's village at Lahun, is of outstanding importance regarding the study of town planning in Ancient Egypt. For one thing, we know that the population of this town during the Amarna Period was about 313, and hence we can calculate a population density of 15.65 square meters per person. At Amarna, the worker's village was located in a lonely spot to the east of the main city. It was intended for the artisans who worked on the rock-cut tombs located not far from the village.

The village features a wall measuring 70 meters square which was oriented close to the cardinal points and enclosing a uniformly planned settlement of some sixty-eight houses. The houses here were attached side by side in single rows along north-south running streets. The village was divided into two unequal sections by a wall running north-south through its whole width. Like at Lahun, the section to the west is two-fifths of that to the east. In the eastern section there are four rows of houses facing west along four streets. A north passage and a larger area to the south connect the north-south oriented streets. A larger house, probably belonging to a senior supervisor, occupied the southeast corner of the settlement.

Plan of the workmen's village at Amarna

The western section was probably built later than the eastern part. It consists of two rows of houses that are similar to those on the east, though they face both east and west on one single north-south oriented street. It should be noted that these houses in the western section have doorways that are offset from one another, so that the doorways of opposite houses are never on the same axis, thus exhibiting a refined device to insure privacy.

The uniformity of the houses in the Eastern Worker's Village at Amarna sets them apart, however, from Lahun. At Lahun, the houses were of various types grouped in zones according to the different classes of the inhabitants. At Amarna, the architect laid out two contiguous houses on a plan of about ten meters square. The westernmost row has fourteen such houses that were built after the enclosure wall, beginning from the south endof the street. Along the enclosure wall the architect used a L-shaped plan for the houses

Cross section of roof construction


The single street of the smaller section opens with the wide area at the southern end of the complex. Originally, it had a special gateway in the south enclosure wall, but this was soon bricked up. The single gateway for the whole village then was in the larger area to the east. Because of this, it has been suggested that guards and the wall were meant to keep the workers in, rather than for protection. Near the entrance, on the inner face of the enclosure, was a shrine.

Water was carried from the Nile River and stored in large jars set on stone bowls in the streets against the facades of the houses. Sometimes brick stables were also built against the walls and in other instances, pegs were implanted into the walls for spinning.

Drawing of a pier in one of the houses

The ground plan of the houses measured almost five meters along their frontage and about double that in depth. The walls of the bottom story, measuring some 2.1 meters high but only a little over one third meter thick, did not allow for a true second story, though apparently there were terraces perhaps with an awning. Within the houses, the interior walls were mere partitions measuring only about .13 meters thick. They carry roofs of poles and sticks set crosswise and covered with twigs and plastered with earth and mud. Sometimes matting or brushwood was used instead. Where the span of the roof was too large such as in the living room, a wooden post on a stone block served as a support. In one house, such a support took the shape of a palm trunk a little over two meters high and plastered with mud and cut at the top to receive a beam.

The tripartite plan of the houses divided them into three unequal parts by two transverse walls. The front room was the largest. The rear section was divided into two small rooms. There were four rooms in total, consisting of an entrance hall or courtyard, a living room, a bedroom and a kitchen from which a staircase communicated with the roof terrace. However, in some houses the staircase or the kitchen had to be placed in the entrance hall.

It is interesting to note that the consistent orientation of the houses allowed for the early rays of the sun to penetrate the bedrooms and kitchens of these houses, while the sunset would light the front hall and even the living room through the clerestory. The entrance or front hall, usually measuring around five by a little over two meters, opened onto the street through a doorway at one end of the facade. A brick manger and brick tethers evidences that animals were kept in this room. At other times, workshops, looms, hearths and ovens in this front all indicate the various activities of the inhabitants.

Plan of a house in the Amarna Workmen's Village

The more or less square living rooms, with a central post or column to support the roof, was the place of gathering at meals and after sunset. A brick dais measuring .1 to .2 meters in height abutting one or two sides of the room was covered in mats or rugs and used as a divan. During the chilly nights of winter, a fire was kept burning in a hearth consisting of an earthenware bowl set in a ring of mud. For storage, there were jars which were sometimes sunk into the floor or simply left standing on the floor. Water was kept in other vessels set on a limestone base, and sometimes connected by a drain to a pot buried under the floor. Stone disks measuring some five to ten centimeters were used as tables or seats. Saucers of oil with a wick served as lamps and were fixed on two pegs plastered into the wall or set in niches about one meter above the floor. Walls were occasionally painted with frescoes and tempera, as one might expect in the home of workmen responsible for the decoration of tombs. Originally, the walls had been decorated with colored panels about 0.2 meters above the floors. Later walls were whitewashed and simple monochrome sketches were painted, especially in the living room. Fragments of these decorations show a polychrome scene with a human figure, friezes of lotus, chevrons, a figure of Bes, the popular household goddess, or a pilaster painted with a stylized flower stem between chessboard borders.

Though certainly these workmen had to have had some sort of sleeping arrangements, the identification of one of the two rear rooms as a bedroom is controversial, though some evidence points to such a use. There were sometimes low walls to carry a wooden shelf that was possibly a simple frame with rush mattresses for the storage of robes and linen. Lamp niches were also cut into the walls of these rear rooms.

Interior of Living Room in the Workmen's Village

The kitchens were about the same size as the possible bedrooms, and adjacent to them. The kitchens often contained two or three storage bins, an open hearth and a cylindrical oven for bread. These ovens, which are not unlike some modern examples in Egypt, were also similar to those in the main city at Amarna. They consisted of a large pot that was thickly plastered with mud, with a draught hole at the bottom and a large opening at the top which was sealed with a lid. Dough on a platter of clay was left to rise and then set in the oven. When finished, the loaves were stored in a deep basket so that they would remain hot as long as possible. Sunk into the floor, a stone mortar was used for bruising wheat and grinding grain by means of a big pestle of hard wood. Kitchen utensils consisted of a cooking pot of thin earthenware, amphorae, bowls, baskets and trays.

The stairway in these homes and the kitchens were the only architectural elements that was not completely consistent. When the staircase took up one of the rear rooms the kitchen was located in one end of the front entrance hall, behind a low screen of brick. Otherwise, the staircase was built into the kitchen itself, even though this small room was already very crowded. The staircases rose in straight flights. The bottom of the staircases were built in brickwork and above this the steps were set on poles fixed at either end of the side walls. Beneath the steps there was often a cupboard.

Detail of staircase construction

Doorsills within the house were, as at Lahun, often made of stone or wood, though sometimes they were brick. The door leaf hung on pivot hinges turned on wooden sockets. They had a sliding latch that could be opened from the street by means of a string. At night, the doors were secured with a heavy bar. Windows were usually set high in the walls of the front hall and bedroom, and as clerestory windows in the living rooms.

If the worker's housing in the Eastern village was somewhat rudimentary, at least it was only occupied for less than three decades. However, adding to the somewhat miserable conditions of this workers village were the first human fleas, a species that previously was thought to have originated in the New World. Bed bugs were also present. In fact, an important insect study has been carried out at this location producing considerable results on ancient insect populations. In addition, some 5,000 fabric fragments were also discovered in the village producing a unique catalog of cloth in daily use by the ancient community.

In the final analysis, it is difficult to say that Akhenaten, the founder of Amarna (ancient Akhetaten) was less concerned with his workers than other kings, given the rather rudimentary conditions of the Eastern Worker's Village. After all, many of the houses in the other districts of Amarna, whether large or small, were relatively similar. Had the ancient city remained, over a period of time diversity would have probably taken place even in the workmen's village, but indeed, the village remained a snapshot of history which is valuable to us for that very reason.






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