Anna Stevens, project curator, Amara West
It’s easy to imagine that what we see of ancient archaeological remains today is not too different to how they would have looked originally. But this is not always the case. In recent years, British Museum excavations at Amara West have provided tantalising evidence for the use of painted decoration inside the private homes of ancient Egypt.
Excavations within the walled town in 2011 revealed a concentration of multi-coloured pieces of wall plaster (possibly dislodged from a household shrine), and the raw materials for painting have also been found scattered across the settlement — pieces of pigment, and the stone blocks on which these were ground down. One concentration of it was uncovered in 2012.
A new project soon to start at the British Museum, in conjunction with University College London, aims to study colour usage within New Kingdom domestic architecture. It will look not only at evidence from Amara West, but from the site of Amarna, the short-lived New Kingdom capital of Egypt built by King Akhenaten. The British Museum holds a number of fragments of painted plaster from Amarna, excavated by the Egypt Exploration Society in the early 20th century. Most famous are the beautiful wall paintings showing scenes from the natural world that decorated Akhenaten’s palaces and mud-brick shrines.
But the use of coloured paint at Amarna was not restricted to royal contexts, and the museum holds another important — but little-known — group of painting fragments from the house of one of the city’s officials, the High Priest Panehesy.
Despite the long history of research into domestic architecture at Amarna, there has been relatively little attention given to the decoration of its houses. One of the reasons for this is that the suburbs of Amarna were excavated largely in the early days of Egyptian archaeology, when clearance was done on a grand scale and with little attention to the recording of finds. The painted plaster recovered from the house of Panehesy is likely to be only a small sample of that which survived, and is only given cursory mention in the excavation report.
This is why current settlement excavations are so important: because they aim to collect and record all material culture (aided greatly by the use of sieves during excavation). Recent fieldwork at Amarna in the house of a chariotry officer named Ranefer, and at smaller houses nearby, thereby offer an important snapshot of colour usage across New Kingdom society: elaborate painted scenes of Ranefer worshipping; painted fragments collapsed from the ceiling of a moderately sized house over which Ranefer’s villa had been built; and simple patches of red wall paint surviving in the small peripheral houses. Paint is used here in contexts with ritual significance, to display status, and probably simply to enhance domestic ambience.
The new project promises to offer much to our understanding of both the technology of pigment sourcing and application, and the broader social and ritual use of colour in ancient Egyptian homes.
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