The Main Chapel at the Amarna Workmen’s Village and its wall paintings

Aug 12, 2019

The Main Chapel at the Amarna Workmen’s Village and its wall paintings by Fran Weatherhead and Barry J. Kemp. EES Excavation Memoir 85. London: The Egypt Exploration Society, 2007.

In the 1980s, the Egypt Exploration Society's expedition to Amarna discovered a well-preserved private chapel at the Workmen's Village and the largest that had been built there. Amidst the rubble were many hundreds of fragments of painted plaster fallen from the walls. Over many subsequent years they were recorded, fitted together and, in the case of some key groups, restored into panels.

Project description

“The Workmen’s Village lies 1.2 km to the east of the main site of Amarna, separated by desert. It is tucked into a valley within a promontory projecting from the range of cliffs which arch around the plain containing the city.”

“The subject of this book is the largest of a series of chapels that the inhabitants built beside their village and the considerable amount of painted plaster from the wall decoration. This was excavated by the Egypt Exploration Society’s expedition over two seasons, in 1984-5. Other parts of the building that had not been decorated were excavated in 1979 and 1986. The building was, for convenience, labelled the Main Chapel, otherwise Chapel 561.”

“Of all the parts of Amarna the Workmen’s Village remained the best preserved until modern times. In part this was the result of its sheltered location, which led to a rapid covering in sand after the end of the Amarna Period.”

Decorative program 

The Main Chapel was built to commemorate a man called Sennefer, possibly a scribe, and perhaps his family. The decoration reflects the time of the chapel’s construction, dating to the closing years of the village’s life, perhaps after the death of Akhenaten. 

“Almost as remarkable is the general avoidance in the decorative schemes of the chapels of motifs or stylistic pointers that are characteristic of the Amarna Period. What survives of the paintings in the Main Chapel is not diagnostic of the Amarna or post-Amarna periods since it can be found in either: fragments of friezes, small- or large-scale cavetto cornices, palace-façade, block-borders, chequer, grape-trellis pattern, freely painted bunches of grapes and vegetation, and parts of human figures. From the surviving profile of the heads, particularly the consort’s, it is clear that the facial proportions are those of conventional Theban art, not of the eponymous ‘Amarna’ art style…”

“There are, however, certain unusual features in the Main Chapel, such as the consort’s eye painted over her hair and the long papyrus stem emerging from the bouquet held in front of her…”

“Five panels were restored in the end: one of the vultures, the winged sun-disc, the upper parts of two human figures, a garland and a bouquet.” 

Documentation method

The method of reconstructing panels of painted mud-plaster fragments:

“The method involves setting the fragments in a lightweight panel c. 5 cm deep. The fragments are set in a matrix of expanded polyurethane foam (P.U.F.), between a facing board and a backing board. The fragments can be easily distinguished from the surface of the facing board, which is painted to complete the missing area of design. To date, five panels of reconstructed designs have been made at the site from the Main Chapel painted fragments. They range from 0.35-1.7 m in length…”

“A master drawing was first made showing the outlines of the overall design, this information having been obtained from long study of the fragments. Individual tracings of fragments, or reassembled group of fragments, were made by Rotring pen on acetate sheet and stuck down in the appropriate place in the master-drawing with matt sellotape… 

From the master-drawing, another tracing was made for use in the restoration process. This was on thin acetate sheet, using fine felt-tip pens in contrasting colours to mark out the essential features. These are the outlines of the fragments (say in black); the outlines of overall design and the rectangular boundary of the whole design (in red); and a few outlines of the smaller designs to act as future guide-lines (in green), for instance, the main petals of a lotus flower or some of the feathers of a wing.”

Visual example(s)

Figure 3.33c. Inner Hall, north side design 2.0. Details showing colour scheme: (i) face and bouquet of male figure.

Figure 3.33c. Inner Hall, north side design 2.0. Details showing colour scheme: (ii) face and bouquet of female figure.

Colour Plate 3.4. Restored and mounted panel of figured scene from Inner Hall (design 2.0).

Figure 3.1. Sanctuary. Composite vulture design, mainly from the south vulture with a few pieces from the north vulture, restored into a panel. Scale 1:6.

Colour Plate 3.1. Resrtored and mounted panel of vulture from the Sanctuary.

Figure 3.17. Sanctuary. Restoration of the designs on the east wall, option B.

Colour Plate 3.6. Restoration of the designs on the east wall of the Sanctuary, option B.

What we like

  • Single-weight black painted outlines are complemented by the widespread use of grayscale pattern fill representing each main hue on the black/white line drawings. To maintain general understandability and ease of reassemblance into larger groups, each fragment drawing only concerns the decorative area with all damage thoroughly omitted.
  • The applied color code system using dotted and striped patterns in various density indicates the basic color pattern of each fragment. Although there is no coding key accompanying the visual representation, the supplementary color plates are a great help concerning their interpretation.
  • Wherever applicable, the black-and-white color-coded fragment drawings are extended by a basic reconstruction, indicated by a clean, single-weight line drawing, giving some context to the fragments without too much distraction.
  • Thanks to the painstaking study of the fallen fragments, in some cases there could be an attempt of physically joining them into larger wall sections. Once again, these reassembled fragment groups were enhanced by a certain degree of reconstruction both as a basic line drawing on paper and as a gesso painting applied directly onto the physical fragment “cassettes”. As a final step, these sub-elements were expanded into larger designs representing entire wall sections.

Additional reading

You can purchase “The Main Chapel at the Amarna Workmen’s Village and its wall paintings” from Bloomsbury, the distributor for EES’s publications, for £25.00, or through various retailers, such as in the USA and in Europe. 

For more information on this project or the other endeavors of the Amarna Project, visit their website.

Précis and commentary by Júlia Schmied

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