2010-2012 database completion in Cairo.
Written by: Jocelyn Gohary
In the early years of his reign, Amenhotep IV built a temple at Karnak dedicated to the aspect of the solar god as the Aten, the life-giving disc of the sun. This temple was located at the eastern end of the existing temple dedicated to Amun, the king of the gods, and was larger than that temple at the time. To mark his allegiance to the Aten, the king changed his name from Amenhotep to Akhenaten , and celebrated the traditional sed-festival, adapting it to the worship of the Aten as the sole deity.
The building material for this first Aten temple and other structures during Akhenaten’s reign, was in the form of small sandstone blocks, each measuring on average 52 x 22 x 26 cms. It is assumed that the smaller blocks were used so that construction could progress more quickly, as one block could be carried by one man. Today these are known as talatat, a name which is probably derived from the Arabic word teleta, meaning ‘three’, as each block is roughly three hand-spans long. Talatat are, therefore, recognizable by their size as well as the characteristic ‘Amarna’ style of their carved relief.
After Akhenaten’s reign, the king was regarded as a heretic, his temples to the Aten were dismantled, and the talatat were reused in later structures where they would not be visible, such as in foundations and as filling in pylon gateways. This was the case with the Aten temple at Karnak. Over the centuries parts of the great temple of Amun fell into disrepair and were damaged by earthquakes. Talatat began to come to light during excavations and restoration work carried out by French archaeologists from the 1840s onwards, and by the 1960s more than 30,000 had been uncovered. In the 1950s and 60s many of the talatat were rehoused in magazines for greater security, the largest of which was located against the western wall of the Temple of Khonsu. French archaeologists working on the restoration of the west wing of the ninth pylon from the 1960s to 1980s found thousands more talatat reused as filling, and also recorded and studied them. Approximately 50,000 talatat have so far been discovered at Karnak, but these are a relatively small percentage of the total blocks used to build the various parts of the Aten temple.
From 1966-1975, the Akhenaten Temple Project (ATP), sponsored by University Museum, Pennsylvania, photographed and studied most of the talatat then uncovered, and the Khonsu Temple storeroom came to be known as the ‘Pennsylvania’ magazine. The magazine contained approximately 16,000 talatat, stored in 14 large stacks with 34 smaller stacks containing talatat decorated on more than one surface.
As part of the ARCE Khonsu Temple Conservation Project in the Karnak Temple complex the ARCE Talatat Project, sponsored by USAID, was initiated in 2008 to re-document the talatat in the Pennsylvania magazine. In August 2008 a preliminary survey and digital photographic record of the state of the magazine was carried out by project director Jocelyn Gohary, assistant director Rawya Ismail, and photographer Matjaz Kačičnik. The survey recorded that the talatat were stacked on low brick mastabas, but the ground level was irregular, and extensive burrowing by foxes had piled up large mounds of earth against the lowest courses of talatat. These factors, as well as groundwater seepage and the passage of time had resulted in damage to the lowest courses of blocks in each stack, and two stacks had largely collapsed. Rain water coming through gaps in the roof had left streaks of mud down several courses of talatat in most stacks. Approximately 75% of the reliefs on the talatat retained most of their original paint, but were covered with a thick layer of dust.
The project commenced field work in October 2008 and worked at Karnak for two seasons with a team consisting of project director Jocelyn Gohary, assistant director Rawya Ismail, conservation supervisors Hiroko Kariya and Claire d’Izarny, conservator Lindsay Vosburg, Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) conservator Saadi Zaki Abdullah, Egyptologist Jacquelyn Williamson, and photographers Sara Lafleur and Owen Murray. An SCA inspector was assigned to the project every two months, and an additional SCA conservator worked with the project each month. Nine local workmen, under the supervision of Reis Mahmoud Farag, assisted with all aspects of the project. A tented work area was created outside the magazine to accommodate the conservation, data recording and photography sections of the documentation process.
Unlike the earlier Akhenaten Temple Project when the talatat were photographed and recorded in situ, during the ARCE Talatat Project all the blocks were brought out of the magazine for documentation and conservation. After cleaning and any necessary basic conservation had been carried out, a report was made for each talatat. Details of the relief carvings on the decorated surface were documented, each block was measured and given a 6-digit number, incorporating the original stack number assigned by ATP. Bringing the talatat out of the magazine for documentation had certain advantages, including the possibility to measure each block, closer observation of surviving pigments, and the discovery of several hundred hieratic graffiti written by overseers of the ancient quarrymen on undecorated surfaces. On average, 70-80 blocks were processed in a day, and the information from the conservation and documentation reports was entered daily into the specially created database.
Before the talatat were returned to the magazine, the original mastabas were resurfaced, several new mastabas were constructed between the major stacks for talatat from the small stacks which had originally been stored on the earth floor, and shelving was erected for fragments and blocks which were in an extremely fragile condition. Each new stack was loosely covered with plastic sheeting to try and reduce the accumulation of dust on the decorated surfaces.
During two seasons of field work, October 2008-June 2009 and October 2009-May 2010, a total of 15,546 talatat were processed, including 167 limestone talatat later reused in the Ramesside period. A total of 476 were recorded with hieratic graffiti. Another interesting discovery was the lower part of a kneeling statue of Akhenaten. (421 non-talatat blocks in the magazine were also recorded). Work on the database continued in Cairo until 2012, in order to make it as comprehensive as possible to facilitate future research on this valuable source material for the early years of Akhenaten’s reign.