Interview: Egyptologist Barry Kemp

Posted: September 11, 2013 - 11:50 , by Matthew Church
Egypt, Archaeology, From the Field, Research | Comments (0) | Comment
Dr. Kemp at an archaeology site in the desert

By Laura Ranieri

Q: What brought you to Amarna initially?

A: I first became interested in how the towns and cities of ancient Egypt worked following a [1970] conference in London called “Man, Settlement and Urbanism.” I was asked to write a paper: “Temple and Town in Ancient Egypt.” I came to see that archaeology had not perhaps been used to its fullest extent in understanding ancient Egyptian urbanism, and that if you wanted to do more work on this, then Amarna was probably the best place for it.

But at the time it was not possible even to visit Amarna in the aftermath of the Six Day War with Israel [1967]. The Egyptian authorities forbade foreigners from traveling into the country anywhere outside the vicinity of Cairo, Alexandria and Aswan. You weren’t even allowed to get off the train in Middle Egypt. Then in 1973, I worked with the University of Pennsylvania at the site of Amenhotep III’s palace and town at Malkatta in western Thebes. That work stimulated my interest in the archaeology of the Amarna period as well as in the archaeology of urbanism – and that is what finally brought me to Amarna in 1977.

Dr. Kemp and his team working at an archaeological site.

Q: And you’ve stayed 35 years?

A: Yes. I wanted when I started to develop a project that would last a long time! Sites in Egypt tend to be very large and I don’t think you can make useful progress on a large urban site if you work there for only a short time. Over a period of 5 or 10 years you don’t actually get all that far. I feel after 35 years now that I am just getting into my stride really, as far as Amarna is concerned.

Q: What have been your major milestones and discoveries?

A: I don’t measure what I do in terms of discoveries. What I find satisfying is the gradual uncovering of parts of the site, and the gradual increase of understanding of the city and the lives of the people who lived here. When people think of discoveries particularly in relation to Amarna they think of treasures and fine art work – like the head of Nefertiti. But the expedition that I have directed has not made discoveries of that kind. And I must say I am not in the least disappointed. Such things tend to bring problems of their own anyway. What has brought me satisfaction is the gradual revealing of the basis, the fabric, of the site physically through the uncovering of ground that has not been seen before. The resulting accumulation of information enhances our knowledge of the place and the lives of the people who lived here.

Archaeological team at work onsite.

Q: Was Akhenaten the first monotheist?

A: Monotheism belongs very much to the vocabulary of religion in the tradition of Judaism, Christianity and Islam... where monotheism is an exclusive view: You believe there is only one god, and that although you accept other definitions of god and other beliefs, you demonize them because you feel it is an affront, that your vision of god is the only correct one that can be recognized by worship.

Akhenaten does not come across to me as quite like that. His choice of Amarna, the nature of the temples that he built and the text that goes with them shows that he was determined to concentrate his energies on the worship of the sun disk, the Aten – and that there was no room for the cult of Amun. But to judge from the very large number of amulets found in the city which portray divinities of protection, I don’t think he was trying to stamp out those traditions that belonged within the households, nor in imposing his views upon the population so they would have in their hearts only the Aten.

Q: Was he a good king?

A: How do you judge whether kings were good or bad? He seems, to judge from texts in the tombs of his officials, to have been concerned with teaching his people to make better efforts to avoid falsehood and wrongdoing and adhere to an enhanced sense of righteousness.  So, if you think that good kings are those who teach morality then yes, you would agree that he was good in that sense. The Egyptians themselves and people generally, see successful governments as those who bring peace and prosperity.  Akhenaten is seen through the Amarna letters as someone who allowed the Egyptian empire to slip away. Of course from the Egyptian point of view that was a bad thing, but, if you were someone living under someone else’s rule, you might think it was actually quite a good thing.

Q: What are your goals and objectives going forward at the site?

A: Because I have worked here for so long I am left with a very large backlog of unprocessed, unpublished results. The proper thing to do with the time I have left is devote what time I can to the processing and ordering of what I am responsible for. Also, I have become more sensitive to the threats to the site. For a long time not much happened here. In fact you can still recognize it on a Napoleonic map, more or less as it was then. But all around the fringes now, you can see that there is cultivation, new houses, extensions to the cemetery. Farming is much more mechanized and there are more vehicles and tractors taking short cuts across the site. As the villages expand, so increasing amounts of rubbish appear on the sites – either deliberately dumped or blown about. And so the sites need more care, maintenance and protection.

I believe that archaeological sites fare best when there is a working partnership between the local antiquity service, an active foreign excavation and tourism. Without those things working together, sites start to look neglected -- and neglect encourages people from the villages to intrude upon them. I did not used to think like this, but I can see now that having sensible, well-organized tourism coming in is a good thing, because it demonstrates that the archaeology work we do has some benefit outside our own personal interests. Tourism shows that there is a larger constituency who is interested – and it makes the work of the antiquity services seem more relevant.

Workers from Dr. Kemps team pose with archaelogical tools.  © Laura Ranieri

Q: Any lessons to be learned from ancient Amarna?

A: The city was self-organized in a way you could not get away with now. The Pharaoh comes across as being a god and separate from society, but in practice I think he was much more accessible than you’d think through his officials.  It was a bleak place to live, but the society was very effective and held together very well through intimate and highly networked communications. People of all kinds were living and interacting with one another at all times. I really think there is a lesson in this. And you can hold it in the back of your mind that there are perhaps other ways of ordering a society than sociologists today pronounce upon.