Cult city

Josef Wegner and Jennifer Houser WegnerPhoto credit: Candace diCarlo

The blockbuster King Tut exhibit that lands at the Franklin Institute in February will give fans of Tutankhamun plenty of treasures to marvel at. Right now, though, here on campus Egyptophiles can learn about Tut’s childhood home in an exhibit put together by three Penn Museum curators, including David Silverman, the curator in charge of the national show.

The other two curators of “Amarna, Ancient Egypt’s Place in the Sun,” which opened to the public last Sunday, are husband-and-wife archaeologists Josef Wegner and Jennifer Houser Wegner. Josef is associate curator of the Museum’s Egyptian Section, and Jennifer is a research scientist there.

With Silverman, the Wegners combed through the Museum’s collections of artifacts from the city of Amarna, the royal court of Akhenaten, Tutankhamun’s probable father, and coauthored a book to accompany the exhibit exploring Akhenaten’s short-lived but radical religious experiment—which involved worshiping the disk of the sun, called the aten—and King Tut’s swift restoration of the traditional order.

“Our exhibit really kind of fills in that story in a way the big show doesn’t focus on,” says Josef, who explains that although Amarna survived for only about 12 years, a series of Penn Museum-sponsored excavations, mostly from around 1890 to 1922, unearthed a wealth of artifacts that tell the story of the royal city’s rise and fall.

Q. What kind of things were found at Amarna?
JHW: Well basically it’s an entire city that was built in a very short period of time and everything you would have in an ancient city of that time period you find at Amarna. So there are palace complexes, temple complexes, large mansions for the elite and the wealthy, but also smaller areas for the workers, the artisans. So you pretty much get a broad slice of humanity in Amarna and the artifact types range from royal statuary fragments to simple daily life objects that would have been used by the average person, combs and different kinds of tools and pottery and things like that. And we have a nice selection of those different kinds of things in the exhibit.

Q. The exhibit also tells a fascinating story about Akhenaten’s radical religious revolution. How did it come about?
JW: We know that to some extent there were roots in his father’s reign, the growth of interest in solar religion and the worship of the aten—the sun disk—did exist. The question is why did he develop it to such an extent, to the point where he outlaws all the other gods, especially Amun, the official state god of Egypt. There are many theories—that he was trying to remove the power of Amun priesthood, which may have been in competition with the power of the king. A lot of Egyptologists don’t believe that. Another theory is that he was an inspired philosopher and thinker.
JHW: And there are others who think he was kind of a madman, a religious fanatic. And you can almost think of Amarna as a cult center in the way we think of modern cults. You know, you pack everyone up and move them into the desert to the middle of nowhere and worship your god out there.

Q. Did everyone go along with it?
JHW: That’s sort of the big question. You have this king coming in and changing the religious system and telling everyone all the gods they’ve worshiped for centuries no longer existed, no longer were valid and were outlawed. For the most part the images, the statuettes, the amulets of the gods that we tend to find in Amarna are gods that are really more personal and domestic gods. It’s almost as if people were saying we can give up the big state gods but we can’t give up the gods who help us on a day-to-day basis, so you find amulets of a god called Bes who was protector of the home, protector of children, families. He had a lot to do with fertility and sexuality. We find amulets of Tawaret who was a goddess who was protective of pregnant women, women in labor and childbirth. So we find amulets of these gods and goddesses people clung to on a daily basis, these personal gods.

Q. It must have been quite an upset for people.
JW: It probably would’ve been fine if you were in the inner circle of the royal court and were wealthy and privileged or even for lower status people who worked for big households. I think the places where it would have hurt most would’ve been in the provinces and run-of-the-mill towns where temples may have been shuttered and economies were badly affected. In Egypt the temples were the engines of the economy so if you close the temples local economies are going to suffer. So I think that was really the undoing of the religious experiment.

Q. When King Tut became pharaoh he restored the traditional religion. Why did he do that?
JW: Tut was a very young king when he took the throne and we suspect there were senior advisors. Once the charisma of Ahkenaten had been removed from the equation you had a young, guidable king.
JHW: He was 8 or 9, really a young boy. So it’s not surprising that there are these court elders who probably are calling the shots, and if you think about King Tut all he knew prior to this point was the Aten as the sole god, so you really have to question how it could be that this young boy is going to say, “Well, I know this was the only god that was around in my lifetime but let’s switch back to all of the different gods and goddesses that I really didn’t know that much about.” So I think these court officials really did pull the strings and call the shots. But he does seem to accept the traditional religion and we have documents talking about how he went to great lengths to restore temples, open them up, how when he comes to the throne he found things in ruins around the country and his goal was to fix things up and restore order to the country by reopening the temples and shrines.

Q. And Amarna was abandoned?
JHW: Within a couple of years after the death of Akhenaten, Amarna empties out. People go back to where they came from originally. It’s not inhabited in any major way ever again.
JW: Two reigns later King Horemheb who was a military general … rather viciously dismantled all the buildings, took the stones away and reused them in foundations. Very little from the Amarna period is intact. It’s all fragmentary and smashed up. An ironic twist is that King Tut got no credit for restoring Egypt because Horemheb erased the names of Akhenaten, Tutenkhamun and another king named Ay. They were just left out of the king lists and Horemheb shows himself as the successor of Akhenaten’s father Amenhotep, so they just leave out all those kings and Horemheb takes over the claim of restoration.

Q. Switching gears a little, can you tell me how you met?
JHW: We were both undergrads here at the same time. Joe was two years ahead of me. But we didn’t actually fall in love until we were out on an archaeological expedition to Egypt that was being run by the curator of this show, David Silverman. So we were there as students and the dessert sun worked its magic.

Q. And you named your son Alexander.
JHW: We needed a name that was related to the ancient world, but we couldn’t have called him Tutankhamun or Osiris.

Originally published on November 16, 2006.

Originally published on November 16, 2006