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Ancient Digs Fit for a Queen

In Nefertiti’s Sun Temple: A New Cult Complex at Tell el-Amarna (Brill, September 2016), Mason Egyptologist Jacquelyn Williamson examines stone relief fragments excavated from the site of Kom el-Nana at Tell el-Amarna, Egypt, dating back to approximately 1350 BCE. This is the first time relief fragments can be associated with a specific wall from a specific temple at Tell el-Amarna. And this one just happened to belong to Queen Nefertiti.

What inspired you to write this book?

In 2006, I was working at an archaeological site in Egypt, and I realized that one of the rock fragments from the site had a title on it—the title of a temple people had been looking for for about a century. We knew Queen Nefertiti had a temple, but we had not been able to find it. I was a graduate student at the time, and I wrote up my findings and showed them to my professor. She said, “You realize this is now your dissertation topic right?” So I changed my topic and have been working on the site ever since. This is an important site. Although her name is famous, we don’t know much about Nefertiti. The art and the inscriptions at the site provide us a unique window into how this very famous queen operated. There is another book that I’m still working on that covers other aspects of the temple.

When you talk about reconstructing a site, what do you mean?

Imagine that you have a jigsaw puzzle that’s the size of five football fields and that somebody smashed the pieces into even smaller pieces and then lost 75 percent of them. I’m examining the fragments I do have and applying a series of mathematical equations. Fortunately, Egyptian art is very controlled. With a lot of math and educated guesses, you can get the idea of what the decoration, scene, or inscription would’ve looked like. It is a lot of me sitting there with a broken piece of rock the size of my fist going “what is this?” So you calculate: “Ok this is an eye. An eye would’ve taken up this much space on a figure. Now this hand has the same proportions as that eye and faces the same direction.…” It takes a lot of patience and some cursing.

How often do you go?

Usually once a year. Because of the current situation in Egypt, it has been more difficult to visit the country. I am hoping to be able to go over spring break. I’m waiting for permission from the Egyptian government. There is a lot of work to do. I would like to start seeking some funding and put together a more permanent team. Like I said, the site is massive. It really needs excavation, and for that you need people. I would love to bring advanced students with me to work in the field. That’s a long-term goal.

Has anything surprised you about the research? Aside from discovering a long lost temple?

The great thing about working on this project is it is not just about art but also language, religion, gender, and sexuality. Yes, I have found an ancient temple, but I also found a second temple within my temple. It is like a nesting doll situation. That second temple is giving us a ton of information about the cult of the dead, how it worked, and how temples like this one related to the religious experience of the courtiers, or hereditary elite, of this time. My research has also uncovered a lot of new information about Nefertiti, which leads to questions about gender identity, sexuality, and society in antiquity. It isn’t just me seeing if these two rocks go together. Bigger questions are raised.