“Talatat” or wall relief with a boat scene

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Wall relief worked from a rectangular block of sandstone of fixed proportions, which in the world of Egyptology is known as a “talatat”. The blocks were used during the reign of Akhenaten in the construction of temples in honour of the god Aten in Karnak and Akhetaten, and in other buildings of the Amarna capital at Tell el-Amarna. In fact, each talatat was of a size stipulated by a royal Egyptian code (between 52.36 and 52.64 cm) in length, half a cubit in width and also in height. Given the standard size and light weight of the pieces, they were transported easily and so made construction more efficient. Use of these pieces may have begun in the second year of the reign of Akhenaten. After the Amarna Period, construction using talatats was abandoned, apparently because they did not resist the test of time. In later kingdoms the constructions carried out by Akhenaten were dismantled and these talatats were reused, above all by Horemheb and Ramesses II, as filling material in the construction of foundations of other great buildings in the ceremonial compound of Karnak. This has meant that specialists in Egyptology have been able to recover a great number of these pieces, which nowadays are conserved in art museums around the world. These examples have thrown light on the life and art of an obscure period of change.

This is a relief of exceptional interest as it illustrates a scene previously known but not frequently depicted neither through the ages of Egyptian artistic representation, nor in the Amara Period. Only one incomplete scene is conserved, of two royal boats moored along the east bank of the Nile adjacent to the royal palace, and this can be seen in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (USA). Another example of a talatat was auctioned in 2015.

On this talatat in question, we can see a scene in which some royal boats are sailing on the Nile. We know they are sailing and not moored because of the pose of the boatman (on the left of the scene). He is standing in the stern of the boat which can be seen in the lower section, just near the helm or tiller. It is adorned with tassles or the termination of a Khepresh crown (the blue crown of victory with a bulbous form. This leads us to believe that the boat might be that of the pharaoh Akhenaten himself, as the relief in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts shows a scene of a boat with two rudders which is decorated with a termination in the form of the heads of Nefertiti wearing her upright crown. In our example the upper line of the crown is a curve which suggests the assimilation with the headdress of the pharaoh rather than that of the queen. The arms are stretched upward and are holding or pulling a long cord with both hands. Given the parallels already mentioned, above all those from the Old Kingdom, this cord would be one which is connected to one of the upper or lower corners of the great rectangular sail of the central mast of the boat. This would fill out with the wind to give direction and guide the boat. At the upper edge of the piece there is a blueish band of zig-zag, a representation of the ripples on the river made by the wind. This band of water might suggest that the vessel the boatman is in, is a waterway on a lower plane, and that there are two waterways one above and one below. However, both sections of water are meant to read one next to the other. Another possibility is that this is an artistic device, such as that which can be seen in the representation of gardens or the Fields of Iaru in some of the tombs of the New Kingdom. In these, various activities are depicted one above the other, even though they represent activities in the same space on the same horizon. In our example, the water represents the same Nile river but to show the various boats in the scene, parts of the river are placed one above the other.

On the right of the piece, on a larger scale, we can see two men in aggressive poses looking at the boat on the left. They are bare-chested with the fallen bellies, typical of the Amarna artistic style, and are wearing skirts knotted in the middle. In the left hands above their shoulders they are holding clubs, and with their right, knives or crescent-shaped khopesh swords. Whether the armed men are warriors or possible enemies, above all Asiatic ones, aiming to commandeer the vessel or guards tasked with protecting the boat's precious cargo is unknown. These two men are on a different plane to the boat on the left: they are not standing inside the latter, but rather on a nearby shore. This is the reason why they are depicted on a larger scale to the boatman (another example of the artist resorting to the superposition of planes).

AMARNA PERIOD:

The Amarna period is essentially the reign of Akhenaten. When this eccentric son of Amenhotep III ascended the throne around 1370 BC, Egypt was the ruler of a great empire and the richest nation in the civilized world. In little, more than a decade Akhenaten reversed this situation.

One of his first acts as king (his name was then Amenhotep IV) was the construction of a large sandstone chapel to the Aten, an ancient manifestation of the sun, in the Temple of Amen at Karnak. It was the first monument in the new or Amarna style presumably inspired by the king himself in which an extreme realism, virtually a cult of ugliness, is the most conspicuous feature. Realism had never before been applied to the representation of royal bodies. Along with this “truth in art” we find endless representation of the worship of the Aten, innumerable scenes of daily life, many of them novel, scenes of momentary action and the realistic arrangement of groups. Perhaps most appealing are the sensitive representations of flowers and natural settings. Scenes from the domestic life of the royal family now become commonplace.

Somewhere around the fifth year of his reign he moved the capital from Thebes to El-Amarna over two Hundred miles to the north to a site previously unused. It was at this site which he called Akhetaten that he constructed the Great Temple of the Aten, a roofless building of vast dimensions filled with offering tables and many courts, smaller temples, palaces and pleasure buildings. His officers and servants built their houses; their tombs were cut in the eastern cliffs.

The chronology of the Amarna Period is complex. It is known that Akhenaten reigned for seventeen years but there is considerable uncertainly when his reign commenced. Some Historians give him ten years coregency with his father Amenhotep III. Others deny any coregency and, indeed, it is difficult to see how he could have established Akhetaten as only coregent. The problem is still unsettled. Even at his death around 1353 BC the situation is unclear. He did have a coregent and son-in-law Smenkhare who may have very briefly survived him. If he did, he left little traces. The now famous Tutankhamen then succeeded to the throne lingering on at Akhenaten for four to five years; his reason for remaining there is one of the many mysteries of the period. Eventually he did return to Thebes and the worship of the ancient gods. Soon after his death only faint traces of the Amarna style and no traces at all of the heresy in religion survive.

AMARNA TALATATS:

In the Egyptian Museum at Luxor, a wall of the Temple of Aten has been erected again. This temple was built by Akhenaten in Karnak and after his reign it was pulled down and its blocks were used in new constructions, as has already been mentioned. However, the group of talatats which are conserved in North American and European museums and in private collections were acquired in the art market at the beginning of the century. These are all of similar typology and thematic content, and so point to a single origin. On studying the publications of the museums where they are conserved: Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York, Brooklyn Museum of Art of New York, Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna, Museum of Fine Arts of Boston and The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts of Richmond, all of them indicate that the examples come from Hermopolis Magna, a city situated on the opposite bank of the river to where Akhenaten built his capital. They were therefore part of the Royal Palace and of the temples of Aten in the Amarna capital of Akhenaten.

Professor Günther Roeder, who worked in the spring of 1939 and previously, made a spectacular discovery of some 1500 blocks of similar dimensions, and unusually small, in Hermopolis Magna in the foundations of a construction of Ramesses II of Dynasty XIX. Therefore, just as happened at Karnak, the constructions of Tell el-Amarna were pulled down and used as material for new construction. Most probably, those talatats conserved outside Egypt all had a similar story.

The use of Amarna reliefs by the architects of Ramesses II strongly suggests that the temples and palaces of El-Amarna remained standing for several generations after the court returned to Thebes. The conspicuous absence of reliefs in the ruins of El-Amarna, always something of a mystery, is now explained by the use of these buildings as quarries for later constructions. The dismantling of the stone buildings at this site was methodical and thorough. This belated dismantling of Akhenaten’s constructions indicates that there was no violent physical reaction against him or his works at Amarna, a situation that was paralleled in the seemingly intact condition of the return to the orthodox faith. In general, representations of Akhenaten and Nefertiti have been defaced though usually only about the faces, while reliefs of the princesses were untouched. The mutilation seems to have been perfunctory and anything but thorough.

The reliefs in this collection and the vastly larger number found by Professor Roeder even when combined with the fragments found in the German and English excavations at El-Amarna still account for only a small proportion of what must have existed in the royal and ecclesiastical buildings at this site. Over eighty-five years ago a chance find of Amarna reliefs reused at Assiut in constructions of Ramesses II was taken as evidence for the existence there of a temple of the Aten. The idea was plausible as Assiut is only slightly to the south of El-Amarna, but the finds at Hermopolis now allow us to reinterpret the earlier find as a similar instance of the reuse of the ruins of Amarna under Ramses II. It is most unlikely that a temple of the Aten did exist at Assiut, particularly as the name recorded on one of the Assiut blocks is now known as the epithet of a section of the Great Temple at El-Amarna.

PARALLELS:

- Talatat: River scene with royal barges and tow boats. Museum of Fine Arts. Boston. [LINK].

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

- ALDRED, Cyril. Akhenaten and Nefertiti. Studio Publishing. New York. 1973. pp. 133-135, n. 55, 57.
- COONEY, John Ducey. Amarna Reliefs from Hermopolis in American Collections. Brooklyn Museum. New York. 1965. pp. 80-86, n. 50-51.
- HANKE, Rainer. Amarna-Reliefs aus Hermopolis. ildesheimer ägyptologische Beiträge 2. Gerstenberg Verlag, Hildesheim, 1978.
- ROBINS, Gay. The Art of Ancient Egypt. Harvard University Press. Cambridge. Massachusetts. 1997. pp. 149-165

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