A multiple burial of juveniles from the North Tombs Cemetery at Amarna. (Credit: Mary Shepperson/Courtesy of The Amarna Project).

So they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves. – Exodus 1:13-14 (ESV)

Archaeologists have uncovered the remains of a largely juvenile slave force, numbering in the thousands, buried in Egypt. These slaves had worked to build the city of Amarna, Egypt’s new capital city under Akhenaten, the eccentric pharaoh of the New Kingdom’s 18th Dynasty who is thought to have adopted a form of monotheism. Evidence from the graves indicates there was oppressive treatment of this disposable and possibly foreign workforce. Naturally, some have latched onto this find (and its similarities to the Exodus account) to propose that this might be evidence of Israelite slaves. Assessing that idea by examining the finds and then applying a patterns approach will be the subject of this two-part Thinker post.

The city of Amarna (located about 200 miles south of Cairo) had a very brief history. Pharaoh Akhenaten’s religious revolution exchanged the traditional pantheon of Egyptian gods for worship centered on the single deity Aten (depicted as the rays of light extending from the sun’s disk). After this shift, Akhenaten had the entirely new city of Amarna constructed for his grand capital in a matter of five brief years. Once completed, it would only serve as a thriving city for about a decade, as it was quickly abandoned and demolished after the death of the heretic king. Most of its stones were scavenged for building projects at other locations. Conventional dates for the city are from 1346 BC to shortly after 1332 BC, which marked the death of Akhenaten. His successor Tutankhamun (King Tut) moved the capital to Memphis, and Amarna was never rebuilt.

Looking south over the site of Amarna, which laid between the Nile River and the cliffs further inland. (Credit: Mary Shepperson/Courtesy of The Amarna Project)

The site of Amarna has seen ongoing excavations by the Amarna Project, which archaeologist Mary Shepperson has been involved in since 2006. Recently, Shepperson reported in The Guardian about the gruesome findings at Amarna. Seeking to learn more about the lower class at the city, the project was digging at a cemetery in the southern end of the site where about 6,000 burials are thought to exist. She wrote that the results were fairly typical for the low end of ancient Egyptian society; indications in these simple burials were of “poverty, hard work, poor diet, ill-health, frequent injury and relatively early death… There were modest variations in the wealth and style of burial, there was a fairly even mix of male to female individuals, and the age distribution showed the usual pattern for ancient populations.” All of this was about what was expected.

It was when another cemetery was opened up at the north end in 2015 that strange findings were seen. This cemetery was located near the main stone quarry and as the researchers began exhuming the graves they began to notice some striking realities. It was immediately clear that these burials were even simpler than the ones in the south had been. Almost no grave goods for the dead were present and only rough matting was used to bag the bodies. As time went on, it also became more evident that all the skeletons were young people, with no infants or older adults present. “This certainly was unusual and not a little bit creepy,” Shepperson wrote.

A juvenile burial under excavation at the North Tombs Cemetery, Amarna, Egypt. (Credit: Mary Shepperson/Courtesy of The Amarna Project)

When the skeletons of 105 individuals were analyzed by Dr Gretchen Dabbs of Southern Illinois University, it was confirmed that more than 90% of the skeletons had an age that ranged from 7 to 25 years, with most being under the age of 15. ”Essentially, this is a burial place for adolescents,” Shepperson writes.

This age range is typically when people shouldn’t be dying. But further results of the bone analysis seem to provide the explanation for the unusual findings. “For such a young population, traumatic injuries and degenerative conditions were very common. The majority of 15-25 year-olds had some kind of traumatic injury and around ten percent had developed osteoarthritis. Even in the under 15s, sixteen percent were found to have spinal fractures along with a range of other abnormalities usually associated with heavy workloads.”

The obvious conclusion is that a slave workforce of children, teens and young adults was subjected to extremely hard labor and grueling conditions in order to rapidly build Akhenaten’s famous city. Most didn’t make it into their late teens. It is noteworthy that 43% of graves had more than one body and that five or six bodies were sometimes dumped on top of one another into one grave. Often the deceased in these multiple burials were of nearly the same age, showing that they were not siblings. This fact brings up a up sobering thought for Shepperson:

“…at the South Tombs Cemetery multiple burials appear to represent family groups. South Tombs multiple burials are laid side by side in graves dug to double or triple the usual width, but at the North Tombs Cemetery graves containing more than one skeleton are about the same size as the single burials with the bodies stacked directly on top of each other. The implication of the North Tombs multiple burials may be that bodies were expected and a grave was dug at the cemetery without knowing how many bodies there would be. Sometimes there was just one body, but if more were delivered the same grave would do for all of them. Whether this collection of casualties was a daily, weekly or monthly occurrence is a matter for bleak speculation, but the cemetery is large, probably containing at least a couple of thousand burials.

“… Egypt is littered with building projects of extraordinary scale by ancient standards, from pyramids and temples to canals and artificial lakes, commissioned by pharaohs with a similarly megalomaniac mind-set to Akhenaten. Perhaps when we marvel at these wonders of ancient engineering we should spare more thought for the price paid in human lives, some of them only just beginning, which constituted the cost of such high ambitions.”

A crate containing the arms and torso of a juvenile skeleton from the North Tombs Cemetery, packed after removal from the grave. (Credit: Mary Shepperson/Courtesy of The Amarna Project)

Shepperson proposes that at this early stage of the investigation there are three main options for considering who these people were. Because of the likely separation from families (who would normally have provided the proper burials that were so important to ancient Egyptians) they could have been conscripted children from Egyptian families. Because of the apparent attitude toward these people as disposable, they could have been children of slaves. Because no DNA test have been done so far to determine there place of origin, these may have been a captured or deported population brought to Armana to build its roads, monuments and buildings.

The location of this find in ancient Egypt, near the time that many scholars propose for the biblical exodus out of Egypt, makes it understandable that some have suspected this may be hard evidence of the oppression of Israelite slaves. Sigmund Freud was one of those who has tried to connect Moses to the unique time of monotheism under Akhenaten. Additionally, there are other factors related to Akhenaten’s reign that have caused him to be a prime suspect for the pharaoh of either the oppression or the Exodus among scholars over the years.

However, there are many different places in Egypt’s history that have been dubbed as likely times for the Exodus. Each one of these views has some evidence to demonstrate that it is the right choice. How can one determine which (if any) of these competing claims has merit? Do the finds at Amarna and the other proposed evidences during the time of Akhenaten really match what is reported in the Bible? Would making such assertions too forcefully actually hurt the reputation of the Bible in the eyes of many. By applying a “patterns” approach, we will address those questions in next week’s Part 2 of this discussion.