Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.04.20 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.04.20

Anna K. Hodgkinson, Technology and Urbanism in Late Bronze Age Egypt. Oxford Studies in Egyptian Archaeology.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2018.  Pp. xxvii, 328; 8 p. of plates.  ISBN 9780198803591.  $110.00.  

Reviewed by Johannes Auenmüller, University of Münster (


In recent years, the archaeology of technology and industries has gained more attention. This trend is not only related to the current emphasis on settlement archaeology in Egypt and Sudan, but also corresponds to advances in methods for analyzing spatial distribution patterns and understanding the composition and manufacture of ancient objects.

The work under review considers the place, role and organization of technology, represented by various industries, in urban contexts of Pharaonic Egypt during the New Kingdom (c. 1550–1070 BC). It is based on the PhD thesis of the author, entitled Royal Cities of the New Kingdom: A spatial analysis of production and socio-economics in Late Bronze Age Egypt, defended in 2014 at the University of Liverpool.1 The thesis title shows more clearly than the book title does that this monograph focuses on a comparative spatial analysis of objects for a better understanding of the urban setting of luxury goods production.

In the introduction, Hodgkinson examines the status of royal cities in New Kingdom Egypt and introduces the sites relevant to her study. After outlining the current Egyptological understanding of the social context of production and state control, she also surveys industrial evidence from beyond Egypt, embedding the data into their larger context.

Hodgkinson uses a straightforward approach in identifying high-status goods alongside the remains of the built structures that were used to produce them, and the artifacts that attest to their processing (e.g., crucibles). She specifies the relevant industries through particular find categories (finished or unfinished glass, faience, metal artifacts as well as sculpture) together with objects that were employed in their working and production. In addition to textile manufacturing tools, also taken into account are production waste, raw materials and pigments, as well as metal and stone implements. In terms of methodology, she skillfully showcases the challenges of exploiting finds data for GIS analyses and the problems of handling often inaccurate information from older excavations.

While the discussion of the terms ‘workshop’ and ‘factory’ provides a coherent way to describe two different production settings, one misses a clarification of the term ‘cottage industry’ that is used for household contexts of production later in the book. The evaluation of high-temperature installations such as furnaces or kilns indicative of craft specialization, however, leads to a compact introduction of individual industries and their particular manufacturing processes.

The book’s main part (chapters 2-4) comprises case studies on the sites of Amarna (the religious and administrative capital city founded by king Amenhotep IV / Akhenaten in Middle Egypt), Gurob (the palace town and trade center at the entrance to the Faiyum), and Malqata (the royal festival palace complex of Amenhotep III in Western Thebes). The data derives from both historical excavation records and recent fieldwork. In this regard, Hodgkinson lays particular emphasis on the histories of excavation, as those have a major bearing on data quality and quantity.

The Amarna chapter introduces the individual urban districts and provides maps including detailed distribution plots of all relevant objects, which are distinguished in bulk vs. individual finds based on the existing excavation data. After a more technical outline of the GIS methodology, Hodgkinson discusses the evidence for the individual areas supported by maps with statistical information. The density maps in particular allow for locating the places of state control vs. craft production. Amarna’s industrial landscape is highly diverse; the spatial contexts, however, allow for embedding the places of production and consumption into the city’s economic network.

The Gurob chapter builds on a smaller data set. After reviewing the presence of luxury goods and craft activities based on older excavation records, GIS is used to evaluate the evidence from the 2006–2012 Gurob Harem Palace Project fieldwork seasons. Since more than 80% of the material originates from surface survey, both systematic and incidental, the distribution pattern is more random. While faience objects are most frequent, there is a surprising lack of evidence for textile production. One multi-functional workshop could be identified thanks to the high number of relevant artifacts.

The Malqata data set is comprised mainly of older excavation records, archival material and objects in museum collections. Hodgkinson thus refrains from using GIS, but provides instead a concise overview of the different parts of the site and the presence of relevant crafts in a number of production settings. While there is no direct evidence for the production of raw glass, she argues persuasively that glass-working was one of the main activities next to faience production and metal-working.

Chapter 5 compares the three main sites. Hodgkinson stresses the fragmentary character of the archaeological data. Her sound methodology, however, provides the basis to describe the character of the industries. Amarna exhibits the greatest diversity and is the only site where raw glass was produced in specialized workshops under central control. Glass-working took place in the small houses, and faience was made in specialized workshops and household contexts at Amarna and Malqata. Metal-working is attested at all three sites, textile manufacturing only at Amarna and Gurob. To provide a contrast for these, the highly organized large-scale glass, faience and metal factories at Qantir Pi-Ramesse, the Egyptian capital in the Eastern Nile Delta c. 1292–1070 BC, are briefly addressed. In view of Qantir, Hodgkinson argues that at Amarna, Gurob and Malqata specialized workshops operated alongside a cottage industry and that such a method of craft organization was typical for the earlier New Kingdom.

Chapter 6 provides more insights into two purpose-built state-controlled workshops. The workshop Amarna O45.1, excavated in the 1990s by Paul Nicholson, yielded a plethora of evidence of structures together with a rich artifactual record proving that glass, faience, metal and ceramic products were made and worked here in close vicinity to a palace, indicating its high-status produce. At workshop IA1 at Gurob, excavated by Hodgkinson in 2009, two kilns were uncovered. The artifactual evidence points to pottery production next to the possible manufacture of faience and metal objects. However, the poor preservation of the remains hampers a conclusive interpretation. The proximity to the central complex at Gurob hints at a link with the palace and a state-controlled character.

In contrast to these workshops, Hodgkinson explores household contexts of industrial activities in chapter 7. Based on statistics, the typical combinations of industries are evaluated. Hodgkinson not only uncovers the common coexistence of industries, but also the trend of a more diverse industrial setting in small houses. Modern excavations suggest that a variety of industries, particularly faience, glass and metal, were practiced in parallel to each other at the household level, whereas the larger estates seem to have been places of control and distribution. As for Amarna, a network of exchange has been reconstructed with specialized workshops close to state buildings, multi-purpose workshops in larger elite compounds, and a household-based ‘cottage industry’ located throughout the city with a decreasing degree of specialization and state control.

The final chaper 8 first stresses that luxury object production and the availability and use of high status goods influence the status of each settlement in terms of demand and consumption, material and social dependence, and existing infrastructure. Furthermore, Hodgkinson suggests a classification of industrial spaces in factories, workshops and family-level household operations. The closing section of the book proposes models for the structural organization of the industries, charting the mutual relationships between the royal, institutional and social players with respect to supply and distribution as well as demand and delivery of objects.

The book under review is a mine of information about the industries and the sites discussed. It uses a well-reasoned bottom-up-approach to uncover the wide range of industrial activities undertaken at Amarna, Gurob and Malqata. While these sites are seen as ‘atypical settlements’ (pp. 187 and 227), they are quintessential examples of New Kingdom urban complexes and thus represent ideas and formats of urbanism in New Kingdom Egypt. Although the study does not directly evaluate the impact of technology on ancient Egyptian urbanism itself, it highlights the ubiquity of technology and production in settlement contexts in various spatial and social settings. The argument is based on two main pillars: the material culture of production and the location of that material. Those two archaeological dimensions are queried with the aim of uncovering not only the urban organization of the individual industries, but also typological features of their implementation. Essentially based on archaeological data only, Hodgkinson can comprehensively characterize the spatial and economic structure of the industries, the level of state control, and the places of production and consumption within a site. This alone is a large step forward in our understanding. Such an archaeological perspective will now invite scholars to challenge or support the results with the rich textual and prosopographical evidence.

In her meticulous (re-)evaluation of archival, already-published and new data, Hodgkinson not only highlights the challenges facing the scholar when trying to understand the character and specialization of the workplaces based on their archaeological footprint. She also shows the importance of detailed assessments of excavation histories that lead to a comprehensive archaeological contextualization of the industrial evidence. In this regard, the book also stresses the seriousness of the proper recording of any type of remains in current archaeological work.

Sometimes, the presence of an artifact or numerically small artifact group is understood as direct evidence of the respective craft having been performed at the find spot. Each artifact represents the potential existence of the particular craft, but only the contextualization within the spatial setting, as Hodgkinson shows, makes sense of the object. Here, maybe the presence of production waste could be seen as a more robust indicator. Faience moulds in particular are very movable objects, and thus their occurrence has to be interpreted in a rather cautious way. In this regard, Hodgkinson overlooked a study by Bart Vanthuyne about the distribution and significance of faience moulds at Amarna2 that touches upon the numerical difference and city-wide spread of the individual motifs produced in larger factories vs. smaller workshops.

Of particular importance is Hodgkinson’s emphasis on the multi-functionality of workshops and household production. Certain crafts co-existed side by side and mutually influenced each other in terms of their material, technology and craftspeople. Particularly in family-based contexts, a more daily-needs-oriented production might have been prevalent, as blunt copper-alloy tools needed to be recast and old textiles mended. The glass, faience and sculpture workshops certainly produced for royal and elite consumption, while household crafts were oriented not only towards elite demand. Thus, high-status production presents itself through control of materials and resources; the actual labor in the workshop, however, is quite contrary to high status.

It would now be interesting to evaluate the impact of these industries on the social fabric of the sites and how they affected urban planning and placemaking in Pharaonic Egypt. Additionally, one starts wondering what the presence of these industries says about the ancient Egyptian understanding and perception of royal cities, urban settlements or suburban areas. The individual experience of the factory, workshop or household and their smell- and sound-scapes might also be a topic worth studying. Furthermore, the different industrial settings could now be correlated with the textual and iconographic data.

The study would have benefitted from additional references as well as a more nuanced positioning of its results in the wider debate on the social and economic structure of Pharaonic Egypt. Due to the greyscale printing and the comparatively small scale, the full explanatory power of the GIS maps cannot be fully appreciated. These minor points of critique do not detract, however, from the book’s path-breaking contribution to the field of settlement archaeology and the understanding of craft production. The study has relevance also beyond Egyptology to an interdisciplinary audience, especially for methodological reasons. The author has to be congratulated on this essential and appealing publication that has laid an excellent foundation for a variety of further questions.


1.   See University of Liverpool Repository and EThOS.
2.   B. Vanthyune, 2012–2013. “Amarna factories, workshops, faience moulds and their produce”, Egypt and the Levant 22–23: 395–423.

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