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A Mud Brick from Tell el-Amarna

September 6, 2018

Introduction

 

Mud bricks have been a most basic building material for millennia due to their simplicity and conveniently sourced components as well as their ease of manufacture.  The great civilizations of the Tigris-Euphrates and Nile Valleys utilized mud brick construction extensively and many well preserved examples of ancient mud bricks still survive in these arid regions, demonstrating their longevity.  Up until a generation ago, rural construction in these regions still included the use of mud bricks before cement and cinder blocks largely replaced them.  The Horn Museum acquired an ancient Egyptian mud brick in 1988.  The brick originally came from a location near the Great Temple to Aten at the site of Tell el-Amarna.  Akhetaten, translated as “the Horizon of the Aten” was the ancient name of Tell el-Amarna. The “heretic” pharaoh Akenaten (Amenhotep IV) constructed the city as the showcase capital and religious center for his monotheistic worship of the sun god Aten in ca. 1360 BC.  The city went into a decline after Akhenaten’s death in 1355 BC and sat largely abandoned little more than a decade later. Scholars have long debated as to whether Israelite monotheism and Moses influenced Akenaten’s choice to worship a single deity and his wide-ranging religious reforms.

 

Relevance to the Biblical Account

 

References to mud bricks occur various times in the Old Testament.  The well-known Tower of Babel epic in Genesis 11:3-4 mentions mud brick production when the peoples of the Earth settle in the Plain of Shinar (near Babylon):  “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly... (and) let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens…”  Nevertheless, the most famous reference to brick production occurs in Exodus (1:14; 5:1-21), during the Israelite oppression in Egypt.  Pharaoh ordered his officials to stop supplying straw to the Israelite brick makers.  “You are no longer to supply the people with straw for making bricks; let them go and gather their own straw.  But require them to make the same number of bricks as before; don’t reduce the quota…” (Exodus 5:7-8).  Pharaoh’s order forced the Israelites to gather their own straw, a critical component needed in mud bricks to stabilize and strengthen the brick during the drying process as well as to prevent cracking, was catastrophic to their efforts, but hastened the collapse of Pharaoh’s power over them.  

In the Levant, mud brick construction was common along the coastal plain, in the Negeb and the Jordan Valley. Even in hilly and mountainous regions with vast deposits of stone, builders still utilized mud bricks for constructing walls, but usually placed them upon stone foundational courses.

 

Physical Description

 

The Horn Museum mud brick measures xx x xx inches, which corresponds to roughly one-half of a royal (Egyptian) cubit.  A cursory examination demonstrates the presence of alluvial soils mixed with straw.  Both elements are easily recognized throughout the fabric of the mud brick.

 

Historical Significance

 

The city of Akhetaten enjoyed only a narrow occupational period dating to the mid fourteenth century BC. This falls after the traditional fifteenth century BC date of the Exodus (ca. 1450 BC).  Nevertheless, many scholars propose that the Exodus occurred during the early thirteenth century BC, in which case this brick may have been fashioned and placed by Israelite slaves.  Whether an Israelite slave actually manufactured this mud brick may never be known, but their bricks undoubtedly were essentially identical to this one, only about a century or more earlier in date.

 

Parallels

 

Numerous parallels to this mud brick may be observed at various Egyptian sites.  Differences in dimensions, fabric and quality exist when compared to mud bricks from other regions, notably Mesopotamia.

 

Bibliography

 

Bryan, B. M.

2001    Amarna, Tell El-.  Pp. 60-65 in Vol. 1 of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt,ed.                Donald B. Redford.  New York:  Oxford University.

 

Hoffmeier, J. K.

            2015    Akhenaten and the Origins of Monotheism.  New York:  Oxford University.

 

Kemp, B.

2014    The City of Akhenaten and Nefertiti:  Amarna and Its People.  New Aspects of                            Antiquity.  London: Thames and Hudson.

 

Kitchen, K. A.

            1976    From the Brickfields of Egypt.  Tyndale Bulletin27: 137-47.

 

Redford, D. B.

            1984    Akhenaten:  The Heretic King.  Princeton: Princeton University.

 

Spencer, A. J.

            1979    Brick Architecture in Ancient Egypt. Warminster:  Aris & Phillips.

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