Was the ancient Egyptian city of Amarna built by child slaves?

Between 2006 and 2013 I was lucky enough to work for the Amarna Project on an excavation which aimed to recover four hundred individuals from a large cemetery behind the South Tombs cliffs, estimated to contain around six thousand badly looted burials. The study of these burials and their human remains has opened a new research window on life and death in the lower echelons of Egyptian society. They paint a picture of poverty, hard work, poor diet, ill-health, frequent injury and relatively early death. ... The initial skeletal analysis of 105 individuals excavated at the North Tombs Cemetery in 2015 has now been completed by Dr Gretchen Dabbs of Southern Illinois University, and it seems our initial impressions were absolutely right. More than 90% of the skeletons have an estimated age of between seven and twenty-five years, with the majority of these estimated to be younger than fifteen. Essentially, this is a burial place for adolescents.


Who is buried at the North Tombs Cemetery?

This is a difficult question at this early stage of the project and all our current theories have their drawbacks. The North Tombs Cemetery lies towards the main stone quarries and it seems most likely that these people were employed somewhere in the quarrying process as unskilled labour during the frantic construction of the new city.

One possibility is that these are Egyptian children, perhaps demanded from their families as a contribution to the construction of the new city, or singled out in some other way. Corvée-style labour, enforced and unpaid, was frequently used in ancient Egypt on major projects. It is also possible that these were the children of slaves and therefore viewed as more or less disposable. In either case, children seem to have been removed from their families with little intention of them being returned.

A further suggestion is that the North Tombs Cemetery may represent a captured or deported population brought to Amarna for labour. This is perfectly possible and would account for the lack of family contact and the apparent disregard shown for young life. On the other hand, there are no indications from the method of burial, the pottery and the few objects recovered to suggest that these people were not Egyptians. 

We hope that future DNA analysis of the bones might clarify the geographical origins of the North Tombs Cemetery skeletons.