While the archaeological record may not shore up the biblical account of the Exodus from Egypt, in light of recent finds one could be forgiven for speculating whether those Hebrew sons who weren’t thrown into the Nile were rather conscripted as slaves. Those finds, at the ongoing excavation of the ancient Egyptian capital city Amarna, shed light on the treatment of ancient slaves — whoever they may have been — and their children.
The city, in an isolated desert bay some 10 kilometers from the Nile, was the seat of power of Egypt’s “monotheistic” Pharaoh Akhenaten. Called a “heretic” by his own people, Akhenaten ruled a mere 17 years until his death in 1332 BC. The discovery of workmen’s burial plots — built and deserted within 15 years — provide a window into his brief reign and the mores of the time.
Archaeologist Mary Shepperson, who previously dug with the Amarna Project, reported in The Guardian this week on the discovery of “the simple desert graves of the ordinary Egyptians who lived and worked in Akhenaten’s city and never got to leave.”
“They paint a picture of poverty, hard work, poor diet, ill-health, frequent injury and relatively early death,” she wrote, describing two main workmen’s burial grounds: the South Tombs Cemetery, which is filled with the remains of a mix of genders and ages, and the North Tombs Cemetery, which held surprises.
“As we started to get the first skeletons out of the ground it was immediately clear that the burials were even simpler than at the South Tombs Cemetery, with almost no grave goods provided for the dead and only rough matting used to wrap the bodies,” Shepperson said of the excavation, which began in 2015.
“As the season progressed, an even weirder trend started to become clear to the excavators. Almost all the skeletons we exhumed were immature; children, teenagers and young adults, but we weren’t really finding any infants or older adults… This certainly was unusual and not a little bit creepy,” she continued.
Initial analysis concluded that the remains were of youths aged 7-25, the bulk of whom are thought to have been under 15 when they died. Additionally, wrote Shepperson, the majority of 15- to 25-year-olds had suffered some kind of traumatic injury, and 16 percent of the under-15-year-olds were found to have spinal fractures and other injuries usually associated with heavy workloads.
“Essentially, this is a burial place for adolescents,” she said.
‘Essentially, this is a burial place for adolescents’
The physical trauma, the proliferation of multiple burials in a single grave, and the lack of grave goods buried with them all indicate the children were of extremely low status or slaves. Who they were, however, remains a mystery.
“Corvée-style labor, enforced and unpaid, was frequently used in ancient Egypt on major projects,” wrote Shepperson, opening up the possibility of them being either Egyptians or the progeny of non-Egyptian slaves.
“A further suggestion is that the North Tombs Cemetery may represent a captured or deported population brought to Amarna for labor. This is perfectly possible and would account for the lack of family contact and the apparent disregard shown for young life,” she wrote. “We hope that future DNA analysis of the bones might clarify the geographical origins of the North Tombs Cemetery skeletons.”
When it comes to the question of whether they could have been the children of ancient Hebrew slaves, academics generally have little doubt the answer is no.
Tenuous biblical ties
Famously, Sigmund Freud was among those tantalized by the prospect of finding a connection between Moses and the eccentric “monotheistic” King Akhenaten. Interestingly his capital, Amarna, was named after the Beni Amran tribe of Arabs that eventually settled in the area. (Could there be a link to Amram, Moses’s father?)
“Since Akhenaton’s worship of Aton as ‘sole god’ is earlier than the date commonly ascribed to Moses (ca. 1280 BC), historians have puzzled over possible relationships between the monotheism of Akhenaton and the Biblical concept of one God. Sigmund Freud in his ‘Moses and Monotheism’ sought to trace the Hebrew-Christian faith to the Amarna revolt of Akhenaton,” wrote Central Michigan University’s Prof. Charles F. Pfeiffer, in his 1963 “Tell El-Amarna and the Bible.”
According to Pfeiffer, the term “monotheist” has a different connotation when used regarding Akhenaten, who worshiped the sun god Aton and proclaimed himself his living descendant.
“Still his meditation upon the Aton bringing blessing to all man has within it the seeds of something that finds its highest expression in the prophetic spokesmen of ancient Israel,” he wrote.
“It’s important to realize that the cultural milieu of both Egyptian and Israelite religious beliefs were entirely different and far from compatible,” wrote Brian Fagan, emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “There were two experiments in monotheism — the Egyptian one, which vanished, and the more abstract Israelite version that ensued and survived.”
Yet, the chronological overlap of proto-Israelite culture and the Egyptian dynasties is evident in a vast record of archaeological artifacts and correspondence. The bureaucrats of the Egyptian New Kingdom, which ruled over Canaan in the Late Bronze Age (circa 1500-1150 BCE), were prolific letter writers.
Much of the extant correspondence between Egypt and its Canaanite vassals was found in the form of cuneiform tablets at Amarna. Beginning in 1887, Egyptian tomb raiders began digging up and selling the tablets, which were written primarily in the era’s diplomatic language, Akkadian.
Mentioned on the tablets is a people labeled the “‘Apiru” or “Habiru.” According to Pfeiffer and other scholars, the term, although similar sounding to the word “Hebrew,” was more of a social class descriptor for groups of lawless, landless people who live outside of cities and attempt to raid them.
Throwing a bucket of cold water on any possible Habiru-Hebrew connection, the late Tel Aviv University professor of Semitic linguistics Anson Rainey once said, “The plethora of attempts to relate apiru (Habiru) to the gentilic ibri are all nothing but wishful thinking.”
Undaunted by the academic consensus, The Times of Israel queried the Amarna Project for its views on whether the adolescent mass graves may in fact be the final resting places of Hebrew slave children.
The director of the Amarna Project and chairman of the Amarna Trust, English archaeologist and Egyptologist Prof. Barry Kemp, responded promptly via email.
“I am afraid that I do not accept the Old Testament narrative as a historical record, and therefore that there is any connection between Amarna and ‘Hebrew slaves,'” he wrote.
“The current study of the bones by conventional means points to a heterogeneous population with links to various outside groups, which is what one would expect from a capital city which drew in people from many areas at a time of very active international contacts,” Kemp added.
However, perhaps throwing this reporter a bone, he concluded, “The mention of DNA analysis is a hopeful pointer to what might be possible one day, when suitable facilities can be accessed in Cairo.”
Do you rely on The Times of Israel for accurate and insightful news on Israel and the Jewish world? If so, please join The Times of Israel Community. For as little as $6/month, you will:
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we come to work every day - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.