The Local Chapter
The el-Hibeh Project
Egypt on the Web
Dr. Renee Friedman, is a 1994 graduate of the University of CA, Berkeley with a
PhD in Egyptian Archaeology. She is currently the Heagy Research Curator in the
Dept. of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum in London. Dr. Friedman
has been excavating in Egypt since the 1980s, and has been the Director of the
Hierakonpolis Expedition since 1996.
To acquaint her audience with the site of Hierakonpolis, Dr. Friedman opened her
lecture by locating the site of ancient Nekhen, later known as Hierakonpolis,
just North of Edfu, on the west bank of the Nile.
The local god venerated at the site was Horus, a golden-headed cult statue of
whom was first found in 1896. Hierakonpolis is also the find site of the famous
Narmer Palette, found in a cache in the Horus Temple, the find which put
Hierakonpolis on the map in modern times.
In historical times, the site of Hierakonpolis was commemorated by the Souls of
Nekhen, demigods thought to represent the ancient kings of prehistoric Upper
Egypt, but the historic reality of this interpretation has long been questioned.
In favor of the Souls of Nekhen preserving a remnant of a half forgotten
prehistoric truth is the size of the site. The town spread all across the desert
for two miles. It must have been one of the largest, if not the largest,
Pre-Dynastic site in Egypt. Houses, breweries, kilns, granaries, early temples
have all been found during excavation of the site. Many cemeteries, both elite
and common, which are fundamental to the understanding of any such site, have
also been found at Hierakonpolis.
The very earliest decorated tomb known, Tomb 100 - also known as The Painted
Tomb, a late Gerzean brick lined burial - was found at Hierakonpolis by Green
during his excavations in 1899. It is, unfortunately, now lost under the
cultivation. For a long time, this was the only indication of predynastic rulers
at the site, but this has changed with the discovery of other important
Pre-Dynastic tombs in Cemetery HK6, which lies in a desert wadi about three
kilometers from Tomb 100. Of particular note in cemetery HK6 is Tomb 23 which
measures 5.5 meters long and 3,1 meters wide and has been dated to about 200
years earlier than Tomb 100 and is the largest tomb of this time period yet
found. It was covered by a wooden superstructure of some sort which is the
earliest indication of an above-ground tomb structure every found. Post holes
and the remnants of acacia posts survive. Around this structure was an enclosure
wall of smaller wood posts 16 meters long and 9 meters wide. The posts were
plastered and then painted red. Ivory hairpins, figurines, palettes, stone
vessels and both whole and fragmentary ceramic funerary masks have all been
found associated with this tomb. These masks appear to be the beginning of the
funerary mask tradition which developed in later eras. Within the tomb the
remains of at least 12 individuals have been identified; however, their
association with the tomb is unclear. Found within the precinct chapel was the
earliest known remnant of a stone statue – in some 600 fragments! The
expedition’s conservators have found several joins, which indicate that the
figure may be similar to gold covered statuettes found at Tell el Farkha.
Objects deposited with the statue were more or less in place or found nearby.
They include pressure flaked flint animals, arrow heads, and a neck vertebra
displaying definite signs of decapitation. Dr. Friedman speculated that the tomb
may have belonged to an early ruler.
North of Tomb 23 are more large tombs, particularly Tomb 26. When work began
here, it was clear that the tomb had been badly plundered. Nonetheless, a number
of interesting and exotic fragmentary artifacts, including a nearly intact
calcite scorpion were found within it. South and east of the tombs were
structures in the form of hypostyle halls. They appear to have been wooden
prototypes of the Heb Sed chapels built by King Djoser at Saqqara early in the
Pharaonic era. One of these large columned halls (structure 07) had 24 wooden
columns. Found near one corner of this structure were quantities of fragments of
ostrich egg shells (whole eggs are rare), which seem to comprise 5 complete
eggs. This is the largest concentration of ostrich egg shells from the
Pre-Dynastic period found anywhere. In the southeast corner were all sorts of
items: an ivory wand with a hippo carved in profile atop it, a large collection
of natural and rounded pebbles made of local and imported materials such as
garnet, a quantity of hollow based arrow heads, and a pressure flaked flint ibex
figure, much like one found in T23, but smaller. A malachite/basalt falcon
figure is the earliest falcon image ever discovered in Egypt. Figures of falcons
only became common in the 1st Dynasty where they had elite connotations.
Another columned hall, Structure E8 is the most architecturally impressive
structure at the site. It was built with columns made of the trunks of large
acacia trees and can be dated to 3700BC. As with other structures there were
artifacts buried in the corners, including 60 projectile points, flint knives,
ritual vessels and flint animals. In the center of the structure, was discovered
the skeletal remains of a real African elephant, which appears to have been
purposely captured. Post holes in the floor of the tomb show that some of the
posts from the columned hall had been removed specifically to accommodate the
burial of the elephant at a later date, though how much later is still unknown.
The expedition team thought at first that these structures were associated with
Tomb 23 but the evidence of reuse and modifications, such as that to insert the
elephant burial brought more questions. Were they part of a single tomb
precinct, or even a ritual precinct in and of itself? Further evidence of the
ritual function of the precinct were the skeleton of a baby baboon and the
remains of 9 dogs, and right next door a circular pit containing 6 cats (whether
they were wild or domesticated is unknown). The remains of wild animals found in
other burials in the HK6 cemetery show that the animals had sustained injuries
in life, and had been nursed back to health before being sacrificed which
attests to some experimentation with animal taming
Cemetery HK6, in fact, revealed a variety of animal burials, some of which seem
to have been placed at spots which mark the corners of burial complexes. Perhaps
they acted as spiritual protectors and guardians.
Excavations in 2008 revealed that the precinct has a longer and more complex
history than originally believed. At least two phases of columned halls are
clear, with the earlier phase buildings demolished to make way for later and
more elaborate buildings. The buildings seem to have been funerary temples and a
new one may possibly have been constructed about once a generation. No
sub-structures or burial shafts were present in these columned halls until Tomb
23 was constructed. Tomb 23 may therefore represent the combination of tomb and
temple. Although the columned halls were made entirely of wood, they were meant
Adjacent to these structures, beer jars and bread pots of the 3rd Dynasty were
found indicating that offerings of bread and beer were being made at the site in
that period. The pits for heating the bread jars were carefully located and
constructed so as not to impinge on these apparently sacred structures. The
presence of such artifacts implies that these wooden columned halls were still
extant in some form and still in use some 1000 years after they were built. This
surprising activity in the 3rd Dynasty presents the exciting possibility that
the wooden architecture imitated in stone at the Step Pyramid of Djoser at
Saqqara may be modeled on the ancient wooden halls at Hierakonpolis and the
memory of their predynastic owners was still venerated.
Also at the site is a large mud-brick enclosure which is known as the Enclosure
of Khasekhemwy. It is the oldest, preserved, free standing, monumental structure
made of sun dried mud brick in the world. It has a footprint of 75 meters square
and the walls are preserved in places to a height of 9 meters. The external
walls were decorated with pilasters which were coated with white gypsum plaster
Although it is called a Fort as it was first described over 100 years ago, it
has no military function. It is similar to the mud brick funerary enclosures
built by the early dynastic kings at Abydos. Khasekhemwy also built an enormous
mud brick enclosure at Abydos, so why did he build one at Hierakonpolis too?
During the second half of Dynasty 2, after a period of political instability,
Khasekhemwy’s reign seems to have “represented a return to religious, and
perhaps political, normality” (Shaw & Nicholson 1995, p.150) , so it may have
been a first try at a funerary enclosure that was abandoned. However, the
Hierakonpolis enclosure differs from those at Abydos in many ways, so the memory
of the souls of Nekhen may have been one of the reasons for its construction.
Dating to the middle of this king’s reign, it may have alternatively been built
to celebrate the king’s jubilee. It may have been the site where the king
expanded his name from Khasekhem to Khasekhemwy, after he succeeded in
normalizing the country.
The enclosure was built on top of a Pre-Dynastic cemetery, many tombs of which
were excavated by early excavators – who failed to publish their work. Garstang
worked here in 1905 finding over 160 graves. He also excavated beneath the walls
but failed to back fill the excavated tombs, thus undercutting the support of
the walls. Lansing excavated more Pre-Dynastic burials outside the enclosure,
lowering the ground level and subjecting the walls to subsidence, thus weakening
their foundations. Again no back-filling was done to ensure the stability of the
Dr. Friedman’s expedition has found, through careful study of the construction,
that the walls were built in two distinct construction phases. During the second
phase, six rows of bricks were added to the exterior surface of the original
wall, and five rows were added to the interior; however, these phase 2 walls are
not bonded to the original walls in any way so are very vulnerable. With a grant
from the World Monuments Fund and generous help from the Friends of Nekhen, Dr.
Friedman and her team have begun work to stabilize the remaining walls. They
have raised the ground level up to 2 meters around all wall foundations, and
have reconstructed sections of the wall in danger of collapse, using purpose
made mud-bricks stamped with the expedition’s name. To date, work has been
concentrated on the corners whose absence meant that the rest of the walls were
in danger of collapsing. Now work is going on to fill the excavations and gaps
resulting from brick fall with new mud brick.
Hierakonpolis is the oldest, Pre-Dynastic site still in existence along the
Nile. Its preservation is critically important to our understanding of the
formation of the Egyptian state and the Pre-Dynastic period itself. If you would
like more information about this site and Dr. Friedman’s work, go to:
www.hierakonpolis.org where you will
find back issues of the Friends of Nekhen newsletter.
www.archaeology.org for interactive digs
firstname.lastname@example.org to join
the Friends of Nekhen and support the excavations.
—Nancy Corbin and Renee Friedman