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Excavations at Hierakonpolis

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 to last.

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 when new.

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 walls.

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: where you will find back issues of the Friends of Nekhen newsletter. for interactive digs at Hierakonpolis to join the Friends of Nekhen and support the excavations.

—Nancy Corbin and Renee Friedman