Setting the Scene
Hierakonpolis in Upper Egypt–ancient Nekhen and city of the Hawk–is a vast archaeological site. Stretching for 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) along the desert fringe of the cultivated Nile floodplain and extending for another 2 kilometers (1.25 miles) back into the low desert up the Wadi Abu Suffian, it contains a wealth of remains dating to the Egyptian Predynastic period (ca. 4000-3100 B.C.), for which it is deservedly famous.
These include Egypt’s oldest preserved house–that of the potter who accidentally burnt his house down with his own kiln; Egypt’s earliest industrial-strength breweries, with huge vats capable of brewing over 300 gallons a day; and Egypt’s first temple (see Narmer’s Temple). Recent fieldwork has also revealed, among other things, Egypt’s first mummies, its oldest funerary masks for use by the ruling elite, and the burials of exotic animals, including two adolescent elephants!
These discoveries are taking the history of Hierakonpolis and the development of Egyptian civilization farther back in time than we ever initially imagined, but the site has a number of important Dynastic features. These have unjustly been overshadowed, yet they are in many ways unique and their study is contributing significantly to the understanding of many of the more shadowy aspects and periods of ancient Egyptian history.
There is for example the ceremonial enclosure of Khasekhemwy–Hierakonpolis’ only standing monument (see www.hierakonpolis-online.org). Built entirely of sun-dried mud brick, with walls 5 meters (16.4 feet) thick and still preserved in places to its original imposing height of 9 meters (29.5 feet), it is the oldest freestanding mud-brick structure in the world. For the third time, it has been listed with the World Monument Fund as one of the world’s 100 most endangered monuments (see www.wmf.org). Decorated on its exterior with a pattern of recessed paneling or niches and originally plastered white, it must have been a striking sight in its time. Almost 5,000 years later, it stands as a testament to the abilities of its builder, King Khasekhemwy, the last ruler of the Second Dynasty (ca. 2686 B.C.), but the reasons for which it was built remain a mystery.
Carved into a ridge of sandstone due west of the enclosure are the decorated stone-cut tombs of the local dignitaries of the late Old Kingdom to Second Intermediate period. Already of historical significance, new discoveries across the river at El Kab are revealing just how important these rare tombs really are–but more on that later….
In addition to these Egyptian monuments, there are also cemeteries that display distinctly non-Egyptian attributes. Surface surveys undertaken across the site by Michael Hoffman in 1978 and Fred Harlan in 1983 revealed the presence of three discrete cemeteries with Nubian cultural traits apparently dating to the Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate period (ca. 1800-1500 B.C.). These had never been investigated, so in January-March 2001 we decided to take a walk on the historic side and conduct test excavations at each of these localities. Initially we thought all three belonged to the mysterious Pan Grave culture, which was first identified in 1910 by Flinders Petrie, who is also famous as the father of Egyptian prehistory. At the site of Hu near Abydos, while undertaking important Predynastic excavations, he also found two cemeteries of these strange people, previously mistaken for Predynastic as they also used blacktopped pottery. He coined the name Pan Grave because of the shallow, round burials, which he thought looked like frying pans–as indeed they sometimes do!
||A highlight of the 2001 season was recovering an intact bracelet.
Subsequently, Pan Grave cemeteries were found at a number of sites in Egypt, and their distinctive pottery has a wide distribution throughout Egypt, Sudan, and into Ethiopia; yet these people remain a mystery. It is not quite clear who they were, although it does seem that they are a semi-nomadic Nubian people, who can be equated with the people the ancient Egyptians called the Medjay–fierce Nubian bowmen who served as mercenary soldiers in the war of liberation against the Hyksos in the Second Intermediate period. The name Medjay is later in the New Kingdom given to the desert police, although it does not appear to have an ethnic connotation at that time.
Test excavations at two of the cemeteries (HK47 and HK21a), situated on opposite borders of the site as guardians of the desert access routes, revealed unmistakable evidence of the Pan Grave culture, including their distinctive frying pan-shaped graves (but also some much deeper), characteristic jewelry, and the tools of their trade: bows, bowstrings, and arrows, remarkably with the feathers still intact!
Originally thought to be yet another Pan Grave cemetery, HK27, in the center of the site, proved upon excavation to belong to the Nubian C-Group culture. This cemetery is located about 100 meters (328 feet) northwest of the Enclosure of Khasekhemwy. Considering that the Nubian C-Group was previously known only from the area of the First Cataract at Aswan (approximately 110km/60 miles south of Hierakonpolis) and southward from there, this was a big surprise! Together, the three cemeteries attest a formidable Nubian presence at Hierakonpolis in the Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period, which given the area’s prominence in the latter period presented us with intriguing questions about the site, its relations with the south lands, and the political and economic situation prior to the New Kingdom.
The cultures of Lower Nubia (the area between the First and Second cataract of the Nile, i.e., from Aswan to Wadi Halfa) were first named in 1907 during the initial year of what is now called the First Nubian Survey, the world’s first organized salvage campaign, which was made necessary by the building of the First (Low) Aswan dam. It’s director, the American Egyptologist George Andrew Reisner named the new non-Egyptian cultures that he encountered with letters, a scheme that is still in use today:
- A-Group = Egyptian Predynastic (Naqada I-III) to about Dynasty 3, when Egyptian interests in the natural and trade resources of the area appears to have lead to a general depopulation of the region.
- B-Group = A controversial period that originally was believed to be an impoverished stage during the Old Kingdom, but may actually be the very first stages of the A Group, or a mixture of both.
- C-Group = Late Old Kingdom to early New Kingdom. (This was followed by a period of Egyptian, Kushite, Ptolemaic, and Roman domination.)
- X-Group = Byzantine period
The second Nubian campaign of 1959-1969, which preceded the activation of the Aswan High Dam and the creation of Lake Nasser, put meat on the bones, but did not substantially change the understanding of the inhabitants and history of Lower Nubia. A student of his times, Reisner believed that all cultural change was the result of incursions by new people bringing with them new ideas. As a result, the C-Group has long been considered a mysterious Nubian culture of uncertain origins. It seems likely however, that it represents the re-emergence of the indigenous (A-Group) people after they had adapted to and negotiated various influences from the surrounding areas, the most notable being Egypt on one side, with their string of 17 formidable fortresses placed along the length of Lower Nubia for the purpose of controlling this native population, while on the other side was the equally powerful and ambitious Kingdom of Kush centered at Kerma near the Third Cataract. Living in the buffer zone between these two central powers must not have been an easy, but the C-Group people tenaciously clung to their distinct cultural identity for nearly 800 years, well into the Egyptian 18th Dynasty, when they disappear or become so Egyptianized that their burials are no long distinguishable. This Egyptianization is a process that can be traced throughout their history, and their burials have actually been dated by the degree to which they reflect Egyptian traits. They appear in Egyptian documents as soldiers in the First Intermediate period and Middle Kingdom, and ones well paid enough to afford Egyptian stela for their graves, but actual archaeological evidence for their distinct culture has only been found in Egypt with certainty at Aswan and Kubbaniya, a site only 20 km/12.4 miles to the north.
|A troop of Nubian archers probably in the employ of Prince Mesehti at Assiut in whose tomb this model was found. Dynasty XI. (Now in the Cairo Museum.)
It has thus been assumed that although other Nubian peoples like the Pan Grave had apparently fairly free access or at least invitations to Egypt, the C-Group Nubians did not. Some have suggested they were boycotting to protest Egyptian imperialism, but our work at Hierakonpolis has clearly shown this not to be the case.
The C-Group cemetery at Hierakonpolis, the northernmost occurrence of this culture in Egypt, is also one of the last remaining cemeteries of its type. The others are now beneath the waters of Lake Nasser. Our discovery is not only a remarkable surprise, but a precious resource that may hold the key to many still unanswered–and long considered unanswerable–questions. We were understandably anxious to return!
The cemetery at HK27c is located on a low but prominent rise behind the Enclosure of Khasekhemwy and near the hills housing the decorated rock cut tombs. Unlike the Pan Graves on the outskirts of the site, this cemetery is in a place of some prestige.
In our first season (2001), we excavated seven graves in the short time available. Our test square (10x10m) turned out to be on the northeastern edge of the cemetery. Most of the graves were the typical Nubian rectangular shape with one rounded end, approximately 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) long and 50 centimeters (1.6 feet) deep. The bodies were buried in the traditional contracted position on their right sides with their heads to the north (or east by river orientation). At this time, Egyptians were buried in an extended position either on their backs or sides.
Among the burials of this traditional type, we also discovered two long rectangular graves with wooden coffins. Cuttings were made in the grave floors to accommodate the external wooden cross planks of the coffins and fragments of degraded wood. We found some still covered with white plaster in these furrows. Both were completely plundered, so we have no evidence to determine whether this Egyptian style of burial also included a change in the position of the body in the coffin (in the traditional contracted position or the extended Egyptian position).
Despite this Egyptian influence, the amount of stone strewn throughout the area suggests that a traditional Nubian tumulus, a ring of dry laid stone masonry often rubble or sand filled, covered most of the graves. In contrast to Egyptian customs, these superstructures were the focus for offerings to the deceased, generally pottery, placed on the ground at the head end of the graves or nestled in the rocks of the tumulus. Several of these offering places were found remarkably intact, with the pots still rim down just as they had been deposited covering the libation.
At least one distinctive hand-made Nubian pot was found in almost every offering place. The typical Nubian black-topped bowls were, the most common were, but we also recovered a fragment of blackware incised with white-paste triangles and parts of a small “milk-jar” with an incised cow and calf (another diagnostic pottery type in Nubia). Egyptian pottery was also included in these deposits above ground as well as within the grave. Among them was a wheel-made Egyptian bowl painted black and red to imitate a C-Group black-topped vessel. Evidently the presence of Nubian pottery, perhaps especially black-topped bowls, was of great importance to C-Group funerary ritual–if a real one could not be procured, an imitation would have to do.
Also of Egyptian manufacture is the beautiful glazed steatite scarab inscribed with a knot design typical of the late Middle Kingdom (mid to late Dynasty 13) unearthed on the very first day of the 2001 excavations. We found this scarab in conjunction with ostrich eggshell and faience beads still on their original string providing us with evidence for the original stringing pattern of a bracelet belonging to a teenager (13-15 years of age).
The cemetery’s size and the orderly east-west arrangement of the graves suggested to us that there might be over 100 graves here, indicating a sizeable population of Nubians at Hierakonpolis. Even after severe plundering, the objects we found show that these people had access to a certain level of wealth. They were able to afford wooden coffins, scarabs, and so forth, yet they retained their Nubian burial practices and ceramic technology. It seems unlikely that they were slaves or domestic servants, but who were they? And what are they doing at Hierakonpolis? These are some of the tantalizing questions that in November 2003, with the assistance of a grant from the Michela Schiff-Giorgini Foundation, we returned to the cemetery to try to answer.