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“New Discoveries at Hierakonpolis” Renee Friedman (EEG Meeting Talk)

On Sunday Renee Friedman came to the Essex Egyptology Group to talk about the latest discoveries she and her team have been making at the site of Hierakonpolis. First she put the site itself into context. It was an important pre-dynastic Egyptian city, situated just north of modern Edfu, called Nekhen (and later Hierakonpolis by the Greeks). It’s perhaps best known as the site where the Narmer Palette (now in the Cairo Museum) was found, as well as the Scorpion Macehead and the ivories of the “Main Deposit” (which are now in the Ashmolean Museum). By the time of the unification of Egypt (which the Narmer Palette is thought to commemorate) it was already a thriving and important city and the cult centre of the god Horus of Nekhen. By thriving city Friedman means that there is evidence of several thousand people living on the site, in a hierarchically organised society. They have excavated several examples of what they believe to be breweries (they are definitely places that made some sort of grain based foodstuff, most probably beer but perhaps some sort of porridge). I think she said each of these breweries was capable of making around 80l of beer in a single batch which is pretty large scale production, and implies a high level of administrative organisation for the city. There are also preparation sites for fish, where the heads and scales of large Nile perch are found. The remains of the edible bits of the fish are found at a large building which seems to be a ceremonial space. So the fish needed to be caught in the Nile, brought to the preparation site and then the food taken to the place where it was to be eaten. This required a high degree of organisation, and Friedman said they have found evidence of what appears to be a system of tallys using shaped pebbles, and delivery receipts using the newly developing writing system.

More recent work at Hierakonpolis has focussed on an elite cemetery dating to around 3,500BC. In previous seasons they’ve extensively excavated a tomb complex consisting of a tomb of a high status individual in amongst the tombs of several probably retainers plus a menagerie (with animal keepers too). The secondary tombs generally contain young individuals – between their late teens and their 30s – with the exception of a dwarf who is older. This indicates that these people probably did not die of natural causes, instead they were killed to accompany the main tomb owner. The menagerie has a wide range of animals – from domesticated cattle and sheep, to big cats, elephants and crocodiles. There are signs that the non-domesticated animals were kept in captivity for a little while before slaughter. The primary tomb in the cluster also shows evidence for a wooden superstructure, perhaps with coloured plaster walls.

A short distance away from that tomb complex in the cemetery is another complex which Friedman said dates to a generation or so later than the first one, and it shows some changes in relative statuses of the elite and their retainers over that time. Prior to 2014 a group of tombs had been excavated that were the retainers and menagerie for this tomb group. Again the retainers were generally young and in the prime of life. There was also another dwarf – dwarves had special significance to the Ancient Egyptians throughout their history (c.f. the god Bes). Interestingly the dwarves in both burials suffered from one of the more rare causes of genetic dwarfism, so Friedman speculates that they are likely to be related (which makes me uneasily think they might’ve fallen into the “menagerie” category for the people of the time). There is again a menagerie, which this time shows signs of longer term captivity for the “wild” animals. For instance one burial contain a pregnant female aurochs (I think, I’m not entirely sure I remember correctly what animal it was) – this skeleton also shows signs of skeletal abnormalities that develop with long term captivity. So the animal must’ve become pregnant in captivity, perhaps indicating a breeding captive population. In this tomb complex there is no sign of a primary tomb, and this is where things stood before the 2014 season.

In early 2014 Friedman and her team began work on excavating near that tomb complex. Separated from the secondary tombs by a 4 metre corridor there was evidence of a fenced enclosure containing a pillared wooden hall much like the one in the primary tomb for the first complex. Most of the season was spent excavating the space inside this enclosure both generally investigating it and also looking for signs of a tomb. In the very last week of excavation they finally uncovered a tomb! This was the start of a rather fraught couple of days – in the first day one of the things they found was a 30cm ivory statue. By the end of the day rumours had spread about a (completely fictitious) 3m gold statue, and so the excavation site was put under guard overnight in case people came to rob it. The next day with several armed guards and officials keeping an eye on the area Friedman and her team finished excavating the tomb, managing (thankfully!) to finish the excavation without any unwelcome visitors.

There were several interesting objects found in the tomb, although not much of the remains of the occupant – just enough bones to establish that there had been a body, and its probable orientation in the grave. Friedman said that this was “stuff but no stiff” and she preferred that to the other way round 😉 The finds included that ivory statue I mentioned in the last paragraph. There was also a pot, with a lion motif on it (which is a symbol of kingship in later Egyptian history). There were three containers for yellow ochre, made out of hippopotamus tusks and some palettes with signs of having been used to grind green malachite and red ochre. As well as this there were several fine ivory combs – one of which had a donkey carved at the top, and one a hippopotamus. Friedman thinks the lack of most of the body indicates that the tomb was disturbed in predynastic times – there are also signs that the wooden superstructure was burnt down before being rebuilt. So she hypothesises that the body was removed from the tomb as an attack against the occupant personally, and his tomb burnt down – then later he returns to favour in some sense and the wooden hall is rebuilt.

This was a fascinating talk! In part this was because it was about brand new discoveries, but it was also interesting to see evidence of early steps in what becomes the Egyptian culture we know. This could be the start of the process that led to the ruler becoming not just an important person (buried in the midst of his retainers) but semi-divine (buried set apart from his retainers in a special building).