The more we learn about Hierakonpolis, the more likely it seems that during the Naqada II Period this ancient township was the capital of a province that reached well beyond its immediate boundaries. While it may be too early to call it a kingdom—we don’t know if the position of chieftain was hereditary or not—it was certainly headed in that direction.
Had consolidation been emphasized just a little more, and a tighter grip exercised over the northward expansion, Hierakonpolis might have become the capital of a united Egypt 500 years earlier than Narmer (Andelkovic, 2011, p. 29). As it turned out, expansionism during Naqada II was more about the gradual assimilation of Lower Egypt, and consolidation was focused on three cities rather than just one—Hierakonpolis, Naqada, and Abydos. But the roots of royalty were firmly established at Naqada II Hierakonpolis.
An Ancient Capital at Hierakonpolis—HK34 and HK29A
Although not the subject of this article, which will be primarily concerned with the mortuary cult center and elite graves located further out in the desert, we need to know a little about the town and temple that helped bring this early center of power to our attention. The savvy readers of Em Hotep surely know that Narmer’s Palette and the maceheads left by him and Scorpion at Hierakonpolis are the focal points of our knowledge about the protodynasty that took form there, but to really understand the budding royalty of Egypt, one must look to the earlier administrative center and what could well be Egypt’s earliest temple, called HK34 and HK29A, respectively.
The walled palisade of HK34 enclosed an area of about 2.5 acres and housed administrative structures that were the seat of government for Nekhen—the ancient name for Hierakonpolis—and most likely the surrounding area. As indicated above, local identities which were already beginning to form into what would become the nomes of Upper Egypt began to consolidate around the power centers of Hierakonpolis, Naqada, and Abydos during the early Naqada II Period, and by the latter part of Naqada II Abydos and Hierakonpolis were the ideological, economical, and military pre-states that formed a sort of commonwealth in Upper Egypt (Andelkovic, 2011, pp. 28-29). At Hierakonpolis, HK34 seems to have been one of the capitals of this commonwealth.
Along with the administrative buildings, HK34 provided a protected and centralized place for workshops that were producing flint tools, beads out of semiprecious stones, and vessels produced from a variety of expensive and difficult to work stone. When one finds this sort of craft specialization in Egypt, one needn’t look far to find a temple, and Nekhen was no exception. Not far away is HK29A, a ceremonial center composed of an oval courtyard measuring 45 m by 13 m, with an impressive monumental gateway on its southern side once marked by four enormous pillars. Archaeologists have discovered evidence that this temple was in use for over 500 years and underwent at least three renovations, each of which made it even grander than before (Friedman 2011, p. 35; 2003, pp. 4-5).
Trash pits that surround HK29A have provided a wealth of archaeological evidence for a temple that was home to elaborate ritual activity and splendid feasts. Full skeletons from choice livestock, very large fish, and wild animals, along with the tell-tale signs of flint knife sharpening, show that these animals were butchered on-site, and not always just for food. Some of the wild animals were crocodiles and hippos, which is itself suggestive of nascent royalty. In dynastic Egypt, royal menageries were a way pharaoh demonstrated his ability to bring the chaotic forces of nature under the orderly control of Ma’at, and sacrificing these great beasts at HK29A with some of the intricate flint knives discovered there was similarly a way of showing both religious and secular power. It was also a way of demonstrating status and wealth, which we will see was an important consideration for the elites at predynastic Nekhen.
At some point the temple at HK29A was decommissioned, possibly by Narmer, who went on to build the “modern” temple that would service his capital at Hierakonpolis. As part of the decommissioning the temple was dismantled, its mudbrick carried away, and the ritual pottery associated with it was smashed. The temple pottery consisted mainly of two types—a red matte type, and a black egg-shaped type. Black and red were important symbolic colors for Egypt, with red symbolizing death and the desert, and black symbolizing life and fertility.
These pots are important to our study because in addition to the temple in town, the ritual pottery was discovered in association with the mortuary complex out in the desert. They are also important because they seem to show that the ritual significance of red and black were already present at predynastic Hierakonpolis. Of course, black-rimmed redware was already known to Egyptian pottery as early as the Badarian times, but in this context it seems to have a clear ritual significance, rather than being purely decorative. Their presence at the mortuary center in the elite cemetery at HK6 seems to suggest that these symbolic colors of dynastic politics and religion were already alive and well in Naqada II.
With this review of “downtown” ancient Nekhen, we are now ready to hike two km up the wadi and into the desert, where the early elites of Hierakonpolis were displaying their power and wealth in grand dynastic fashion—with their tombs and mortuary temples—more than 1000 years before the pyramids, and more than 500 years before the dynasty of Narmer.
The Elite Cemetery—HK6
Although we will touch on several burials, some human others animal, we will focus mainly on two elite tombs that help us understand how burial customs were changing and what that can tell us about the social and political changes that were taking place at Hierakonpolis during the Naqada II Period. The earliest we will consider, T16, helps us see that many of the aspects of elite graves that we associate with the protodynasty at Abydos and elsewhere were already taking shape at Hierakonpolis. The other elite grave, T23, comes a generation or two later and helps us understand the significance and duration of the mortuary structures that served the elite cemetery of HK6. We will see that many of the practices, objects, and motifs that we associate with dynastic culture had their beginnings at Hierakonpolis during Naqada II.
Tomb T16 Could date to as early as the latter part of the Naqada I Period, but is included in this article rather than the previous because A) it shows a clear jump from the Naqada I sand pits to the early Naqada II proto-palaces, and B) it is just as likely that it dates from the Naqada II Period. Rather than split hairs, we will be inclusive. T16 is further obscured in time by the insertion of a mudbrick burial chamber which certainly dates from the Naqada III Period, but which appears to be more an act of reverence than usurpation (Friedman, 2011, pp. 38-9). Later renovations aside, the tomb was already large by the standards of what we have examined previously in this series—4.3 m by 2.6 m—and that is just the tomb itself, with no consideration of the surface and peripheral features which could push the T16 complex to more than 60 m by 40 m.
The tomb had what must have been an impressive superstructure (we will discuss that further below) which seems to have presented an alluring target for ancient grave robbers. T16 and the other elite graves of the HK6 cemetery were repeatedly looted before being claimed by the desert sands. But enough grave goods remain to indicate the status of not only their occupants, but the township of Nekhen itself. More than 115 pottery vessels were recovered from T16 alone, one of which bears the earliest known emblem of the goddess Bat (Friedman, 2011, p 39).
Bat is the human-faced cow goddess most familiar to us from the Narmer Palette. She becomes absorbed by Hathor in the Middle Kingdom Period, but is her own distinct and important personality even as late as the reign of Menkaure, when she is famously depicted with Hathor flanking that pharaoh in a beautiful life-sized triad statue. The depiction of Bat in association with T16, and her evocation in connection to kingship on the Narmer Palette, suggests that the evolution of the goddess and the evolution of early kingship followed a related trajectory at Hierakonpolis. But Bat isn’t the only regal first recovered from T16.
Two of the most remarkable artifacts discovered in T16, indeed, anywhere in Predynastic Egypt, were a pair of nearly-intact ceramic burial masks. Precursors to the gilded mask of Tutankhamun which dates from many centuries later, and which ranks with the bust of Nefertiti, the Great Sphinx, and the pyramids themselves as the supreme symbol of ancient Egypt, these two masks are another first that can be attributed to Hierakonpolis. Although not exclusive to kings and queens, burial masks are the funerary device par excellence for symbolizing a royal burial, apart from the tomb itself, and their appearance in T16 seems to further bolster the evidence that proto-kingship was already taking form at Hierakonpolis. Nor are they an anachronism—two more were found in T23.
Regarding the superstructure—the above-ground part—of T16 we can only guess at its original grandiosity. Later additions and subtractions have obscured its form. But archaeologists have found the remains of yet another indication of the status of its occupant, and one which again is associated more with the Protodynastic rather than Predynastic Period—subsidiary graves. Once enclosed by a network of wooden fences which may have been modeled on the palatial estates of the elite person(s) buried there, these ancillary graves contain the bodies of at least 36 people, all of them aged between 8 and 35 years of age, with two-thirds of them being young girls 8-14 years old. Although Egyptologists are cautious about using the words “human sacrifice,” Renee Friedman gives a rather grim, if clinical assessment of the evidence:
While there is nothing to prove that all the graves were created at the same time, or that all the bodies in them were interred concurrently, the fences around them could only have been erected after the graves had been dug and refilled, and the continuous foundation trench in which to bed the wooden posts indicates a single building phase. (2011, p. 39).
Human sacrifices placed in subsidiary graves was previously thought to be a short-lived practice limited to a few Early Dynastic tombs at Abydos. If we are to consider these subsidiary graves to be human sacrifices, then that tells us a few things. First, it tells us that this unpleasant practice was around, at least off and on, longer than we originally presumed. Second, it tells us that the elite person buried here was not only important enough to have associates accompany him into the afterlife, he had the power to insist they follow him now, not later. Third, it is an additional indicator that proto-royals were alive and kicking—pre-mortem, at least—at Hierakonpolis in the early Naqada II Period.
Not all of the subsidiary graves around T16 were human. Within the area associated with this elite tomb archaeologists have discovered graves of “an African elephant, a wild bull (aurochs), hartebeest, hippopotamus, three baboons, three domestic cattle (bull, cow, and calf, two large goats, twenty-seven dogs, and six cats” (Friedman, 2011, p. 39). The dogs and the cats were probably for protection and companionship, the cattle and goats for food, but the wild animals undoubtedly served a multiplicity of purposes.
Like the large carnivores sacrificed at the temple at HK29A, the elephant and other dangerous animals would have served both as protection from and a symbol of mastery over chaos. But their presence also shows the status of the tomb’s occupant. Here was an individual (or group of people) who had enough wealth and influence to cause these powerful non-local animals to be brought here and sacrificed. As we will see a little later, another elephant in the elite cemetery was probably a subject of adoration, and this one may have been as well. But the taming and sacrifice of these animals was also an example of conspicuous consumption—I am a very important person: look at what I can afford.
Another VIP was the occupant of T23, an elite grave located to the south of T16 and dating a generation or two later. Tomb T23 is large—5.5 m by 3.1 m—and we have better evidence of the sort of superstructure that must have surmounted the grave. Four postholes to each side of the grave indicate substantial effort was placed into supporting a large structure, and on the east side of the grave additional postholes show that a separate offering chapel was originally associated with the superstructure as well. The entire T23 tomb complex was once surrounded by a post fence that marks off an area of 16 m by 9 m, and taken with the superstructure and separate offering chapel, T23 is a major step toward the Palaces of Eternity we see much later in the mudbrick tombs of Abydos and the rock-cut tombs at Saqqara (Friedman, 2007).
As with T16, the intentional prominence of T23 led to the unintentional notice of grave robbers, as the tomb had been thoroughly looted during ancient times, but again, enough of the grave goods were left behind to let us know that the person buried here seems to have had royal aspirations. Ivory pins and tags of the sort found in Badarian and Naqada I graves were also recovered from T23, and miniatures such as part of a cow figurine and many stylized scorpion statuettes were found too. Pottery is not an unusual grave good by this period, but the increasing inclusion of stoneware indicates that status is becoming a more important aspect of burials.
Stoneware from this period (and later) often mimics less-expensive objects of similar shape and function. Hierakonpolis during this time was producing beer and porridge on an industrial scale, with no fewer than ten large-scale breweries being located nearby, producing an average of 100-200 gallons of product, per brewery, per day (Friedman, 2011, pp34-35). This sort of beer and food production required a good deal of side industry as well. Somebody was making the hundreds of beer jars required for storage and transport of the product, someone was milling a lot of grain, and so forth. We can deduce much about Hierakonpolis’ economy from these clues.
First and most obviously, there were specialized craftsmen working fulltime in production, and a class of elites who could hire them. And as any student of Fordian production theory can tell you, people who worked making beer jars could probably afford to buy the beer that went in them, or more accurately, were probably paid in kind, enabling them to trade their excess for other goods and services.
We also know that production on this level has to be managed, it does not just spring up organically the way in-house industry does. The higher up the chain of command you go, the further away from the actual production you get until you reach the power elites who are calling all the shots without getting their own hands dirty. At the top of the chain at Hierakonpolis during Naqada II, there must have been a few people who were able to control the production and distribution of food for a major urban area. When you get to that level of elite, you are approaching proto-royalty, if indeed, you haven’t already arrived there.
But to return to grave goods, some of the items found in Naqada II tombs were stoneware versions of utensils that were normally made out of clay. Beer jars, storage pots, and everyday bowls made out of hard and ornate stone were another way of saying “look what I can afford.” Beer stored in basalt jugs and porridge eaten from of breccia bowls probably did not taste much better than the same product consumed from clay rough ware, but it said a lot about the owner. Again, there is this sense that a few can afford to pay the many to do something other than just produce their own food and utensils. Thanks to the tastes of the elites, a sort of middle class could spend the day turning out masterpieces of stone and flint ware in exchange for the goods needed to support themselves and their families.
This sort of social diversity is not new to Hierakonpolis. As we saw in the last article, some of the not-so-wealthy citizens were being buried with ivory figurines which they probably did not make themselves, so they might either have purchased them (not likely, due to the paucity of other high-end grave goods) or they might have received them as a badge of office, which further indicates a complex division of social strata. By Naqada II, the city itself is divided into religious, administrative, industrial, and residential zones. These divisions are reflected in the elite cemetery where some people were buried with the accoutrements of elite class, while others were buried themselves as little more than property of the elites.
Before we leave T23, it is worth mentioning that even more goodies suggestive of proto-royalty were found, including another first. The remains of two more burial masks were discovered in the T23 complex, but that is not a first—that honor goes to T16. But in the offering chapel archaeologists found the remains of the earliest nearly-life-sized statue discovered in Egypt. The statue itself was smashed into hundreds of pieces, but the nose and an ear give us the scale of the original. Also in the offering chapel were two flint animal figurines, an incised ivory handle that may have been attached to a mace, arrowheads, and a single neck vertebra from a person who had been decapitated. The offerings, especially the potential for a mace and a victim of battle, again point toward an elite who was approaching royal status, given Egypt’s later iconography, which we will explore in detail in the next article of this series.
So we have seen from T16 and T23 that at least some elite graves were no longer mat-lined sandpits with a few items of ivory and pottery, maybe a flint knife, and insubstantial superstructures. The superstructures of Naqada I graves were probably limited to a small mound built over a ceiling of reed matting. By Naqada II, superstructures were large edifices that required support from posts, not at all unlike the housing we examined in the last article. The graves themselves were being filled with the accoutrements of life, and for the elites these grave goods included the same sort of conspicuous consumption they enjoyed daily. We will conclude this article by looking at another major first for Egypt—the first mortuary ritual complex.
The Ritual Precinct of HK6
When archaeologists first started turning up the pillared halls that surround the T23 complex they had a dilemma: were these structures part of that elite burial, or did they service the entire cemetery? At first the question hinged on whether or not a large enclosure wall—B7—turned a corner that would define a zone specific to T23, or continues to meander around the entire cemetery, probably in a large oval.
As excavations continued, it became clear that the wall continued well past the limits of T23, making it likely that the mortuary structures of E8, 07, and D9 were part of a mortuary temple complex that serviced all of the elites of HK6. Carbon dating which placed E8 contemporary with the earlier T16 tomb complex seems to confirm this, and a wall of posts that connects E8 with tomb complex T23 suggests that the mortuary complex remained in service at least over the span of years between those two graves, and probably much longer (Friedman, 2011, p. 41; 2008, pp 10-11).
Structure E8, just south of tomb T23, was a large (17 m by 8.5 m) chapel with six rows of acacia wood columns, making it another first—along with structure 07, it is the earliest example of the hypostyle halls that will come to define Egypt’s later monumental temples. The structure was possibly the central chapel in the HK6 cemetery and part of a complex of buildings that serviced the elites of Hierakonpolis in their transition into the afterlife. It also contains the second elephant grave, the other being associated with tomb T16 as discussed previously.
The elephant grave (T24) in the E8 chapel is made more interesting by the fact that it seems to tell the story of an elephant who was central to the rituals there, and who continued to receive offerings after its death. Analysis of the elephant’s skeleton showed evidence of the sort of strains and fractures that are consistent with its being tethered, but analysis of its abdominal remains showed that the priests of the E8 chapel invested considerable resources in keeping the animal well fed (Van Neer & Linselle, 2003, pp. 11-12).
The elephant’s grave was once the location of two of the columns which supported the chapel roof, and which were removed to allow for the elephant to be buried within the chapel itself. This shows that the chapel predates the elephant’s passing, and that it was important enough for the chapel to be renovated to accommodate its burial. Even in death it seems to have continued to receive votive offerings, including a delicate flint elephant figurine.
Votive offerings in the E8 chapel tended to be near the corners, with the elephant figurine being discovered near the northeast corner, along with arrowheads and a flint knife that was probably used in ritual. Votive offerings of arrowheads are common in the HK6 cemetery and probably had to do with protection and assuring good hunting in the afterlife. In the northwest corner 20 more arrowheads, a model knife made of soapstone, and another flint figurine of either a gazelle or a dog were discovered under plaster which had disintegrated from the chapel walls. Dogs were typically used in the iconography of this time to represent the hunt, with dogs on pottery or walls representing the human hunters themselves. The plaster has some pigmentation in it which shows that the walls inside the chapel were painted, but whether they depicted imagery, shapes, or just colored walls, we may never know.
Examples of the matte red jars and black egg-shaped jars known from the HK29A temple were also found in E8, reaffirming that this was the scene of ritual activity at least contemporary to, and possibly predating, the structures located in the town proper.
Structure 07 was the largest hypostyle hall of the funerary complex (15 m by 10.5 m) and is the best preserved of all the associated cultic buildings. Twenty-four wooden columns once towered above the floor, and along with the other funerary structures , superstructures, and chapels must have made the elite cemetery an impressive site indeed as one approached from the wadi. Offerings were made in association with the columns, but as was the case in other funerary buildings of HK6, the best offerings came from the corners.
Adding to the miniature menagerie of the elite cemetery, archaeologists discovered a soapstone hippo in the southeast corner, along with a curving wand that once had a procession of little hippos carved along its arch. One exciting find was an intact miniature of a falcon. People working dig sites in the elite cemetery had found pieces of other malachite falcons, but without an intact example, they had been unable to identify what they were. Discovering the falcon had other implications as well. Hierakonpolis was the City of Horus, but it was not known how early the association with the falcon as a totem god went back. The discovery of the falcon statuettes in the Naqada II section of the necropolis helps establish an early predynastic date for Nekhen and the falcon god (Hendrickx & Friedman, 2007, pp. 9-10).
Finding the falcons in the elite cemetery raises another interesting question: were they early signs of royalty? We modern people are familiar with the cartouche—that oval shape in which we like to see our names printed in hieroglyphs. In ancient times, the cartouche was used to identify royalty: when you saw one, you knew that the name within was Amenhotep the pharaoh, not Amenhotep the scribe. Before cartouches came along, a device called the serekh was used for the same purpose.
A serekh is a rectangular shape with a stylized representation of the niched palace façade with the king’s name represented in hieroglyph(s), surmounted by the falcon of Horus. The falcon is clearly associated with royalty from the Protodynastic Period forward. Were these malachite falcons at Hierakonpolis, placed as votive offerings within the elite tombs and funerary structures, intended to communicate an emerging royal class?
Another exciting and informative discovery in Structure 07 was a concentration of ostrich eggshells in the northeast corner. The find was exciting because it is the largest concentration of these rare and valuable eggshells in any predynastic site and attests to the importance of this site not just as a cemetery, but as a cultic center. From the amount of shell fragments and the presence of blowholes, no less than six complete eggs were once buried there (Friedman, 2011, p. 41). The discovery was informative because at least one of the eggshells had been inscribed with hunting scenes which, known also from pottery of the period, was the same iconic imagery that can be found on the walls of the slightly-later Painted Tomb (T100) and which becomes strongly associated with elite and royal burials.
The last funerary structure from HK6 we will consider is Structure D9, a somewhat smaller colonnaded hall consisting of walls supported by closely-spaced posts with two rows of larger columns running down the center. Like the other funerary structures, D9 had votive offerings located near the corners, including objects of ivory. Near the southeast corner was a collection of 36 Nerita shells from the Red Sea, which gives evidence of contact and trade reaching to the far edge of the Eastern Desert. It was also noted that there was none of the ritual red and black pottery that was discovered in Structure E8, which seems to indicate that different buildings were the location of different types of ritual activity, adding to the complexity of the site overall.
When taken together, the votive offerings of the falcons and the eggshells with hunting scenes indicate an elite class at Hierakonpolis during the Naqada II Period that is already gathering around itself the accoutrements which in a few more centuries will indisputably indicate royalty. The question is: does it indicate a class of elites who may be called royal at this early date? Considering the subsidiary graves of people and rare wild beasts, the conspicuous consumption indicated by grave goods and the structures of the graves themselves, it seems that the answer may hinge more on what constitutes a dynasty—is a dynasty, strictly speaking, a hereditary chieftain, or is it a class of associated individuals who, from their concentration of control over such things as food production and craft specialization, are able to maintain power beyond the passing of an individual chief?
Common Graves During Naqada II
As interesting as these elite graves and the funerary structures that serviced them might be, we still need to consider the plight of the common dead. How were they buried? The common person was still buried in an oval or rectangular pit dug into the desert sand, with rectangular burials becoming increasingly popular. Wolfram Grajetzki notes that this parallels the development form round huts to rectangular houses in the settlement zones (2003, p. 4).
Grave goods continued to be of the sort found in Naqada I graves, with a tendency toward more grave goods, and less expensive examples of the sort of goods found in elite graves. For instance, rather than having a porphyry beer jug, a common grave might have an actual clay beer jug. Grave goods will increasingly reflect social class, which usually means little change for the commoner, with more elaborate and varied grave goods being reserved for the elites. What grave goods there were in commoner graves were placed with the smaller goods near the head and the larger pots and such near the feet.
In the next article of this series we will resume with the twilight of the Predynastic Period—Naqada III—and jump headlong into the Protodynasty, when we will see the undeniable royalty of Dynasty Zero, although I personally believe the case has been made for a protodynasty much earlier at Hierakonpolis. As stated above, I think that when the Protodynastic period begins depends on how you define a dynasty, but for now we will stick close to tradition, if for no better reason than to avoid confusion. But don’t be surprised when the history books are rewritten to reflect the work being done by Egyptologists at Hierakonpolis.
Andelkovic, B. (2011). Political organization of Egypt in the Predynastic Period. In E. Teeter (Ed.), Before the pyramids. Chicago: University of Chicago.
Friedman, R. (2011). Hierakonpolis. In E. Teeter (Ed.), Before the pyramids. Chicago: University of Chicago.
(2008). Remembering the ancestors: HK6 in 2008. Nekhen News, vol. 20, pp. 10-11.
(2007). Field note 6 – the early kings of Hierakonpolis. Archaeology’s Interactive Dig, online.
(2003). Return to the temple: Excavations at HK29A. Nekhen News, vol. 15, pp. 4-5.
Grajetzki, W. (2003). Burial customs in ancient Egypt: Life and death for rich and poor. London: Duckworth.
Hendrickx, S, & Friedman, R. (2007). The falcon has landed: falcons in “the City of the Falcon”. Nekhen News, vol. 19, p. 9.
Van Neer, W, & Linselle, V. (2003). A second elephant at HK6. Nekhen News, vol. 15, pp. 11-12.
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