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November 2002-April 2009Excavating Hierakonpolis

The skeleton of the wild cat from Tomb 12 in the elite cemetery (HK6) and its domesticated descendant.



Baboons were also buried in the elite cemetery (HK6). Characteristics of the skulls made it possible to identify them as from anubis baboons. Many of the baboons from Tomb 12 had pathologies, including fractures of the jaw, limbs, and the hands. These injuries could only have healed in a protected environment.

All photos courtesy of the Hierakonpolis Expedition. Click on images for larger versions.
by Veerle Linseele

Weird Animals from the Elite Cemetery

Last season the remains from the unique animal burials found at the elite cemetery (HK6), were restudied in preparation for a detailed report on their contents. The burial of animals alone or with humans is known from other predynastic cemeteries, but it is not especially common. At other sites the buried animals include dogs, sheep, and goats, but no other site has the range of exotic animals of Hierakonpolis. Among the many questions this material presents is: Were these animals--baboons, wild cats, and even elephants--pets or part of a royal zoo? Were they captured in an attempt to domesticate them? To answer some of these questions a detailed examination was carried out. The fauna was systematically identified, inventoried, and measured. Observations were made on the pathologies of the specimens and the minimum number of individuals represented by the remains was calculated. These new analyses added important information to what was previously known about the fauna from the elite cemetery.

For example, Tomb 12, excavated in 1982, had been described as a semi-intact burial of four baboons. In fact, during re-analysis we found the remains of at least seven! In addition, a well-preserved skeleton of a very young hippopotamus and a young cat were found in the same tomb, but these had not been mentioned in the earlier faunal reports. In these reports, the baboons were described as hamadryas baboons, which in the past may have lived in the Red Sea mountains. The anubis baboon is another species that may have occurred in Egypt during predynastic times and, taking its modern distribution and habitat requirements into account, it may have lived in the Nile Valley of Upper Egypt. It was therefore not surprising that the specimens from Tomb 12, and two skulls found near Tomb 2 are actually anubis baboons, a species that may have been easier to obtain than the hamadryas. Although it is not possible to distinguish the two species from the long bones, the skull and mandibles have a few morphological characteristics, that allowed us to make this precise identification.

Some of the baboons showed severe fractures (in one instance a lower jaw) that could only have healed in a protected environment. The most common pathologies observed among the baboons are fractures on the hand and foot bones that must have resulted from capture or from the conditions in captivity. It appears that at least four of the seven baboons suffered from a fractured hindfoot and at least five had a fractured forefoot. The healed nature of these fractures indicates that the animals must have lived at least four to six weeks in captivity after the trauma occurred and probably longer.

This season, the faunal analysis of the animal bones excavated at the temple complex (HK29A) took up most of our time but we unpacked the baboons from the elite cemetery once again to do some more analyses. This time we were mostly interested in the information their teeth could give us. Teeth wear down as an animal gets older and this causes different enamel patterns on the biting surface depending on age. The study of tooth wear patterns allowed us to determine that all baboons were between 8 and 12 years old when they died. In modern times, baboons often live up to 30 years of age in captivity.

The week before we left for Hierakonpolis, a specialist in primates, Gildas Merceron, visited the Africa Museum in Belgium, where we work, to do research on our collection of primate skulls. He is also studying baboon teeth to gather more information on their diet. From the analysis of microscopic traces on their teeth he can tell what they ate just before they died because hard particles in different types of food produce distinct types of traces. This kind of research is called microwear analysis. Merceron agreed to take a look at the baboon teeth from Hierakonpolis for us as we are very interested in what these animals may have been fed. This may provide clues as to how they came to be buried in this elite cemetery. In reality he does not study the teeth themselves but replicas of them. This meant that we "simply" had to bring back molds of each tooth for him. He provided us with detailed instructions and we quickly gathered up the equipment required and a little bit extra just in case is wasn't as easy as it sounded. In fact, it didn't sound easy at all!

[image] [image]
Left, Veerle applies the blue goo to the baboon teeth. Right, close up of the blue goo.

Before the molds could be made, the teeth had to be cleaned. This was done with cotton wool and alcohol. Other cleaning instruments, like toothbrushes, were strictly forbidden, as these would produce new marks on the teeth. Once dry, dental alginate, a molding agent, more commonly known among the Hierakonpolis staff as "blue goo" because of its bright blue color, was applied to each tooth, one at a time. After a few minutes the alginate was dry and could easily be removed without damaging the teeth. They were then carefully wrapped in foil and labeled. Time consuming, but not as difficult as initially imagined; despite our director's (Renée) agitation (read: utter fear) that the puddle of blue goo would damage this fragile archaeological evidence, the teeth emerged clean and unscathed. The molds popped off with ease when dry. It was so easy, for every tooth two molds were made this way. The molds are now on their way to the microwear analyst and we are all very anxious to hear what kind of traces he will find!


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