Home | Archaeology Magazine | More Digs | AIA
Archaeology's Interactive Dig
November 2002-April 2009Excavating Hierakonpolis
Going to work in the Great Wadi, where the elite cemetery is located. The hill on the right contains decorated rock-cut tombs of the New Kingdom.
Tomb 2 is the earliest known rock-cut tomb in Egypt. The portcullis stone that sealed the side chamber is visible on the right.
Above, the nose and ear of the limestone statue found near Tomb 23 and a beautiful flint ibex found in the Tomb 23 funerary complex.
A reconstruction of the funerary complex around Tomb 23, the largest tomb of the period around 3700 B.C. yet known, and the first to have a substantial superstructure.
All photos courtesy of the Hierakonpolis Expedition. Click on images for larger versions.
by Renée Friedman

The Elite Cemetery

During the last weeks of our work in the temple (HK29A) we received the distressing news of disturbances in the the cemetery at locality HK6. This cemetery, where the elite segment of the population was buried, is about 2 km from the temple and the main part of the predynastic town in the Great Wadi that runs through the center of Hierakonpolis. Mike Hoffman first investigated this cemetery in the 1980s and uncovered large mud-brick lined tombs of the Protodynastic and early Dynasty 1 (3200-3000 B.C.) and clear evidence of their substantial superstructures. Although the tombs were extensively plundered, he also recovered some expensive and exotic grave goods, which showed that even after the center of power had shifted first to Abydos and then to Memphis, the princes of Hierakonpolis were still able to access imported goods like lapis lazuli, gold, and silver, which were fashioned into beads, as well as obsidian and rock crystal for beautiful blades. He also examined the earliest known rock-cut tomb complete with side chamber closed by a stone portcullis (Tomb 2), which has architectural parallels among the tombs of the Nubian A-group royal elite (see Nubians). Around this tomb, although they are not necessarily associated with it, were found a number of animal burials--dogs, cattle, and baboons (see Weird Animals), and even seashells. Construction of the tomb--6.25 m long, 2.10 m wide, and some 3.5 m deep (over 2.10m of it cut through stone)--was a massive effort. Unfortunately, it was found stripped clean and its owner remains anonymous.

From 1997 to 2000, Barbara Adams resumed work in this cemetery and much to her surprise found rich elite burials of a much earlier age--the Nagada IIab period, about 3700 B.C. Her work revealed more elite tombs (Tombs 13-23), including one of a juvenile elephant as well as that of an aurochs, or large wild bovid, buried in human fashion with matting covering the body, pottery, and a human figurine. In addition, parts of four amazing ceramic masks, the earliest funerary masks in Egypt were also discovered. In the 2000 season came the even more sensational discovery of fragments of a limestone statue that, if the dating of about 3600 B.C. is correct, is the first life-sized three-dimensional human depiction known from Egypt. The recognizable fragments of the statue include a nose and parts of two ears, which makes a nice change as these are the parts that are usually missing! Although thoroughly and deliberately shattered, from the over 500 fragments it appears that the statue was bearded and may have been seated. This statue was found near Tomb 23, possibly the largest grave of the Nagada IIb period yet known. The tomb was surrounded by a large, rectangular, wooden post and mat fence enclosure that presages the architecture later constructed in mud brick and is the earliest evidence of a funerary enclosure in Egypt.

Barbara Adams and one of the remarkable ceramic masks from the elite cemetery. The masks are the earliest funerary masks in Egypt.

Barbara was able only to excavate a portion of this large and complex tomb and its surroundings before her untimely death, so when we heard about looting activities in the cemetery, we were extremely concerned and immediately set out to assess the damage. Although upsetting, it was not as bad as we feared, nevertheless, the disturbance beside Tomb 23 was distressing and we decided to cut short our time at the temple and launch rescue excavations at the cemetery.

Previous pageNext page

InteractiveDig is produced by ARCHAEOLOGY Magazine
© 2009 Archaeological Institute of America

Home | Archaeology Magazine | More Digs | AIA