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November 2002-April 2009Excavating Hierakonpolis
Dr. Ahmed and his microscope. The organic content of the pelvic matter was visible to the eye, but was much more informative under the microscope.
The dried remains of Ceruana. The twisted fragment may be part of a garland.
Posts supporting a superstructure over the elephant burial were made from the acacia tree.
All photos courtesy of the Hierakonpolis Expedition. Click on images for larger versions.
by Dr. Ahmed Gamal Fahmy (Helwan University)

The Elephant's Final Meal

Even before it was placed under the microscope, one could see the organic matter collected from the elephant's pelvic region was full of plant remains. Microscopic examination revealed these to be the digested remains mainly of a rushy plant called Juncus, identified by the shape of its epidermal cells, which still grows in marshes and along water courses in Egypt today. In Predynastic times it was apparently very common and was used to make mats, rope, and baskets. The mats that covered the roof of the elephant's burial were also made of this plant, but unlike the material found in the pelvis, the matting was desiccated only and not charred by exposure to the digestive fluids and other decompositional juices and micro-organisms. The difference between plant remains that had been charred and those that had simply been dried allowed me to determine what had once lain on the floor of the grave and what had been above it, even though the archaeological context was quite disturbed.

Another water-loving species, Ceruana pratensis, was also found within the pelvic contents in a charred and digested state, while the stems and flowers of the same plant were recovered dessicated only, indicating they had come from a higher level in the original arrangement of the grave. Unfortunately, Ceruana is one of the threatened taxa in the flora of Egypt today, but in Predynastic times it was very common. The chance survival of one small remnant with twisted stems revealed the purpose of this plant in the tomb contents. They had been twisted into a garland that must have been laid upon the roof or upper levels of the tomb. Such a discovery does suggest that the tomb was visible and marked with some sort of superstructure, making use of the large wooden posts placed within the four post holes. The wood from the two remaining posts comes from the Acacia nilotica. The recovery of bark fragments indicates that entire tree trunks were used. The use of this species is of no great surprise. Of the many species of acacia found in Predynastic Egypt, only the Acacia nilotica grows a single trunk of substantial diameter, rather than several thinner trunks. It can also grow to be 10 meters (33 feet) high and its usage at HK6 suggests that it was common in the wadis at that time.

A more intriguing question is whether Juncus and Ceruana were also common in the wadi, suggesting a moister environment and seasonal rains, or was the elephant kept near the river, perhaps by the king's residence itself. Given that an elephant of 10-11 years of age requires about 50 kilos (110 pounds) of fodder a day, it is perhaps not surprising that cultivated plants such as wheat and barley were not used to feed it. However the gathering of such large quantities marsh plants would not have been an easy task either, unless the elephant was allowed to roam freely, perhaps within its own special precinct.

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