Fixing the Fort: Week 3
The bricks were drying and only a limited supply of burlap bags could be obtained (plastic weave has now replaced the tried-and-true burlap bag, but the plastic disintegrates quickly in the sun and the surfaces are too slippery to provide the strength we want to support the Fort's walls). How to make a positive impact on the Fort before our Christmas break? Well, the answer was fairly obvious just from looking around. Depressions and steep slopes surrounded the walls. By filling the holes, bringing up the ground level and grading the surface to promote water drainage it was clear that we could provide the crumbling foundations with some much needed support.
Earlier excavations of graves had severely lowered the ground level all around the structure exposing the foundation courses with unfortunate consequences. This exposure nevertheless allows us the chance to determine the level on which the Fort was built. It is now clear that the basal course of bricks, at least of the second phase of construction (we haven't managed to observe the lowest courses of the original wall yet) slopes slightly upward from east to west, making for a difference of about 80 cm in elevation over a distance of about 60 m. That is actually pretty impressive leveling. The lowest bricks appear to rest on a leveled, but natural surface for the most part, though there are areas where the level has been raised and evened out with silty soil. On the north side of the monument, the walls rest on the hard, dark-brown silts of a fossil Pleistocene Nile terrace and have a firm footing, so have experienced less erosion and destabilization, which is perhaps some compensation for having to withstand the relentless north wind. On the south side, the underlying natural soils are unconsolidated screes brought down in the distant past through the main wadi that bisects Hierakonpolis. Thus, the wall footings are much more vulnerable when undercut. In particular, the walls around the entryway on the southeast exhibited clear signs of fatigue as the unsupported lower bricks loosen and fall away. Ultimately we will want to replace these loose and detached bricks with sturdy new ones slotted into place, but there was a more immediate way to save the area and arrest decay: Put the dirt back.
||A topographic plan of the Fort illustrates of the problem of ground level. Areas in light yellow are level with the lowest course of brick; the deepening colors show ground level elevations ranging from 50 cm to 2 m below the wall footings. Luckily we really only need to level the areas directly adjacent to the walls and out from them for about 2 m. It is still plenty of work!|
Even a brief glance revealed that just about every wall in the southeast quadrant, including the entrance and the low enclosure wall that screens it, were undercut from 25 cm below the footings to over one meter. Add another 20+ cm to cover and fill the areas where the bricks have fallen away along more than 100 m of wall and you are talking about a lot of dirt.
Luckily we had some, actually quite a lot, close at hand--the spoil heaps from the earlier excavations. A large and rather unsightly heap of back dirt had been deposited by Lansing just to the east of the entrance, while more diffuse piles had been carried southward to the edge of the wadi and tipped over. Since the archival photographs showed that these spoil heaps were in fact created during the clearance of the entrance area, it seemed an excellent idea to return the dirt from whence it came. But because of the fragility of the monument, this was going to have to happen one bucket load at a time!
|The unsightly pile of dirt in front of the Fort was the back dirt from earlier excavations around the entrance. It was time to return it from whence it came! Many hands make work light.|
Thankfully many hands make work light. We didn't exactly attain Cecil B. DeMille's cast of thousands' standards, but we did have a good number of workmen who got on with the task with no complaint. Gradually the ground level around the southeast corner, the corridor between the entrance and the lower enclosure wall, and the deeply undercut eastern face of the enclosure wall rose. In addition to the benefits offered by the stomping of Richard's feet, the soil was compacted with water after each level. Lest the next sandstorm remove any evidence of the effort, a light wetting was allowed to dry to a remarkably hard surface. And then we began hauling the dirt for the next rise...
Admittedly it wasn't the most scintillating work, but every so often something interesting would catch our eye. For example, from within the spoil heap came a nearly complete red polished pot with applied handles imitating stone jars of the same shape. By form, it can be dated to the Predynastic Naqada IIC period (ca. 3300 B.C.) and it almost certainly originated from one of the burials beneath the Fort, although burials of this early date are relatively rare in the "Fort Cemetery" (most date to the following Naqada IID and later periods, up to the beginning of the First Dynasty). Today such an interesting and relatively rare vessel type, if found in context, would be an important discovery, but apparently since the pot was incomplete, in the "good old days" of archaeology, it was simply tossed on the back dirt pile.
|A pot imitating the shape of a stone vessel was found in the spoil heap.
Just about every day as we carved back the spoil piles we could count of finding more pieces of the distinctive pink granite (imported from Aswan, over 100 km away) of the carved lintel of Khasekhemwy, which Lansing discovered in this general vicinity in 1934. Although no further decorated fragments were recovered, several had a carefully smoothed face and must have been part of the carved surface. The amount of granite collected by Lansing and now by us suggests this lintel or jamb was a large piece of stone. It is a shame that it is so badly fractured, as the finished piece must have been stunning. The monolithic granite doorjamb which Khasekhemwy set up in the temple mound in the cultivation at Hierakonpolis gives some idea of what he was capable of.
||Carved granite doorjamb of Khasekhemwy from the temple mound at Hierakonpolis, discovered by Quibell in 1898.|
While these archaeological finds helped relieve some of the tedium, the last thing we really wanted to find while rapidly removing a pile of back dirt was a burial!
Quickly, the main crew was transferred to another area while we--and selected and much envied workmen--carefully excavated and recorded the burial. When a piece of a 1920s glass tumbler turned up we knew we weren't the first ones to visit the place. Probably plundered first in antiquity, the burial of this adolescent clearly had been "excavated," but was apparently found wanting. The less-than-perfect grave goods--three somewhat fragmentary rough ware (straw tempered) bowls and one complete, but commonplace, pointed jar--had been returned to the grave along with the skull, which had been placed upright in the center of the grave probably after having been examined. This would seem to be the standard way Lansing treated the finds he could not store or transport. In 1999, during our first investigations in and around the Fort, we stumbled upon a grave excavated by Lansing in which the head had been carefully replaced in the grave, though not necessarily the tomb from which it originated. Evidently, Lansing intended at some point in the future to return and collect or study the skull as he marked the grave with a sherd incised with the burial number he assigned to it (see Nekhen News vol. 11 (1999), p. 16, viewable on line at www.hierakonpolis-online.org).
|Left, recording the burial found beneath the back dirt pile. Center, the skull had been replaced in the grave, possibly meant for study at a later date. Right, pottery from the burial.|
The rest of the body, however, was left above and beside the grave, exposed to the elements and for the most part now beyond recovery. The same was the case for the adolescent found beneath the back dirt pile. Unfortunately, the number for this child's burial is unknown, although we turned over many sherds searching for it. Thus we can only assume that it and the objects with it are in their original grave.
The almost thorough lack of interest in postcranial bones in the early days of Predynastic archaeology is much to be regretted. We could have learned so much more above these people at this fascinating time in history, but the theory of the "Dynastic Race" and belief that the study of the skulls could prove it overshadowed other considerations. Things were certainly different in the "good old days."
In the early twentieth century, when knowledge about Egypt in its Predynastic phase was just beginning grow, it was generally believed that people and cultures changed only when other people's ideas and customs were imposed on them, in other words, only when invaded. As a result, the various changes that Predynastic society underwent over time were all considered evidence of the presence of people from different areas of the world and a great deal of time and energy was spent looking for the connections--similiarities in pottery styles, architecture, etc. Obviously big changes, at least to our eyes, like the birth of the Egyptian state, were also understood as something imposed from outside. To be fair, on the evidence available at that time, which was mainly from tombs, it was hard to see evidence to explain the origin of the religious, economic, and architectural traditions that flowered with the first dynasties. So, it was believed that the society before the pharaohs was so primitive that it could not have evolved into civilization without outside help in the form of a "dynastic race" of invaders coming from the Near East (though exactly where was debated). These invaders were both culturally and politically superior to the native predynastic population and swiftly established themselves as rulers of the country. To provide further evidence for this theory and to prove that they were intellectually superior as well, cranial metrology (skull measurement) was used to document a difference between the Predynastic burials found in Upper Egypt (with narrow heads) and those of their purported superiors in the Early Dynastic tombs in the Cairo area, whose skulls were broader and thus had more room for a bigger brain. The more evidence that could be obtained the better, whether one was for the theory or against it, so all archaeologists excavating Predynastic graves were very interested in skulls, intact skulls, especially at important places like Hierakonpolis. Other body parts or fragmented skulls were of no interest. Lansing was simply a child of his time.
The Dynastic Race theory eventually fell out of favor for a variety of reasons (though it still has its adherents) as excavations at places like Hierakonpolis showed how sophisticated and international Predynastic Egyptian society really was and advances in physical anthropology made it clear that human variation was too great to allow racial classifications on the basis of skull measurements alone.
Much more could have been learned about the people and life in the Predynastic Egypt if the burials had been studied completely. Not only have we lost important information on general health, nutrition, and lifestyle (hard working or not) that are encoded in the postcranial bones, but even in the head department vital data was missed by the decision to collect and concentrate on intact skulls. As often the only bones retained, these have been used for most subsequent studies, and the general lack of injury observed has led some to conclude that despite the violent imagery popular at the dawn of Egyptian civilization (and later), far from invasion, the two lands of Egypt were unified and the Egyptian state was born using entirely peaceful and diplomatic means. Yet, detailed analysis of even the most fragmented skull from our recent excavations in the "working-class" cemetery at Hierakonpolis (HK43) has revealed that Predynastic times were not necessarily peaceful ones. Some skulls were found to be fractured not by time, but by the force of a blunt object! Of course, without comparable collections we cannot say whether this is just evidence of domestic violence or being caught in the wrong neighbourhood or whether we do have evidence for the battles that ultimately led to the Unification. If we consider that Hierakonpolis would have been the victor in any regional conflict, as its size and history in general leads us to believe, just imagine how much more we might know had other the over 20,000 graves from the more than 65 cemeteries that were excavated at the turn of the previous century been examined thoroughly and not just the intact heads.
The burial was a diverting afternoon's work, but it was time to get back to work if we were going to attain our goals. In the end we were much pleased with our success. By our Christmas break, dirt had been returned to the southeast quadrant of the Fort, stabilizing the corner and perimeter wall and buying this part of the structure many more years of survival. Although we still have a long way to go before we can fill in all the gaps and level and grade all the ground surfaces, I am sure that Khasekhemwy would be pleased that his elaborate entry is now easier of access, stronger and simply better looking! Gone are the ugly scars of fallen bricks, which made the Fort look more like a dilapidated wreck than the romantic and important ruin that it really is. It isn't the most hi-tech approach, but it is clearly effective. More than that, it also shows that someone cares of this unique and always fascinating structure and will continue to do so!
We still have a long way to go, please help us and the Fort by becoming a Friend of Nekhen. Log on to www.hierakonpolis-online.org and find out more.