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November 2002-April 2009Excavating Hierakonpolis
The Red Mound, the original Kom el Ahmar, and the site of the new excavations to the left
Hierakonpolis field-school students from the University of Illinois visiting Giza. Clockwise from the Sphinx: Kyle Mullen, Rebecca Chan, Emily Henkels, Melissa Curfman, Elena Madaj
Students mapping in the "Pink Rag Site" prior to excavation
The sherd "wall" emerges.
Platform and postholes on the west side of the sherd wall
Work continuing on the east side of the wall reveals the interior of the structure, but what was its function?
Mapping the structural remains. The interior showed evidence of much burning reflected in swathes of fire-reddened earth and areas of black-and-gray ash.
Decorated sherds recovered from HK24B
Digging it together

All photos courtesy of the Hierakonpolis Expedition unless otherwise noted. Click on images for larger versions.
by Jeremy Geller, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

2007 Field Note 1 - Introduction


Vat Site at HK24A in 1989

Over the years since my field participation in the Hierakonpolis Project, from 1978 to 1992, I've stayed in touch with Renée and others to keep up with doings on the site. I changed careers more than a decade ago to education abroad, mainly sending American university students to study overseas and receiving exchange students.

My career in archaeology and, for that matter, my experience in education abroad, began with Hierakonpolis, as an undergraduate. During the 1978 season, I first worked on the desert Predynastic excavations with Mike Hoffman, which that year yielded the "kiln" and burnt "Potter's House" at HK29, which dates to around 3600 B.C., the early Nagada II period (see www.hierakonpolis-online.org/site/hk29.html). I became interested in pottery production, and some years later, in search of pottery kilns, turned up a brewery instead at HK24A, a site near the edge of the cultivation, almost within the shadow of the Fort. Nearby is a large mound of pottery fragments and fire-reddened mud, which was the original Kom el Ahmar, or "Red Mound," from which the entire site of ancient Hierakonpolis received its modern Arabic name. It was here in 1898 that the British Egyptologist J.E. Quibell discovered a series of bee-hive shaped granaries, traces of which still survive. The granaries, in conjunction with the evidence for large-scale burning (from firing or cooking) on the mound and my discovery of the brewery, suggest that the entire area was a large industrial zone for processing agricultural produce. The brewery at HK24A is one of the oldest-known beer production sites in Egypt, and its large vats were capable of brewing several hundred gallons of beer a day.

In recent years, the Hierakonpolis team has uncovered more Predynastic kilns and brewery sites (read more about it here). This work certainly piqued my interest when I learned that a larger and somewhat differently configured apparent brewery structure had been uncovered at HK11, located back in the wadi, almost three kilometers away. By then I was hooked and answered the invitation of Hierakonpolis Expedition director Renée Friedman to return to the site with a visit early in 2006. On my return to Illinois, I applied for--and received--a grant from the Antiquities Endowment Fund of the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE). That has enabled me to bring five undergraduate students from the University of Illinois for a field school at Hierakonpolis, incorporating both excavation and experimental components.

This is a great opportunity to embark on new excavations to answer questions on how a structure like the HK24A Vat Site might have worked, what some of the costs of operating it might have been, and to recover additional relevant archaeological data. It is also an opportunity for me to combine my unabated passion for Hierakonpolis archaeology with my current work facilitating education abroad and fostering in students a greater understanding of people and perspectives across national and cultural bounds. Field-school instruction is given by Renée Friedman, potter and Egyptologist Jane Smythe, botanist Ahmed Fahmy, and me. We are grateful to ARCE, the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt, the Hierakonpolis Expedition, and the University of Illinois for support.

Beer in Egypt


The making of bread and beer from the Old Kingdom tomb of Ti at Saqqara

Beer, a staple food in ancient Egypt, ran the gamut from the homely to the holy. It was a ration for conscripted soldiers and labor, a reward for favored retainers, and an important offering to the gods. But it would have looked and tasted quite different from the product in today's corner bar or on the grocery shelf. The hops that give modern beer its characteristic bitter taste were unknown in ancient Egypt. Ancient beer would have been sweeter, flatter, and generally unfiltered. It would have resembled a thin porridge more than what most modern consumers would recognize as beer, but some in Egypt would recognize the ancient brew as something essentially the same as a modern folk brew called bouza. The bouza-making process has been observed by ethnographers, and the descriptions match fairly closely a sequence of steps suggested by numerous depictions on ancient tombs and in Middle Kingdom tomb models.

Sprouted grain, or malt, is soaked in water which may be inoculated with a former batch of bouza to provide yeasts. In Egypt wheat and barley are used at present, as in antiquity, although the ancient variety of wheat, emmer, is no longer grown in Egypt today. The infusion is sometimes heated and sustained at a warm temperature for several hours and then left to ferment for up to several days. Too warm and the fermenting microbes are killed; not warm enough and the yeasts and enzymes necessary for the process slug along too slowly. Sometimes fruits and various herbs are added for flavor or as preservatives (the function of hops in European-style beers). Added fruits enhance sugar content, which itself boosts fermentation. A bouza-like beer is more nutritious than bread made from an equal quantity of grain.

The Hierakonpolis Vat Site Brewery


Excavation photo of HK24A shows one of the vats found in situ and coated with shiny, black residue inside.


Vat residue


Experimental pottery kilns constructed of potsherds and mud


Possible reconstruction of the brewery at HK24A

In 1988, I uncovered two vats of about 50 cm diameter and similar extant depth, in situ, at HK24A, the Vat Site.

The vats, more or less conical, were roughly made of coarse clay tempered with straw and small stones, with vessel walls up to three cm thick. Fragments of five others (or archaeological indications where others had been) formed two parallel rows suggesting there were seven vats in all, although neither end of the original Vat Site structure survived.

The interior surface of the vats was encrusted with a shiny, black residue, which I believe is characteristic of brewing and similar processes. This residue was up to two or three cm thick. The scouring northerly wind between the 1988 and 1989 seasons did a superb job of revealing intact grains of wheat and barley embedded in the residue, as well as the skin of dates and pips of grapes which are among the earliest evidence of grape use in Egypt.

Simple elemental analysis of the residue shows it is composed mostly of carbon with some contaminants consistent with the local sandy soil. Boil potatoes for a while and you'll produce a similar residue from sugars and starches around the water line in your saucepan. More sophisticated analyses yielded numerous intermediate compounds in the fermentation cycle. In the near future, archaeobotanist Ahmed Fahmy intends to analyze the residue for starches and phytoliths, microscopic silica skeletons of plant cells that are unique in form to specific plants. New advances in this field of study (among many other reasons) make the retrieval of new information, evidence and residue a priority for our current field season.

The vats were supported by mud and potsherds and coated with mud. A jumble of mud-coated sherds lay over the burnt surface between and surrounding the vats, suggesting an ad hoc superstructure made of the most abundant material apparent on the Predynastic site today: potsherds! Evidence all over the site suggests that this was a fairly standard practice in antiquity, and indeed the experimental kilns created to explore ancient pot firing techniques have been made of sherds (modern) and mud and have produced good results.

I hypothesize that although the area surrounding the beer vats would have been covered with sherds and mud to hold in the heat of the fireplaces there, the vats' tops would have been open so that the brewer could access them to add or adjust ingredients and dip the product, as this somewhat fanciful drawing suggests.

This Season's Work

This season, our crew is excavating a site we have dubbed HK24B, which is located near the Vat Site, with the hope of obtaining more residue from an archaeologically sealed context, and of revealing a similar brewery feature. We call it the "Pink Rag" site, after the subtle marker left on the site after my February 2006 survey, when the site was identified, but we didn't want to draw unnecessary attention to it and risk it being disturbed. In the sea of broken vat fragments that cover the area, what caught our eye were several pottery fragments placed on edge and cemented into place with fire-reddened mud. Just a small portion of this was visible peaking out from the surface.

Excavation beginning on December 20, 2006, revealed a line of thick vat sherds running northeast-southwest cemented in fired mud and surrounded by charcoal, ashy soil and lots and lots of mud-coated potsherds--all evidence of an ad hoc superstructure. Excavation immediately around and to the north of the "wall" of cemented sherds yielded plenty of vat sherds and burnt mud, but no in situ deposits indicating a northern extension of the structure.

Moving to the western part of the five-by-five meter excavation square encompassing the visible remains, we came down on a prepared platform of tan-colored mud and pebbles containing a line of postholes that run parallel to the southwest-northeast line of the sherd wall. This discovery was not only exciting for us in and of itself (after days of shifting piles of disturbed potsherds that surrounding the sand-filled pits left by looters or fertilizer diggers of centuries ago) but it also indicated to us that the interior of the structure lay to the east. Knowing your "in" from your "out" is always useful.

Our fifth day of work (Christmas Day) revealed the apparent northern end of the wall structure, which curved around to the east, and now we have extended the excavation to the south and east. It was slow work as our workmen removed layer after layer of jumbled sherds, burnt mud, and sherds encrusted with burnt earth--all evidence of some sort of structure within, but what?

Just prior to our short break for the Eid el Kebir, which this year fell in conjunction with New Years, we have tantalizing indications of an eastern edge to the structure, suggesting an industrial grade construction over six meters long and about three meters wide. Piles of sherds and a myriad of tones of red, gray, and black indicate both structures lying below and at least moderate heat for a product still undetermined. Accurate dating is hampered by the fact that most of the pottery recovered has been reused for construction purposes and is mainly composed of thick-walled coarse vats, but just occasionally something special would appear--including a small number of sherds decorated with figural or geometric designs in white paint applies to the polished red surface. This is known as White cross-line ware, and is a hall-mark of the early part of the Predynastic period (Naqada I and early Naqada II), approximately 3800-3600 B.C.

The new year is sure to bring new discoveries. We are at about our half-way point of the project, and the day I write this is the second day we have had to quit early due to a blinding and parching (although cold) wind. One undertakes fieldwork or experimentation to answer specific research questions or to meet specific research goals: ours to provide data useful to understanding the costs and nuts and bolts of operating a Predynastic brewery, and further ways of positively identifying brewery residues. Sometimes the data answer different questions, as in my first brewery season, a "failure" for my objective of learning about pottery kilns, but a great success in terms of learning about production of this important staple.

Wearing my other hat, as an international educator I think this project is yielding great results already, long before the last words on the excavation are written, insofar as a cohort of students from "Middle America" are gaining a new understanding of life in a very different place, working with our skilled local crew, spending an afternoon with the local potter, and having already been invited to homes in the small villages adjacent to the site, and through these interactions gaining some insight into social and economic opportunities and limitations, most importantly recognizing common human themes through humor, goodwill, and shared interest.

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