2008 Field Note 1 - Introduction
It was a long, unseasonably hot and occasionally stressful season, but one filled with many and often unexpected discoveries at Hierakonpolis as we continued to explore the cemetery of the elite members of Predynastic and Early Dynastic society at HK6 (the elite cemetery), returned to the Predynastic temple at HK29A, kept on fixing the Second Dynasty Fort, and much more. Although all of these areas were like old friends to us by now, this year it was a very humbling voyage of discovery, as nothing turned out as anticipated. The only thing of which we can now be sure is that this old site still has plenty of secrets hidden below its sands and ones that are determined both to confound and amaze.
Excavations in the elite cemetery at HK6: the 2008 season. Part 1
We returned to HK6 at the beginning of March full of enthusiasm (as always) and expectations. Excavations undertaken in previous seasons had left us with many questions, the answers to which were critical for our understanding the remarkable pillared halls we had found around the elaborate "royal" tomb we call Tomb 23, the largest tomb of the mid-Predynastic period (ca. 3700 B.C.) yet known (see 2007 update).
Wall B7 running along side Structure 07--does it turn a corner or keep going straight on? We needed to know.
One of the seemingly more straightforward questions in need of an answer was: Does Wall B7, which we know runs for more than 27 meters (88+ feet) along the eastern border of the excavation area, turn a corner? If it does and encloses a large area including Tomb 23 and the multi-columned structures flanking it, then perhaps all of the buildings could be viewed as components of one large interrelated complex. Presumably, though not necessarily, dedicated to the owners of Tomb 23, one might then propose that the complex is a "palace for eternity" modeled on the predynastic king's earthly residence.
Alternatively, if Wall B7 does not turn a corner, it might then be a perimeter wall for the entire cemetery, and the pillared halls should be viewed individually or potentially as part of a special precinct for conducting mortuary rituals or for promoting the ancestor cult for all of the cemetery's elite "inhabitants."
I was firmly in the corner camp and had a pretty good idea where the northeast corner should be (making a return under the back dirt pile, of course!), but there was only one way to know for sure--find it!
The distinctive light color of plaster and ash placed in the wall trench, perhaps as an insecticide, appeared quickly and assured us that Wall B7 continued in its expected trajectory.
In the hunt for the corner, we began where we had left off the year before, near the northeast corner of the large hall we called Structure 07. It wasn't long before the distinctive color of the plaster and ashy soil which was used to pack its foundation trench appeared beneath the surface, right where it was supposed to.
In previous years excavations along this wall had produced some interesting artifacts. Remnants of the painted plaster that once adorned it were recovered in 2006, and in the final days of the 2007 season, another somewhat battered recruit for our army of flint animals was retrieved from a pit cut into the wall by plunderers. This year, however, resumed excavations revealed only wall. Still fairly well-preserved with the remnants of the wooden posts embedded in the protective plaster, we now had five more meters of it.
Uncovering the plaster-coated posts of Wall B7
Its trajectory confirmed, and anxious to find the corner, we decided to skip the next five meters and jump over to the first five meters of the next grid square (B11) to the north. Opening out wide to the west in order to catch the wall I was sure we would find after it turned its corner, we worked our way along. On target, the wall appeared as before, but now running through a rock strewn area that was remarkably for its lack of interest. In a cemetery teeming with graves, structures and beautiful objects, it was empty! Worse still, it didn't even contain a corner!
One couldn't blame the area supervisor, Anna Pieri, for thinking she had drawn the very short straw in the exploration lottery...until we worked our way just a little further to the north. In fact, it was only minutes after the next excavation area had been pegged out and the workmen had gotten down to work when the first discovery was made.
Just subsurface, not 50cm from the wall, was a skull bone. Gingerly scraping back, the outline of an intact burial quickly emerged. Initially we thought it might be a baby, laid in a fetal position, on its right side facing north. A bit more brushing revealed the unmistakably profile of a baboon, itself still a youngster of about 3 years of age. The average life span of a baboon in the wild is 20 to 30 years.
The race was on to rescue the baboon before the sun turned it to dust
After one of the coldest winters in a decade, the temperature uncharacteristically soared in March to over 46°C (115° F) in the shade by 10:30AM. Buried just centimeters below the surface, the bones were already chalky and fragile, but the race was now on to lift the remains before the merciless sun destroyed them. Fortunately, our team of experienced workmen, after years of excavating similarly preserved human remains at the workers' cemetery HK43, was up to the task. A good thing too, as an even greater challenge of their abilities was emerging only a short distance away.
Just a short distance away from the baboon, another animal burial emerges.
Detail of the second burial, this time that of a dog.
Too much of a good thing? With two animal burials coming up, both remarkably intact, we definitely had our hands full.
Arrowhead found near the dog pit
Lifting the last cat, we noticed an area of softer soil to the right.
The mouse's last laugh. Below the interred cats, the softer soil turned out to be a mouse burrow. What a place to build a house!
Again just below the surface, resting on a smooth boulder, another head appeared. This time it was that of a dog. Hoping that we could get it to the safety of a cool storeroom before the end of the work day, we cleared back, revealing the edge of the shallow pit in which the skeleton lay, placed on its left side, facing south. Before we could lift it, we needed to expose the body completely. Removing the flat stones placed over the top of the pit, and brushing back the soil, when an additional set of ribs emerged and then another, we realized this was more than we could handle in the time remaining. Further clearance the next day made it clear that this pit, now about 1.4m in diameter and filled with more dogs than we could count, was more than we could handle at all without some professional zooarchaeological help, which as luck would have it, was already on the train coming our way.
Always happy to welcome back our heroes--zooarchaeologists Wim Van Neer (Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences) and Veerle Linseele (Catholic University, Leuven)--we were even more delighted to see them now. They had come to work on the backlog of faunal material collected over the past few years, but this was put on hold as we hustled them out to the cemetery early the next morning to sort out the mess-o-dogs!
Under their expert guidance, the mess gradually resolved itself into a manageable pile of nine individuals, at least two of which were males and all with the exception of one old dog, were healthy young adults. Again, owing to the shallowness of the pit, most of the bones were very fragile, so most measurements had to be done in the field. The results show that the animals were medium-sized and probably similar to the average stray dogs in the village today.
Zooarchaeologist Wim Van Neer and Veerle Linseele come to the rescue.
Working with Saleh Mohammed el Amir and Ashraf Hassan, for whose skill and patience we are extremely grateful, Wim and Veerle sorted out the dog mess in (almost) no time.
The fragile nature of the bones meant that many measurements had to be taken in the field.
After a mess-o-dogs, it was now a circle of cats!
As all of the dogs were on their left sides and oriented in same direction, it was quite a chore to figure out which bones belonged to which dog. Especially challenging was the superimposed tangle of toes around the upper edge of the pit. Because all of the feet and legs point in same direction, it seems clear that the animals were tossed in from the southern side. The feet of some were probably tied together, but this cannot be confirmed. Nor is there any indication of how these dogs met their end. The hyoid bones (a fragile bone in the throat) were intact indicating that the method was neither strangulation nor throat cutting. A masterfully made rhomboid-shaped arrowhead, of a type not previously known from HK6, was found on the surface just to the north of the pit, but while suggestive, no evidence of arrows or the wounds thereof were observed on any of the unfortunate dogs in the pit.
If how they came to be in this pit was a good question, why was even a better one. Before we could even think of tackling this question, we needed to know if there were more. Were we in a special area reserved for animal burials? Was there a human burial with which these animals might be associated? Could these animal burials have anything to do with there being a corner nearby?
As soon as the last dog was lifted from the pit, the search for more animal burials began. Ranging widely, the hard, gravelly soil didn't make it easy. After a frustrating day of scraping, we had the water-eroded remnants of another dog burial (ribs only), many very clean rocks, and a lot of blisters. We were just about to call it quits and admit that one baboon and nine dogs was intriguing enough on its own, when a little clean up around the dog pit for photography showed us we needn't have looked so far afield. Directly adjacent to the southern edge of the dog pit, the bones of yet another head appeared.
This time it was cats, six of them fully articulated and draped around the sides of a circular pit, only 50cm in diameter. After the mess-o-dogs we now had a circle of cats. Rising before dawn in an attempt (failed) to beat the heat, it took several more days to sort out this little pride, which was composed of two adults and four kittens. Relieved to be lifting the final and largest of the cats from the sides of the pit, we noticed a line of softer soil below. Gasp! Was there a second layer? Fortunately our aching backs were spared. This line turned out to be a mouse burrow--made directly beneath the interred bodies of the enemy. We had found the mouse's revenge!
A baboon, nine dogs and six cats...it sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, and if they weren't so fascinating (they are the only animal burials that have been found undisturbed at HK6) and unique (dogs are known from other Predynastic sites, but baboons and cats are so far exclusive to Hierakonpolis), one might consider them a big joke...played on me. Not satisfied with all of the remarkable objects and structures, I had secretly wished to find an articulated burial. My wish was more than granted, but I had neglected to specify that I meant a human burial (preferably with mask still in situ)! Just goes to show that you must be careful what you wish for, as work at Hierakonpolis rarely fails to give you what you want, but never in the way you actually wanted it. The same may hold true for my request for a corner.
While the animal burials were the prime focus of attention, work on the wall did not cease. Although eroded by water run off and descending into a drainage gully, the distinctive trench for the wall was found to run straight as an arrow through the square. Still unconvinced, we opened up even further to the north, where under half a meter of accumulated sand and silts, the wall with its posts was still there. Now, with a length of over 55 meters (180+ feet), traveling over the various dips and rises of the underlying topography, I had to concede that this wall had no corner and probably surrounded the entire cemetery.
||Straight as an arrow, we traced Wall B7 for more than 55m--and it keeps on going in both directions, with no corner in sight.|
In all likelihood, the complete circuit of the wall is oval and it is never going to turn a corner, but that doesn't mean that the area containing the unparalleled pillared halls, perhaps the first funerary temples in Egypt, was without boundaries. As work progressed in other parts of the area, we gradually came to us that it is the animal burials themselves that may mark the corners, defining or spiritually protect the borders of this special precinct. The spatial distribution of the animal burials around the precinct provides the most compelling clue. The recently discovered baboon, dog and cat burials in the northeast edge of the area are mirrored by Tomb 12 at the southeast corner, which contained seven baboons, a cat and a baby hippo, while at the northwest edge Tomb 28 contained the bodies of an adult dog and sheep. Although many millennia later, the nine jackals on the necropolis seal of the Valley of the Kings (found semi-intact in the tomb of Tutankhamen) make for an intriguing comparison. What might lay in the badly disturbed southwest corner remains to be determined, though explorations this season in this sector and elsewhere around the complex revealed other surprises which are leading to entirely new views on the significance, antiquity and longevity of this obviously very special area within the elite cemetery at HK6.
As the corner question was being answered, work elsewhere in this obviously very special part of HK6 was answering other, while posing many new ones!