Home | Archaeology Magazine | More Digs | AIA
Archaeology's Interactive Dig
November 2002-April 2009Excavating Hierakonpolis
The decorative niche brickwork on the exterior walls of the Fort was originally plastered white.
Statue of King Khasekhemwy, above left, found at Hierakonpolis in 1898. On the funerary stela of the First Dynasty king "Snake," above right, the niched facade of his palace is reproduced as a device called a serekh to hold his name and designate him as a king.
Shunet ez Zebib at Abydos, the mortuary enclosure of Khasekhemwy
View of the Fort from a precarious perch on a cherry picker!
Narrow chambers flanking the gateway possibly contained stairs to the ramparts.
View of the internal structure within the fort
The gray granite column base--one of the earliest examples of the architectural use of hard stone.
The excavation of a predynastic burial beneath the niched gateway of the Fort by Garstang in 1906 (courtesy of Liverpool University).
Bricks falling away along the west wall of the Fort
Excavation of a burial has resulted in the exposure of the foundation of the wall on the southeast corner, and bricks are falling away.
Erosion of foundations at the southeastern corner
All photos courtesy of the Hierakonpolis Expedition. Click on images for larger versions.
by Renée Friedman

Fixing the Fort at Hierakonpolis

Conservation isn't just a buzz word; it is a responsibility for all of us who cherish Egypt's ancient heritage. Our winter 2004 season at Hierakonpolis is dedicated to translating this word into action as we begin the stabilization and repair of the imposing structure we call the Fort, actually the Ceremonial Enclosure of King Khasekhemwy and the oldest freestanding mud-brick monumental structure in the world. (This project is made possible through a grant from the World Monuments Watch, a program of the World Monuments Fund.)

The Fort at Hierakonpolis

Rising up near the edge of the cultivated plain, the Fort dominates the low desert of Hierakonpolis. It is, in fact, our only standing monument, and if you can only have one, what a one to have! Approximately 67x57m (220ft x 185ft), with walls 5m (16ft) thick, it is still preserved in places to its original height of 9m (30ft). Decorated on its exterior with a series of pilasters creating a niched facade, the chief symbol of royalty at this time, it was originally plastered white. It must have been a striking sight in its time, and almost 5,000 years later, this monument stands as a testament to the abilities of its builder, King Khasekhemwy, the last king of the Second Dynasty (ca. 2686 B.C.). In form and monumentality, it is a direct ancestor of the great stone pyramid complexes of Egypt. And it is perhaps no surprise that the first of these--the Step Pyramid at Saqqara--was built by Djoser, his immediate successor and, appropriately enough his probable step-son.

Although we still call it the Fort, as it was first described, this structure had no military function, but what its purpose may have been is still a mystery. It is certainly related to the ceremonial enclosures that were erected near the royal burial grounds of the kings of Egypt's early dynasties at Abydos to house their mortuary cults, but differs in many aspects. At Abydos, Khasekhemwy built a funerary enclosure, which is two times larger than the Fort, to accompany his equally immense desert tomb. Together, these three structures--the Fort, the Abydos enclosure (called the Shunet el Zebib), and his tomb--earn this king the right to be called the first of Egypt's great builders.

Why King Khasekhemwy should build two of these huge sun-dried mud-brick enclosures is still unknown. The standard explanation has been that during the shadowy and transitional period of the Second Dynasty Egypt was experiencing the first test of its unity, and in the second half of the dynasty the country was ruled by rival kings. It has been suggested that Khasekhem (meaning "the power appears"), as he was initially known, first ruled as one of these kings, perhaps from Hierakonpolis given the number of fine statues and objects bearing his early name found exclusively at this site. He may originally have planned to be buried at Hierakonpolis and built his funerary enclosure and perhaps even began a tomb, but when he defeated his rivals and assumed control of all Egypt he changed his name to Khasekhemwy (meaning "the two powers appear"), and built a new enclosure and tomb at Abydos, the long-standing burial place of Early Dynastic kings, of which he was the last.

Yet the Hierakonpolis Fort has many features that are unique, suggesting it may not simply be an initial version of a funerary enclosure. Unlike the Shunet at Abydos, it is nearly square in plan, and has a single projecting entrance gate, which was originally decorated with complex stepped niched brickwork. To either side of the entrance are narrow chambers that presumably once held stairways allowing access to the ramparts. The low wall that surrounds the monument on all sides also extends to enclose the gate's eastward extension, but where the entrance through this wall may have been in unknown. The segment of lower wall still preserved on the east side tells us only that access was not direct, but the thorough destruction and pitting below the wall level to either side of the wall segment makes it impossible to learn more. This projecting gateway and its flanking chambers are features not found in any other monument of this type.

[image] [image]
The lower wall surrounding the main structure, above left, prevented direct access to the entrance, but the location of the entrance through it was is unclear as it is extensively destroyed. Right, stepped niche and pilasters at the Fort's entrance.

In addition, the Fort is the only one to include elaborately carved stone embellishments for the enigmatic structure within it. Almost dead center is a sizable reddish-gray granite column base with a recessed center meant to support a hefty wooden column. Originally one of a pair (known from archival photographs: the location of its mate is currently unknown). These columns supported the roof of a now poorly preserved internal structure, located in the center of the enclosure but with an orientation slightly skewed to the walls. In this regard it resembles the internal structures, possibly model palaces or shrines, within the massive enclosures at Abydos, but there such buildings are placed in the southeast corner, just inside the main entrance. Different in location, our internal structure may also have been different in decoration as our investigation in 1999 revealed remains of the entrance and many fragments of a distinctive granite suggesting that the entrance may originally have been embellished with stone jambs or a lintel.

Although none were decorated or in situ, the stone is identical to that of the decorated and inscribed lintel of Khasekhemwy discovered in 1934 near the Fort by Ambrose Lansing (of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Lansing's brief report states that the fragments had probably been used in the walls of a pottery kiln, thus their original location is unknown. The recovery of pink granite fragments near the doorway of this internal structure present the exciting possibility that the lintel may have originated from it. If so, it was a sumptuous building indeed; at least 15m long and 10m wide, entered though a richly ornate doorway and featuring at least two columns supported by gray granite column bases--among the earliest examples of the architectural use of granite.

[image] [image] Fragments of the carved granite "lintel" found by Lansing, and a line drawing of one of the fragments of the lintel portraying King Khasekhemwy in festival costume

The lintel, though shattered and fragmentary, features the king prominently, showing him engaged in ritual activities, in the company of the gods, and as the focus of processions and offerings. It is one of the earliest examples of royal propaganda on a major and permanent architectural scale. It was not long before the Egyptian kings took this to new heights, covering every inch of exterior temple walls with images of their glory.

Thus, although smaller, the Fort was no less important to the king and just as costly. But what was its purpose? The discovery of this lavish internal structure suggests that the Fort is not a replica of a palace for use in the next world, but the real thing for use in his lifetime. This conclusion is supported by the pottery recovered from the excavations, which dates Second Dynasty activity in the Fort precisely to the middle of the reign of Khasekhemwy. As no pottery characteristic of the end of his more than 30-year reign was found, it seems unlikely that the Fort was a cenotaph, or second funerary establishment. Instead this imposing enclosure may have been built to commemorate the king's rejuvenation festival or perhaps even the reunification of land under his command and the grand festival when Khasekhem was reborn as Khasekhemwy. Indeed, what could be a better place for such a celebration than the home of the patron god of Egyptian Kingship, Horus of Hierakonpolis. Proof for this theory, however, will be hard to come by, mainly because we are not the first to investigate the monument.

Almost without exception, those who came to explore Hierakonpolis could not resist the temptation to probe in and around the Fort, as the disheveled state of its interior attests. They more successfully fought off the urge to publish their results, and other than brief notes and archival photographs we have little information about what has been done. One of the biggest culprits in this regard was John Garstang who made excavations within the enclosures in 1905 on behalf of the University of Liverpool. We know he uncovered 166 late Predynastic graves some 1.5m below the level of the Fort's walls, and also trenched around the walls of the internal structure, destroying connections and contexts. Ambrose Lansing in 1934 excavated further predynastic burials around the exterior of the monument, some partly beneath the Fort's walls. Together these excavations have done extensive damage to the structure, lowering the ground level around and within the walls and exposing the foundations to the elements.

[image] [image]
Archival photograph, left, of excavations around the Fort in 1934 by Lansing (courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Right, the discovery of predynastic burials around and beneath the fort by earlier excavators has resulted in the lowering of the ground level and the destabilization of the foundations.

Although millennia of wind and rain have taken their toll, it is the exposure of the foundations and the loss of supporting matrix around them that is causing the biggest problems for the Fort and continues to threaten its survival. No matter how well you build your walls, if the foundations are eroding and subsiding, you are in big trouble. Even minor loss of bricks with time can lead to substantial gaps, as gravity and wind will cause each course of brick in turn to fall away creating unsupported overhangs that may lead eventually to catastrophic collapse. The Fort is beset with a number of areas like this and devising a way of fixing them is the focus of our current work.

Unfortunately, mud brick is one of the most difficult materials to conserve. There is no recipe book for this kind of work. Follow along as we work it out from the ground up as our quest takes us to places we never imagined!

If the foundations become too weak, major catastrophes can happen. The collapse of the northeast corner in 2002. [image]

For more information on the Fort, see Nekhen News, Volumes 11 (1999) and 12 (2000), now online in PDF format at www.hierakonpolis-online.org.

Also see:

Quibell, J.E. and F.W. Green. 1902. Hierakonpolis II. (Egypt Research Account 5) London.

Adams, B. 1987. The Fort Cemetery at Hierakonpolis. Kegan Paul International. London.

Alexanian, N. 1998. "Die Reliefdekoration des Cheschemui aus dem sogenannten Fort in Hierakonpolis" in Les critères de datation stylistiques à l'Ancien Empire, ed. by N. Grimal. Institute Francaise d'Archéologie Orientale, Bibliothèque d'Étude 120:3-21.

Garstang, J. 1907. "Excavations at Hierakonpolis, at Esna, and in Nubia," Annales du Service des Antiquités de l'Égypte 8:132-148.

Kemp, B.J. 1963. "Excavation at Hierakonpolis Fort 1905: A Preliminary Note," Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 49:24-28.

Lansing, A. 1935. "The Museum's Excavations at Hierakonpolis," Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art 30:37-45.

Previous pageNext page

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

Home | Archaeology Magazine | More Digs | AIA