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November 2002-April 2009Excavating Hierakonpolis

Maria and Gamal heading off in the early morning to find more (any?) Nubian sherds.


Early A-Group pottery fragments from Hierakonpolis. Our knowledge of this phase is still limited and the examples found at Hierakonpolis provide useful information as most of the evidence for the Early A-Group has been lost beneath Lake Nasser, following the building of the first Aswan dam.


Middle and Terminal A-Group pottery from Hierakonpolis is made of the typical Nubian dung-tempered fabric. Because the A-Group people were mostly cattle herders, they commonly used cattle dung temper in their pottery.


The cultural attribution of some of the pottery at Hierakonpolis is still uncertain because of the peculiar, very fine sand and ash tempered fabric they all have. Since most of the sherds have rippled decoration on surface, as well as a black top, they can belong to either the Badarian, Upper Egypt's earliest settled culture (ca. 4500 B.C.) or the Early A-Group cultures. This is a big question. Early A-Group pottery is still not well known, but Badarian pottery has never securely been found in the Hierakonpolis region and in the southern part of Upper Egypt. Data from new excavations at the later Nubian site at Hierakonpolis (HK64) may help us to find the answer.

All photos courtesy of the Hierakonpolis Expedition. Click on images for larger versions.
by Maria Gatto

Hunting for the Elusive Nubian A-Group People

The people that lived in Lower Nubia--the region between the First and the Second Cataract of the Nile and the surrounding deserts--during predynastic times are called the A-Group. Their main activity along the Nile was agriculture, but in the deserts they herded cattle. They also brought exotic goods from the Sudan and Nubia to Egypt, and this trading activity apparently made some of them very rich and powerful. Along the Nile their settlements and cemeteries are clustered in strategic areas, mostly in connection with transport routes through the desert. The chiefs at the top of their society were represented similarly to the early pharaohs of Egypt. At the royal cemetery at Qustul near Abu Simbel, one of the main centers of A-Group culture, the rulers are shown wearing the White Crown of Upper Egypt. The elite graves there are long rectangular shafts cut into the bedrock with a side chamber sealed by a big stone slab. Surrounding the graves were cattle burials. A grave similar to this was found in the elite cemetery at Hierakonpolis (HK6, Tomb 2), and it's also surrounded by cattle burials.

A few sherds of the distinctive A-Group pottery have been recorded at Hierakonpolis, particularly in the extensive cemetery by the Enclosure of Khasekhemwy, where more than a century ago French archaeologist Henri de Morgan discovered graves containing the complete A-Group bowls now in the Brooklyn Museum. Nubian pottery has also been reported from the Main Deposit in the floodplain town of Nekhen and at the predynastic temple (HK29A).

One of this season's projects was to explore evidence for interaction between the Nubian A-Group and predynastic Egypt, especially at Hierakonpolis. The southernmost major town of predynastic Egypt, Hierakonpolis was probably an early capital city of Upper Egypt. It can be reached from Nubia following both valley and desert routes. To the west, many tracks go straight to the Khargha and Dakhlah oases, while to the east the Wadi Barramiya connects the Hierakonpolis area directly to the Red Sea coast and southward to the gold-rich regions of Atbai-Wadi Allaqi.

Our present work has been organized in two different parts. The first was devoted to the study of Nubian sherds from previous excavations in order to determine if they were A-Group and to which phase they belonged. The second included a survey of localities where Nubian sherds had been found or we supposed they might be. Each morning I walked over the site with my long-suffering companion and guardian, Gamal. Together we would search the pottery-covered surface for clues of Nubian presence. Our main goal was to find an A-Group cemetery (as we have for the later Nubian C-Group) or a campsite. Unfortunately, it seems that neither are present at Hierakonpolis. However, we weren't completely unsuccessful. A handful of sherds were recovered and study of the pottery revealed different phases of A-Group interaction spanning several centuries.

So they were here, and their artifacts can be still found in the predynastic settlements and cemeteries, if only in low percentages compared to the unbelievable amount of local pottery. But we found no evidence for a real A-Group site or long-term presence here. This result actually fits well with what we know from the other Upper Egyptian sites. Up to now, it is only at Armant, just south of Luxor on the west bank, that what may be A-Group campsites and maybe a cemetery (but this is doubtful) have been found.

A possible explanation for this is that A-Group society was so similar to that in predynastic Upper Egypt that there was a kind of equilibrium between them. These Nubian people were not living in the shade of the predynastic Egyptians, nor were they subservient to them in a colonial way. They had no need to leave their home in order to find food or employment in the big city. Given the growing desire for exotic goods like the obsidian from the temple, A-Group Nubians likely came to Egypt for transactions!


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