Nubians at Hierakonpolis: Week 2
After the remarkable discoveries of our first week, we were anxious to explore the row of tombs for the treasure of information they might hold. Continuing our initial push to the west along the northern edge of Test Square B we eventually uncovered Tomb 12, thus completing the first row of tombs.
Tomb 12 was surrounded by a partial ring of stones on its west side and mixed among these flat stones were little fragments of fired clay--possibly parts of a figurine, but what of is hard to say. In addition, we recovered fragments of hemispherical bowls from in and around the tomb and we managed to mend them far enough to obtain a full profile for drawing. Although not especially beautiful, these wheel-made Egyptian bowls (in contrast to Nubian pottery, which is entirely hand made) are important indicators of a Middle Kingdom date (ca. 2066-1650 B.C.). They were probably used as drinking cups. The tomb itself, rectangular and oriented in the same way as Tombs 9 and 10, was unfortunately completely plundered. Only some sun-bleached bone and ringlets of curly brown hair remained.
|Little of the Tomb 12's occupant remained other than some bone fragments and hair.|
At the same time, we also finally reached our little bottle, which we had discovered on the first day during surface collecting. It turned out to be lying intact and in place upon a single mud brick as part of the typically Nubian above-ground offering place. Nearby, another pot had been embedded in the ground, but only fragments of its base were preserved. These vessels were part of a larger deposit, which was focussed around a pile of distinctive yellow sandstone pieces that had apparently been collected specifically for their vibrant yellow color. More bricks forming something like a platform appeared below a thick layer of fine gray ash mixed with seeds, evidence of burnt offerings at this place, but no other vessels or objects were found.
As we prepared to move on to the next row of tombs, I was relieved to be joined by the rest of the dig team. Joe Majer--long-time crew member, surveyor, excavator and general life-saver in more ways that I care to mention--arrived with popcorn in hand as he does every year.
With him were two new additions to our international team. Masahiro Baba from Waseda University in Japan had come to investigate the production method of black-topped red ware pottery, one of the hallmarks of the Predynastic period, but also a potmaking tradition that continued among the Nubian cultures long after it died out in Egypt. Exactly how the potters achieved the black color at the rim (requiring a reducing or oxygen-free kiln atmosphere to turn the iron in the pottery black) and the red body (requiring an oxygen-rich environment) has remained a thorny question. It obviously required some special knowledge, for after the Egyptians abandoned the practice in the mid-Predynastic period (around 3400 B.C.), when they wanted to revive this type of pottery for ritual purposes in the First Dynasty about 400 years later, they no longer knew how to do it correctly. Masahiro was interested to see the blacktopped pottery of the Nubian and Egyptian manufacture first hand (and for him the more conveniently broken the better), but he also turned out to have a great talent for mapping and planning which we exploited to the full. All of the cemetery plans presented here have been prepared by him and this occasionally required some pretty uncomfortable contortions!
Joe Majer on the job
|Mapping the Nubian cemetery occasionally involves some uncomfortable moments for Masahiro Baba.|
Completing the crew roster was Xavier Droux from Geneva Switzerland, who currently has a fellowship at Oxford University. This was his first time on a excavation, so we put him through his paces to find out just what he was really good at. He got a taste of just about everything, but found his true calling in the art of mending pottery--a task that is not as easy as it might sound. It requires a good eye and memory for irregular shapes and subtle colors in order to pluck fragments of the same pot out of a sea of trays containing a seemingly endless number of possible matching sherds. It can be intensely frustrating if one isn't good at it, and extremely satisfying if one is. Finding the joins is one thing, but to glue the bits together requires another virtue entirely: patience! As you can imagine the desire the glue bits together as soon as one finds the join is overwhelming, but it often is not the best policy. While it doesn't matter that much if the pot is not complete, in cases where all of the fragments have been recovered, subtle misalignments of the joins or the build up of too much glue between the fragments can result in a decidedly wonky pot, or in the worst-case scenario, one last piece that simply doesn't fit. It is of course possible to take the pot apart again and start from the beginning, but it isn't a lot of fun. It requires softening the glue in acetone and then manually removing it from every edge with a scalpel. The word tedious was invented to describe this task. Really the best way to mend a pot is to collect all of the pieces and start building it up from the base, allowing each row to dry completely before rushing into the next one. This may take several annoyingly long days, but Xavier was a master of it. The real proof was when he mended separately two parts of a jar that we did not realize were all part of the same, and the pieces fit together perfectly--a rare event indeed!
|Bad mend: an example of a pot that has not been mended correctly.
||Good mend: a sample of Xavier's work--a perfectly joined vessel.
Now fully staffed, we began clearing the central zone of Test Square B, but things were becoming decidedly strange. Instead of the neat (more or less) row of tombs were we expecting, we came across an odd ovoid shaped grave, Tomb 11, which was almost entirely eroded away. Only the foot of an adolescent, still articulated and encrusted with some sort of hard resin and part of a wooden box or coffin remained. Stranger still, the tomb and the body within it (at least what was left) were oriented in completely the opposite direction to what we had encountered before.
Moving farther west, we encountered another tomb with reverse orientation: Tomb 13. Although quite deep, it was a very narrow cutting, presumably for a body laid on its side in an extended position. All we could do was presume this, as the tomb had been highly disturbed in recent times, and all we found were a few scraps of leather, a few beads, and a finger bone at the bottom. Like Tomb 11, it may possibly date from a later period, and although there are some Nubian traits (especially the leather), not enough was found to date or suggest a cultural attribution for either of them.
Our confusion was compounded with the discovery of Tomb 14. Again, it was aligned in the same reverse (at least to our expectations) way. As we uncovered the mass of bricks collapsed above the clear grave cutting, we had great hopes for more information by which we might date these odd tombs. Despite these early indications, it proved rather disappointing. Nothing much remained within the tomb other than part of the pelvis with part of the femur still articulating directly below the roof fall, suggesting that the burial was laid, possibly in a crouched position on its left side facing west (different again to what we were used to!, but so little really remained to confirm this). Other than that we found some leather, which may be part of a belt or kilt and one catfish spine, which had definitely been modified to be used as some sort of a tool, possibly for creating the impressed and decorated pottery that the Nubians favored. Our dismay at the sorry state of the tomb's contents was offset by the diagonally laid bricks that lined its long walls. These were a surprising revelation and had apparently been laid in this manner to create a barrel vaulted roof over the grave. By laying them diagonally, the vault could ingeniously be created without the use of a form to hold the shape until the mortar dried. Vaulted tombs in Nubia appear to date to the later and nearly last phases of the C group culture, so perhaps a time difference explains the orientation of these unexpected tombs.
|This catfish spine from Tomb 14 has been modified at its end for use as a tool. We also found blue faience, red carnelian, and yellow peridot beads in Tomb 14.|
We had almost finished clearing the area within our 10x10m square and were becoming increasingly concerned with the layout (see map) that now appeared quite dispersed, with much empty space between graves that now at least contained very little. After the excitement of the previous week it made for some boring days of scraping and hauling so when we finally came across the remnants of an offering place with some badly disintegrated hemispherical bowls embedded in dirt (later discovered to be dissolved brick) we were overjoyed. Little did we know that this was just the tip of the iceberg!