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November 2002-April 2009Excavating Hierakonpolis
At work in the Nubian Cemetery
A curving line of bricks suggested we were about to uncover another tomb. The strange wooden object beside the bricks was a curious addition to the unexpected discoveries we had made.
Tomb 15 is revealed. The large stone slab is a roof beam over the rectangular tomb. Another roofing slab had fallen into the tomb shaft.
Excavating Tomb 15. It wasn't easy on the back!
Matching sockets on either side of the tomb's walls, about half way down, were evidence of wooden roofing beams.
Bracelet fragments of shell, left, and a Nubian black incised bowl, right, were found in Tomb 15. The bowl, originally highly polished with the incisions filled with white pigments, must have been a prized possession.
Tomb 15 completed. The offering chapel is located just behind the roofing slab in the photo. At various points along the brick ring, depressions are indications of other offering places that once may have held pottery or food offerings.
Tomb 18: The feet were the first to be revealed, still wearing remnants of the sandals. A strap is visible around the heel.
The Tomb 18 burial was nearly intact, with a wide sash of leather around the waist.
The individual in Tomb 18 was laid out in an extended position within a wood and plaster coffin.
The ends of the leather sash hanging down between the legs were decorated with beads (inset).
The lifting of the occupant of Tomb 18 (Courtesy Masahiro Baba)
The anti-funeral procession on its way back to the dig house
Once home, he got a careful clean up in the lab.
Photos courtesy of the Hierakonpolis Expedition unless otherwise noted. Click on images for larger versions.
by Renée Friedman

Nubians at Hierakonpolis: Week 3

With the third week of work in the Nubian Cemetery, things picked up in a hurry. As we approached the final quadrant in Test Square B, moving up on what looked like a topographic rise, the scenario began to change yet again. The overburden of debris was surprisingly deep, at least compared to the other areas we had excavated, but as we made our way through it, something new to ponder made our acquaintance. Beneath the gravelly soil, bricks began to appear one by one. These did not form the small offering platform we expected, creating instead a curving line of stretchers, only one course high, but it would be a while before we could discern what it was they were surrounding--so far all we could see in the center was a massive slab of weathered sandstone, which certainly looked natural to us. As the line curved around to the north, part of a Nubian blacktopped bowl and another jar emplacement appeared suggesting we were onto another tomb, but where?

Fragments of a lovely Nubian blacktopped bowl were found in a depression within the brick ring. [image]

It was only when the rectangular cut of the tomb shaft was revealed (Tomb 15) that we discovered that the large stone was actually an in situ roofing slab. The effort it must have required to move such a stone and put into position was hard to fathom.

And if one wasn't enough, as we continued down in the tomb cutting, another of these large slabs was found fallen within. It didn't leave a lot of room for excavating the tomb, but our work crew managed--though I must admit, my back hurt in sympathy!

But stone wasn't the only medium used to roof this tomb. Matched sockets about halfway down on either side of the tomb walls indicated that another roof, of wooden beams, had once existed. This helped to explain the weird brown thing we had uncovered just outside the brick ring surrounding the tomb. Slightly curved, but clearly worked to some extent, we gingerly prodded the object until we decided it must be wood, a relatively rare commodity in ancient Egypt. Its length, at just a little over a meter, fits the width of the tomb exactly: it was one of the roofing planks apparently thrown out of the tomb when it was plundered, an event that must have taken place when the wood was fresh as at least today (termites here are voracious and wouldn't leave a meal like that undigested for long).

The person buried in this tomb must have been of some importance (or from a big family, with many strong sons), to merit this kind of effort. The artifacts found within the badly plundered tomb bears this out.

Aside from beads, some sewn to leather, fragments of bracelets made from the shells of gastropods (probably conch) from the Red Sea were found, as well as pieces of the characteristic Nubian black incised ware, which eventually mended to create a complete vessel.

Although our vessel is unfortunately weathered, these vessels were usually highly polished to a glossy black and the incised designs in filled with white pigment to stunning effect. These beautiful pots were rarely placed in tombs, but were reserved for the above-ground offering places, thus it was perhaps not surprising that we found the mending pieces scattered over a wide area. The offering chapel for Tomb 15 was uncovered on the southwestern side of the brick ring that surrounded the tomb. It was an elaborate affair, square in shape with four basins and hollows for pot emplacements still molded into the bricks. Unfortunately all of them were empty.

Lessons learned from Tomb 15 came in very useful when we pushed into Test Square C and they helped us to understand that the offering place we had uncovered the previous week actually belonged to another tomb, again with a brick ring surrounding it (Tomb 16). The bricks of this ring were made of a soft gray ashy material that was easy to see, but hard to excavate. At points around the ring, radiating headers had been erected to form offering platforms with the remnants of pots still within them.

The brick ring around Tomb 16 is revealed. It was easy to see, but much harder to excavate. [image] The rectangular tomb cutting was roofed with another massive stone slab that had unfortunately and dangerously cracked. [image]
Excavation was limited, but Mohammed Ibrahim did his best. [image] Mapping the tomb wasn't easy either. [image]
One wall of the offering chapel was clear on the west side of the ring, but the search for the other wall lead to truly unexpected results. [image]

In the center of the ring, now as expected from Tomb 15, we found a rectangular tomb cutting that had been clay lined and roofed with another massive stone slab, which had unfortunately cracked and partially subsided into the tomb shaft, precluding full excavation on the grounds of health and safety! It didn't make mapping the tomb easy either.

This well preserved surface architecture on a fairly grand scale was a big surprise for us, and again we had to readjust our expectations. In Nubia such rings are generally built of stone, but here brick was used instead for both the rings, which do not appear to have been the revetting wall for a rubble filled tumulus, and the offering chapels placed on an axis parallel with the orientation of the grave cut. Having rather successfully exposed the offering chapel of Tomb 15, we tried to achieve similar results with Tomb 16 with hopes that something might be left in place.

Discerning one of the walls of the chapel was easy enough, but the definition for the other proved elusive. There were certainly plenty of bricks, and they appeared to be making something, but we just couldn't get them to line up. Try as we might, the soils remained loose and sandy, and the bricks apparently scattered. It just didn't make sense.

Finally below the chapel of Tomb 16 we hit a cluster of bricks and below them at a level lower than the other wall of the offering chapel another rectangular tomb cut was exposed (Tomb 18). We never did make sense of the bricks above: were they the remnants of the superstructure for the tomb below, or the disturbed walls of the chapel for Tomb 16? Soon, however these questions faded from our minds as the intact toes of the occupant of Tomb 18 emerged and with them part of the sandal straps.

Next, a wide sash of leather over what ultimately proved to be the waist appeared, to be followed shortly by the head covered surprisingly with short blonde hair!

Full clearance showed that the body was laid out in an extended position with only a slight bend at the knee, on its right side facing the river.

The preservation was phenomenal and even bordered on just too much information! The ear was well preserved and even the tissue around the eye was present. But we were not the first to set eyes on this body, as the lower arms and hands were missing from carefully targeted plundering of jewelry in that location probably in antiquity. Nevertheless little else had been disturbed. The tissue of the nose was preserved, though slightly smushed from being placed against the side of the wooden box coffin that had been coated with white plaster on both sides.

Too much information? Ears and even the tissue around the eyes were preserved.

Careful brushing later in the lab revealed the reddish eye lashes and eye brows, and even remnants of a 5 o'clock shadow on the chin. This is not to say that he was a true blonde. It is known that over time hair will turn blonde or reddish, but apparently only certain conditions, as our visiting hair specialist Andrew Wilson of Bradford University, UK, explains.

Although perhaps coated with resins of some sort, which caused the dust to adhere to the body, there was no evidence for mummification of the body, just preservation through natural desiccation. There were no bandages, but further pieces of the garment in which this man had been buried were found in the pelvic region. More of the leather sash was found around the waist and hanging down from it was a tab that still bore an edging of blue faience beads sewn on to it. No other clothing was in evidence except for the sandals.

It took days of laborious brushing to free him from the sand, but of course it was well worth it. But now that he had been all cleaned up, what to do with him? There were no more pictures to take or plans and drawing to make. I was for taking him in pieces back to the house for study as I had little expectation that a body of this size and fragility could be lifted whole. The workmen however were adamant to try for a complete lift. I was willing, but skeptical of success.

A makeshift litter was constructed from box lids held together with the bulldog clips we use to keep papers on our clipboards. A bed sheet was carefully arranged within this ready to receive the body and the work began. How the workmen managed to lift the body on to the sheet I cannot really say. Aside from being in the middle of filming for a series called the Egypt Detectives (Discovery Channel), I was simply too nervous to watch. By the time I turned around they had already placed the body in his bier, folded the sheet over him and clamped it down.

Having succeeded admirably, the workmen insisted on carrying him home personally. Hoisting his new cardboard coffin onto their shoulders, the anti-funeral procession slowly made its way back to the dig house. Marching in step and providing full honors for this ancient ancestor the men chanted "ana tayib, enta tayib, ihna tayid" ("I'm OK, you are OK, we are all OK") the entire half mile to the house.

Fran who was quietly sorting leather bits in her cat-proof accommodations got the shock of her life when they burst through the work room door!

Our man proved to be even more interesting under the scrutiny of a physical anthropologist, although complete coverage by skin and tissue limits the amount of information that is observable, just as in a living person.

But from an examination of the teeth Joel Irish of University of Alaska can tell that he was perhaps in his 40s at the time of his death. He was healthy as a young person and reveals no hypoplasias, or disruptions to the tooth formation caused by illness when one is growing up. He was also apparently using these nice teeth a tool. The heavy wear on the lower second premolar and first molar and the upper first and second premolars, suggests that he was running something over these teeth with his jaw jutting out. The movement must have been rapid, wearing down the enamel to expose the pulp on all of these teeth. Similar wear patterns have been observed on certain Native American populations, where it apparently is cause by stripping the husks off of reeds and grasses to prepare the stems for use in basketry. This activity, whatever it was in our case had an even more severe side effect. It undoubtedly contributed to the nasty abscess visible on the left side of the maxilla (upper jaw). Not only would this have been extremely painful, it may in fact have killed him, with the infection in the days before antibiotics leading to scepticaemia or blood poisoning.

[image] [image]
Joel Irish of University of Alaska, Fairbanks, examined the teeth and observed the painful abscess on the left side that probably was matched on the right. Ouch! The wearing down of the premolars may have caused this potentially lethal abscess.

In the known scheme of Nubian burial practices, this type of burial, extended and within a coffin, should date to a later phase, sometime in the New Kingdom. Unfortunately there was nothing placed in Tomb 18 to verify this dating. Parts of a marl fabric storage jar were found in the fill above the feet, but nothing else. We can only assume that this burial was a later addition to the cemetery that cut through or perhaps partly utilized the presumably earlier offering chapel of Tomb 16 for its superstructure. His clothing, however, leaves little doubt as to his cultural affiliation.

We had dreamed of finding an intact burial, or one relatively so, and here we had one. All of which just goes to show you, you must be careful what you wish for, especially had Hierakonpolis!

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