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November 2002-April 2009Excavating Hierakonpolis
From within the back dirt, pieces of a Nubian bowl (top) with impressed dots along the rim. More examples of Nubian vessels with incised decoration were recovered, including these examples (bottom) of the rare incised red ware with characteristic impressed triangles around the rim.
The collapsed roofing stones barely missed the skull of the owner of Tomb 20.
Below the stones, papery thin leather remained.
Heavily plundered, only a small faience amulet and a lock of hair remained within Tomb 23.
Beside a number of large boulders, Tomb 17 begins to appear.
At the bottom of the shaft of Tomb 17, another body was found. Plaster still adhered to the tomb walls.
Cutting into the bricky mass around Tomb 17 revealed fragments of a large jar.
The jar was actually entirely present, and had simply fallen over millennia ago.
The bullet and its proud finder, Joe Majer
The pot under the earthworks now made it clear it was only slump from an originally much taller tumulus.
Waiting for us beside Tomb 21 was a big surprise. We all watched in stunned amazement as an iridescent shell disk appeared beneath strands of beads.
The human wind shield
Photos courtesy of the Hierakonpolis Expedition. Click on images for larger versions.
by Renée Friedman

Nubians at Hierakonpolis: Week 4

It is one of those Murphy's Laws of archaeology that the best discoveries will be made in the last days of any field season. With just ten more days to go and a holiday in the middle, the rate of new finds was certainly gearing up to keep pace with that axiom and to keep us on our toes. But as usual in this cemetery, the discoveries occurred where we least expected them.

As we moved south from Tomb 18, the unexpected tomb with its remarkably well-preserved owner, we approached a large crater over three meters (ten feet) in diameter surrounded by a high ring of back dirt, which had been created by illicit digging in recent times. When we plotted this feature on the surface map, we presumed that some remnant of a large tumulus located on what appeared to be the high point of the cemetery had sparked the interest of the looters. Although it would be obviously plundered, we hoped that the back-dirt piles would preserve below them the architectural features of a huge tomb. Of course, as with most everything in this cemetery, we were wrong. The back-dirt piles came down quickly, and were remarkably rubble free. Mixed in them, however, were a number of impressed and incised Nubian sherds that sparked keen interest. Enough pieces of one distinctive bowl with impressed dots around the rim were recovered to almost completely reconstruct the vessel. In the end, the back dirt bottomed not onto the walls of a tumulus, but two rectangular tomb shafts (Tombs 19 and 20) that had been disturbed long before the Big Depression (as we came to call it) was ever dug.

Tomb 19 had been extensively plundered, leaving the bones piled up at one end of the grave. There was no evidence of a superstructure. Tomb 20, on the other hand, may originally have had a brick ring surrounding it, but only scattered bricks remained. A small offering pit dug into the surface near the northeast corner was another new twist in funerary architecture. Although rodents had carried away most of them, the pit still contained a quantity of seeds. Working our way down into the shaft, we found the stone roofing slabs collapsed into the tomb, narrowly missing the skull of the elderly tomb owner with heavily worn teeth, which had been displaced to one corner before the collapse occurred. Beneath the massive stones, remnants of papery thin leather garments were preserved, but the bones of the body were in complete disarray. We found more pieces of the distinctive bowl with impressed dots were found within this tomb, but whether the bowl was originally part of the tomb furnishings or fell in during disturbance we'll probably never know for sure.


Tomb 19

These tombs were interesting enough, but nothing out of the ordinary. Why would the looters have invested so much energy digging a big hole here then? We were still not entirely convinced that the diggers of the Big Depression had been totally fooled. So we moved westward to test another edge of the back dirt and also to see if we could identify any above ground architecture associated with Tomb 18. Work in this area led us to discover Tomb 23, another burial within a brick ring, but of a small child. Scaled down in size, a small offering chapel of bricks and pieces of distinctive yellow sandstone was located on the north side, but instead of Nubian pottery, it seems that reused Predynastic pottery was offered! However, along the east side a pottery emplacement just outside of the ring still contained the black-topped vessel and the burnt offerings placed there in honor of what must have been a beloved offspring. The partly in situ black-topped bowl was in fragments, and it was only after it had been reconstructed that we understood why. An oval hole in the base showed that it had been ritually "killed" when it was offered, and also subjected to fire as one side of the rim was heavily burnt and soot encrusted. Broken or not, it was nice to finally find an offering place with something still in it, but it was only a harbinger of things to come.

[image] Outside the brick ring, a black-topped bowl had been placed as an offering amongst burned foodstuffs in specially made offering placed. The oval hole near the base shows that the bowl had been ritually "killed." [image]

Meanwhile, Joe Majer was exploring the eastern side of Test Square C. The northeast quadrant was remarkably free of tombs and this allowed Joe to concentrate on Tomb 17, which was located adjacent to a concentration of round sandstone boulders, one of which we used as our datum. This collection of stone, if not natural, suggested to us that something here may have been of importance, and for once we were NOT wrong!

Joe quickly came down on the brick ring surrounding the tomb, but this again challenged our expectation by being several courses high, forming a real tumulus, perhaps originally filled with rubble or sand. Within the ring, the typical rectangular shaft was defined, but near the top of it were the disturbed remains of a child, about ten years of age. Continuing down in the shaft, we were surprised to find a second body, on the floor of the grave, separated from the body of the child by many centimeters of clean sand. These were clearly two separate burials, but whether the interments occurred during the same ceremony or whether the tomb was opened up again and reused at a later point for the child is unknown. The bones of the lower body were semi-articulated. The head was intact and probably nearly in its original place, but the mid section of the body had been severely disturbed, yet we recovered enough of it to tell that the owner was a male about 20 years of age. There was a small bivalve shell used as a scoop or a cosmetic holder below the pelvis, as well as large quantities of beads and some beaded leather. Although fragments of white plaster had been found in the fill of several of the graves, at the base of Tomb 17 much of it was still adhering to the walls, showing us that what now appear as roughly cut tomb walls were once nicely finished in gleaming white.

[image] [image]
Beads and beaded
leather from Tomb 17.

Once the burial was out of the way, Joe focused on defining the architecture of the tomb. It was clear from the interior that the brick ring surrounding the grave was four courses high, but determining its horizontal dimensions proved to be much harder. It looked as if the bricks had been surrounded by stones and pressed earth, potentially creating a large tumulus or a number of offering platforms. With so many unexpected variations on funerary architecture, we were hesitant, and gingerly circled the structure, shaving off a small bit at a time, in hopes of achieving clarification. Given our past experiences, it was not entirely a surprise, when in the process, we discovered yet another previously undetected tomb along the north side (Tomb 21), which at some point may have been covered by the tumulus of Tomb 17, or so we thought.

In order to explore Tomb 21 and determine its relationship to Tomb 17 it was necessary to cut back some of the still unclarified earthwork around Tomb 17. We cut a small section into the bricky mass and almost immediately parts of a large green marl jar appeared below.

[image] As Tomb 21 appeared beside the earthworks of Tomb 17, we wondered how they might be related.

Further clearance revealed this jar had simply fallen over and broken more or less in half. Every piece of it was ultimately recovered and Xavier worked his mending magic and produced for us a complete storage jar of Middle Kingdom date, which we affectionately named "the bullet." Partly embedded in sand and partly encased in mud, this vessel showed us that the so-called platform around Tomb 17 was nothing more than the slump of the tumulus, which may have been several courses higher than preserved. Now that we understood this, the work could begin in earnest, with remarkable results. The bullet had probably been placed as an above-ground offering beside the tumulus walls of Tomb 17, as was the Nubian custom.

Nearby, but almost certainly associated with Tomb 21--which had unfortunately been completely plundered--was a far more interesting offering. It first appeared as line of tiny blue beads still on their string, or at least still retaining their original stringing order, on the surface at the southeast corner of Tomb 21. These were the first beads to be found in situ in this cemetery and this of course was a matter of great excitement. I was called over immediately upon discovery to record it, but before taking a photograph, I asked the workmen to clean it up just a little more and try to find the full length of the strand. It rapidly became clear that this was more than just a string of beads as each brush stroke revealed more of the iridescent shell disk-shaped medallion around which the beads had been wound. A collective gasp could be heard throughout the site as we all gathered around and watched mesmerized, as more and more of it appeared from beneath the sand. We were stunned by its beauty and amazed to think that something this lovely had lain in this exact position, just below the surface, for 4,000 years.

The string of tiny blue faience beads wrapped around the medallion was still in the same position it had been laid 4,000 years ago. [image]

The actual string that held the tiny beads, which were less than 1mm in diameter, had long since disintegrated, so keeping the assemblage in place was delicate work, not made any easier by the wind which began gusting just at the most critical point. Such winds are a fact of life in February, in the month called "emsheer" (wind). But it seemed grossly unfair that this wind should make an appearance so early in the season and just when it was least appreciated. Nevertheless, after many long seasons of practice, we knew how to handle it. Without being asked, the workmen quickly arranged themselves to create a human windbreak, shrouded in a bed sheet for additional protection.

Painstaking as the uncovering of the beads and the medallion had been, even more delicate an operation was lifting the beads. After full photography and mapping, we took up segments of beads, about ten beads at a time, foil wrapped and numbered so that they could be restrung in the exact pattern. We could see that there were lighter and darker blue beads, but did they make one strand or were there two? This question could only be answered after the shell disk was removed, revealing another tangle of beads below. Who could imagine there could be so many!?

[image] After lifting the top beads in groups of about ten at a time we were ready to lift the disk. Below it were more loops and swirls of beads. [image]

We followed the same process to reveal and then lift the loops and swirls of these beads and in the process discovered a tiny faience amulet, but what exactly it represents is still a matter of discussion. Back at the house, Fran put it all back together, restringing more than 1,000 beads into two long strands. As the beads were not found strung through the two holes in the shell disk we cannot be sure just how it was worn, but it would certainly have been a beautiful highlight to any outfit (I personally can think of a few of my own that I wouldn't mind gracing with such an ornament).

Examination of the shell disk by our archaeozoologist Wim Van Neer showed that it was made from the shell of the local freshwater mollusk Spathopsis rubens, that had been carefully cut out, smoothed down and then pierced by drilling. Since prehistory, unmodified shells of this bivalve have also been used as scoops or containers to hold cosmetics.

After three days of careful brushing, photographing and cataloguing, the necklace was a fantastic finale to the penultimate week of work or perhaps better said: It was a great beginning to an amazing final week!

[image] The necklace restrung. What a beauty!
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