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November 2002-April 2009Excavating Hierakonpolis
A skull emerges from among the stones filling the top of Tomb 9.
Despite the disturbance, many of the bones were still articulated with skin and leather adhering.
Tattooed skin from Tomb 9
We watched entranced as the delicate leather cut work loincloth appeared in the corner.

Nubians bringing tribute wear their traditional garments: leather loin clothes. Tomb of Rekhmire. Dynasty 18. (From N DeG. Davies. Tomb of Rekhmire, 1943.)

Workman of Nubian extraction wearing a loin cloth. Tomb of Rekhmire, Dynasty 18.
All photos courtesy of the Hierakonpolis Expedition. Click on images for larger versions.
by Renée Friedman

Nubians at Hierakonpolis: Week 1: Tomb 9

With the next burial we returned to more familiar ground. Tomb 9 was a rectangular tomb cut into the hard red soil, but narrow--only 60cm wide. We found no clear evidence for a stone superstructure over or around it, although loose stone mixed with pottery was prevalent in the vicinity. There was, however, plenty of stone in the grave shaft itself and this may have come from the tumulus or the sheathing of a rubble or dirt mound over it. The first layer was practically filled with stone and just a few mud bricks.

The second layer contained even more stones, especially on the north side, while soft windblown sand betrayed the presence of the looter's pit on the south side. As we slowly removed the stones, a skull gradually emerged. Considering the disturbance, the preservation was remarkable--one ear was practically complete! At first glance the ear even looked decorated by scarification around the edges, but what these marks really were later became clear...

[image] The curious marks on the skull's well-preserved ear were a puzzle.

Around the head, leather began to appear everywhere--large, amorphous chunks of leather, but also some obviously worked, with seams and gathers. The head was not in situ, but had been tossed upon a pile of semi-articulated bones, including the spinal column (snapped in two still articulated pieces) and the articulated hands (one still attached to the lower arm). Below lay the shoulder blades, ribs, and finally the pelvis. We didn't find the lower limbs, which probably had been in the now sand-filled southern side of the tomb.

The tomb must have been plundered when there was still a large amount of soft tissue still holding the bones together, although this isn't a real clue as to when this might have occurred. Even now there was muscle and skin still remaining on some elements, especially the shoulders and ribs. To our surprise some of this skin--possibly on the shoulder or abdominal area--was tattooed with a series of tick marks in blue pigment.

Salah Mohammed el-Amir carefully clears the sand away from the bones and leather in Tomb 9. [image]

Tattooing was common in Nubia and patterns exactly like ours have been reported at other C group cemeteries, but they are rarely illustrated and none appear to be still extant. Further parallels are found in Egypt beginning in the early Middle Kingdom (Dynasty 11) on some well-preserved mummies of priestesses and dancing girls, found at Thebes, all of whom are believed to have Nubian affiliations. Later this Nubian custom appears to have become more generally popular in Egypt mainly for women, as was also the case in Nubia. Associated with fertility or eroticism, figurines of nude women show distinctive tattooed patterns on their torso and thighs. Who would have imagined that our cemetery would contain such trend setters! (for more information on body decoration in ancient Egypt and Nubia see relevant chapters in Thomas Celenko (ed.), Egypt in Africa [1996]).

As if this discovery was not startling enough, you could just hear the collective gasp when the last remaining stone in the northwest corner was lifted. Beneath it was a large clump of leather with fine, rectangular, cut-out decoration. This is what is usually identified as a leather loin cloth, a garment that was depicted relatively frequently in New Kingdom Egypt, but actual examples have only rarely been found, and if our dating of the grave is correct (late Middle Kingdom), this would be one of the earliest actual examples known.

As the clearance continued, more of this delicate and in many places still quite supple leather was revealed across the north end of tomb. Immediately below the largest clump were fragments of leather of even more astonishingly fine work, each cut out only 2.5mm long and less than a millimeter wide. The regularity and evenness of the slits indicate it was made with a punch of some type and must have required infinite care to create without ripping the fine soft leather. We were entranced, but confused: could leather this fine have been used as a loincloth? And how many loincloths did we actually have?

Like tattooing, the leather loincloth is one of the few types of apparel that spread north from Nubia and made an impact on the world of Egyptian fashion. It arrived in Egypt probably during the early Middle Kingdom with the Nubian mercenaries and became popular in New Kingdom Egypt where it was worn by soldiers, sailors and laborers, Egyptian and Nubian, but Kings and courtiers (especially those with Nubian ancestry or connections) also owned them.

Tomb 6

Tomb 9

A Loincloth

Tomb 10


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