After a hiatus of 13 years, we've returned to the Predynastic Temple at Hierakonpolis. Dating to around 3500 B.C., it is Egypt's oldest. Excavations here in 1985, 1986-1987, and 1989 had revealed about half of a large (presumably) oval courtyard walled by a wooden fence, onto which fronted a main shrine with a façade composed of four large wooden pillars--now marked by four enormous postholes.
Our first order of business was to remove the sand that had accumulated over the millennia over the unexcavated portion of the courtyard floor in order to determine the full architectural layout of the vast complex. Of special interest was the area between the entrance to the compound and the entrance to the main shrine, as this might be where important thing happened. With over 80cm of sand and debris covering this possible processional corridor, it is no wonder that the area was not cleared earlier. The volume of debris meant a lot of work, but it also, we hope, meant that the temple deposits below had a good chance of being undisturbed.
We got to work immediately. With Ramadan coming up, it was a race against time. We excavate with local workmen, who have worked with us for over 30 years. They come from the nearby village and ride their donkeys to work each day, since we can provide miles of free parking. Michael Hoffman, who directed the excavations, began training the villagers in 1969 and working for the expedition has become a family tradition. Now we are working with the sons and grandsons of the original crew, who have worked their way up from basket boy to valued excavator. They are not only skilled, but also interested and proud of their own local heritage. trained to note the slightest change in the soil, they can point out areas of compaction, or texture differences, disturbance, etc. In a sandy site, where excavation balks are hard to maintain, and a prehistoric site, where detailed observation is critical, they make our work possible.
Our workers are very good-natured. During the first week, the plan was to remove as much of the windblown sand and mixed debris as possible. This made for somewhat boring work as once we reached a level that looked good, I made them stop, and move over to the next square (we dig in 10x10 m squares divided into 5x5m subunits) and begin again, saving the detailed work, brush work, sieving, and other less arduous tasks for the fasting days of Ramadan.
In the first six digging days, working from six in the morning until noon, we managed to clear seven 5x5m squares of about 50cm of sand to layers that look promising. The sand over the courtyard floor, however, was not entirely devoid of interesting things. We found a number of fragments of once beautifully polished stone vessels made of exotic stones imported from the Red Sea hills--diorite, basalt, alabaster, marble. We also recovered a crescent drill of flint used in the manufacture of these stone vessels. It probably originated from the workshops that surround the temple complex. Microdrills for boring out beads, and fragments of carefully knapped bifacial knives also turned up. The fine micro-retouch on the edge of what may have been a lance is amazing.
(Click for more on artifacts.)
These objects, however, are no longer in their original place because of fertilizer digging. In the early part of the last century and before, farmers mined the rich soil of archaeological deposits as fertilizer for their fields, which is called sebakh in Arabic. The decayed organic debris of ancient sites provided a supply of nitrogen, necessary for the crops and before chemical fertilizer was easily available, mining the ancient levels was the only alternative. As a result, the low desert at Hierakonpolis looks like the valleys of the moon, with sand-filled pits surrounded by mountains of discarded predynastic artifacts that were of no interest to the farmers, who only wanted the midden in which they were found. Piles of potsherds, animal bone, grinding stones, lithics, and assorted other wonderful things cover the site--over two square miles. It was years before I ever looked up while walking to work here--the wealth of goodies on the ground was riveting and after a good rain (like the one we had on our very first day this season!) or a major sand storm, new wonders can always be found.
In the coming weeks, the work will become more interesting and varied as the dig crew and assorted specialists begin examining the animal bone, pottery, and other finds as we make them.