Narmer's Temple: Week 2
Now that Ramadan has arrived, we've begun the detailed and delicate work of uncovering the temple deposits. During the holy month of Ramadan, the workmen neither eat nor drink during the daylight hours. Out of respect for their fasting, at the excavation site, we refrain from drinking or eating in front of them. It makes for a long day, and when quitting time comes around, I am certainly thankful. But the work must continue and we have several long-standing questions we want to answer this season. Among them: Where does the temple's courtyard floor end? Is the complex symmetrical? Is it oval in shape?
The Courtyard Floor
Attempts to find the end of the floor have a long history. A test trench dug by Michael Hoffman in 1986 at the far western end (or northern end, using the orientation of the river, as the Nile makes a bend at Hierakonpolis) was unsuccessful in finding the floor at all. Yet excavations 10 meters to the east in 1989 proved the paving continued at least that far, so we figured that somewhere in the intervening 10 meters, the floor must come to an end. We chose a 5 meter area immediately to the east of Hoffman's old trench, in a low lying area with little sand overburden and we got our first gift of Ramadan: a wide expanse of the distinctive sandy mud plastered floor complete with postholes! In a small exposure, it is always difficult to determine what postholes actually mean. Our postholes, set in a double row, cut into the thick plaster of the floor, are about 8cm in diameter. Some have been modified by mice (though it is hard to say when), who found the plaster of floor provided an excellent roof for their extensive burrows. The mice also added some "post holes" of their own, and all of the holes had to be closely examined to determine their true origin. A sloping passage and a horizontal tunnel was always a sure give away of a mouse-made hole, but others were more complicated. In the end, at least 10 were real post holes and the pattern they provided appears to describe a corner, perhaps be part of a room that occupied the far end of the courtyard floor and abutted the wall surrounding it. In order to verify this, of course, more excavation was required, but the numerous pits at the corners of the excavation square give us little room to manuever and we were stymied at every turn. Pulling back the sand between the pits, we met new pits every time. Less than 10cm to the west, the floor was cut by another pit, explaining why Hoffman had been unsuccessful in finding the floor here. To the north, where we thought we might find the curved toward the end of the floor, again we found large deep pits.
If we assume these are the pits dug by people seeking fertilizer (sebakh) rather than treasure, the courtyard floor itself would not have been of interest to them. Indeed the eastern end of the floor is completely pit free. So they may have been after the mud-brick wall that surrounded the courtyard and the organic garbage that often accumulates against walls. Ancient mud bricks are particularly attractive as fertilizer, and easy to transport. A thin layer of melted mud bricks over the preserved portion of floor in our recently excavated square almost certainly clinches this explanation. (This was confirmed just today when excavation revealed the remnants of a perimeter wall 6 courses thick that had been completely robbed out--only the mortar lines on the plaster of the floor remain to bear witness to the existence of this massive wall. No wonder the fertilizer diggers were so active). So, although have not and probably cannot find the absolute end of the courtyard floor, I think we must be fairly close. Nevertheless, we can now be sure that the floor was at least 40 meters long, the complex was roughly symmetrical with the main shrine in the center. It probably had an oval shape at the western end, but in the coming days we shall try to pick up more of the curve along the southern edge although the ground has been extensively wind scoured. But for now, our attentions has been diverted elsewhere.
The First Dynasty Pit
The excavations of 1985 and 1986 revealed two main phases for the temple complex: one very rich phase dating to the period of the predynastic called Nagada IIC, roughly 3400 B.C., and another dating to Nagada IID and early Nagada III (about 3200 B.C.), when the complex does not seem to have been especially well off and may have fallen into disrepair. The pottery of this latter phase is mainly a monotonous series of very crudely made oval platters and jars that were nothing particularly special, though of interest only because the range of shape was so limited. Thus it came as a major surprise during the excavations of 1989 in the northwestern part of the complex, when we were searching for the continuation of the floor to find a concentration of pottery of a completely different character and a different date. Although this area had been badly disturbed by pits that cut the floor, a wide range of pottery of early First Dynasty date (ca. 3100 B.C.) was recovered. Many of the sherds could be mended to make up a substantial portion of the vessels. These pots included a number of black-topped libation or "hes" jars (the sound value given to the later hieroglyph that bears the shape). Vessels of this type are only found in temple and funerary contexts. They are of additional interest because by this time, the Egyptians had not been making blacktopped pottery, one of the hallmarks of the early and middle predynastic period for over 200 years. When they returned to this practice, probably as a conscious archaism, a harkening to the past in which the Egyptians indulged from time to time throughout their long history, they had simply forgotten how to do it and it is very easy to tell the later attempts from the predynastic originals. Many of the problems they may have experience may have been caused by a change in kiln technology. It is actually not very easy to make blacktopped pottery in a more sophisticated updraught kiln in use by the First Dynasty.
We also recovered a large variety of tall jar stands with modelled and cut out decorations: triangles and circles that were either carved out of the wet clay or punched through. Complete examples from other sites, also of a cultic character, show these jar stands to be over 1m in height. We also found a number of odd pedestalled bowls with an internal cup like depression of unknown function. In addition there were several jars of fine white marl clay that must have been imported, as such clay is not native to the site. A clear import, are the fragments of the base of a jar of a distinct yellow fabric with combed decoration on the exterior. Both the fabric and the decoration mark it as an import from the Levant in the Early Bronze Age II.
Clearly something special was going on at this temple complex long after we think it may have fallen out of use. By this time, the temple was no longer in the center of town. A shift in the course of the Nile and other factors had essentially turned this part of Hierakonpolis into the desert it is today and the population had moved on to the floodplain around the more famous temple of Hierakonpolis, the home of the Palette of Narmer, discovered in 1898 by J.E. Quibell.
Drawing of Narmer macehead scene
So what were people doing out at this desert site at this time? This is a question made even more intriguing by another discovery made in conjunction with the Narmer palette at the more famous temple. Among the hundreds of early dynastic temple objects found cached there in what was called the "Main Deposit" was another inscribed object belonging to king Narmer, the first king of the First Dynasty. This was a large ceremonial macehead of quartzite carved with elaborate scenes showing Narmer seated on a stepped and canopied throne dais overseeing ceremonies taking place in the temple depicted on a miniature scale to one side. This temple is depicted as a building surrounded by a courtyard wall. Within the court stands a pole supporting an image now lost and a jar on a potstand. In the scene immediately below, horned animals cavort within a walled oval courtyard, which is a view into the court shown immediately above it. The oval shape of the courtyard, the double wall to one side and a number of other features are so similar to the architectural details found at our temple complex that it is tempting to suggest that the structure on the Narmer macehead is not just similar to, but is an actual representation of, this ceremonial complex, especially given the evidence for activity at the site at this time. Could it be that the First Dynasty cult pottery we found is a remnant of the very last ceremony to take place at this desert temple? Was the temple officially decommissioned by Narmer himself? A better understanding of the First Dynasty assemblage has the potential to prove we were standing in the actual building depicted on an object 5,000 years old and actually treading in the footsteps of Narmer.
A couple of pits at the western end of the excavation area of 1989 had the highest quantity of these interesting First Dynasty pots, but unfortunately time did not allow us to excavate all of them. Having excavated one and a half pits and having only half the pots, I had hoped that full excavation of the remaining pit would give me the half of the pots I still needed and provide more answers to this mysterious assemblage. So with high hopes we began our excavations. Well, we did find the other half of the pit, but it turned out to be one cut (or at least recut) in modern times, as the recovery of an iron sickle blade made clear, and very few mending pieces were found. In fact the only item of interest was a small piece of a lapis lazuli bangle bracelet. Clearly some nice things were once deposited at this complex, but where? Some questions are just not that easy to answer, but we shall keep on trying to find out.