2008 Field Note 2 - Fixing the Fort
Final 2008 operations and looking forward to 2009
A footed cup of Persian period date (6th-3rd centuries B.C.) from the Fort debris.
A cooking pot incised with the cartouche of Queen Hatshepsut (New Kingdom), is the only evidence for activity inside the Fort from the time it was built until the Sixth century. It appears to have been hallowed ground for at least 2,000 years after it was built.
In February 2009, we will face one of the biggest challenges in our efforts to conserve the Second Dynasty (ca. 2700 B.C.) mud-brick enclosure of King Khasekhemwy (a.k.a. the Fort). It will soon be time to do something permanent about the large and ugly gap in the interior face of the west wall, the last, but more serious, threat to the long-term survival of this intriguing monument. We have long known it was going to be a big job, but the true measure of this task only became fully apparent last season, when we began to flatten the dishevelled ground surface of the interior, which was no small job in itself, since it covers an area of about 47x57 m (or roughly 51x62 yards, the size of half an American football field).
The area enclosed by the Fort's walls has been a mess since 1905 (if not before) because of the excavations of John Garstang, who uncovered more than 166 Predynastic graves within it. The excavations were never properly back filled leaving a depression up to 2 m below the level of the wall bases, especially on the north side, while undulating ridges of excavation back dirt towering over 2.5 m above the level of the original floor filled the southern and western sectors. In order to prevent further subsidence of the walls, improve the general appearance and create workspace for the large-scale repairs we were going to have to make to the interior walls, we embarked on a massive flattening operation in January 2008. Our aim was to return the ground level to near or above the original floor level by manually redistributing the dirt from the higher piles into low lying areas. A large local workforce was recruited for this mammoth task, for which they were remarkably enthusiastic especially as the results soon became apparent.
Our excavations inside the Fort in 1999 showed that the higher heaps contained only redeposited debris, but we remained on the alert for undisturbed areas. None were found except for a small ridge in the southwest which contained evidence for animal keeping in the form of stratified layers of animal dung. Pottery recovered nearby suggests occupation in the Persian period (6th-3rd centuries B.C.) and later. Interestingly, one stratum was filled with tumbled bricks, indicating that already at the relatively tender age of only 2,500 years, the Fort was becoming a little fragile. This area has been reserved for future investigation and it is hoped that below, undisturbed layers from the Second Dynasty will be preserved.
It was notable throughout the work that we observed no material from the periods between the Second Dynasty and the Persian period. We found no further evidence of New Kingdom activity to complement the straw tempered cooking pot incised with the cartouche of Queen Hatshepsut recovered within the Fort in unclear circumstances in 1978. Overall, it would appear that for at least two millennia after it was built the Fort remained hallowed (or at least unused) ground.
The Hierakonpolis and Abydos enclosures compared. All enclosures sufficiently explored have evidence of an internal chapel, placed near the east gate, and often oriented askew to the main enclosure walls.
The flattening operations also allowed us to examine a bit more of the free-standing structure, or chapel, within the Fort, first uncovered by Garstang and re-explored by us in 1999. The mud-brick funerary enclosures of the Early Dynastic kings at Abydos also contained similar mud-brick chapels in their interiors, which, like that in the Fort, were usually placed close to the east gateway and laid out with walls askew to the orientation of the main enclosure. Generally simple three-room structures, Khasekhemwy made his at Abydos a more complicated affair composed of more than 9 rooms. At Hierakonpolis, he also embellished his chapel, outfitting it with at least two red granite column bases, one of which is still present and the focus of fertility rituals by the local women (it seems to work).
However, learning more about the Fort's internal chapel has not easy because of Garstang's previous "investigations." From the archival photographs--the only record we have--he clearly did not appreciated the purpose of the walls that he encountered. Although he dug around them--in some places quite deeply--rather than demolish them, he did not plan them, and overall they appear to have served as convenient seats for archaeologists and shelves for artifacts. In 1999, light clearance of the visible walls gave us the first proper view of this structure, suggesting a building at least 19m E-W (external dimensions) and 10m N-S, apparently composed of at least two rooms, but many questions remained as the walls disappeared into the high ridges of debris.
The east wall of the internal chapel turned out to be bigger and better preserved than expected.
The lighter-colored, slightly narrower and much harder bricks distinctive of the first phase of construction were obvious at the base of the chapel walls, indicating that this feature was part of the Fort's plan from the very beginning.
The interior central gap. Originally two nasty gaps, now eroded together into one large headache.
The birth of the breach. The excavation of the Late Period burials dug under the walls weakened the foundations, allowing the gaps already present in 1905 to grow. (Courtesy of the Garstang Archive, University of Liverpool)
Debris had obscured the traces of an east wall observed earlier, so we took this opportunity to investigate more closely. Once the debris was removed, nine meters of the east wall and its northeast corner were revealed, much bigger and better preserved than we expected. Much to our surprise the wall was more than 1.80 m wide (equivalent to about 7 rows of headers) and, although only the first 2-3 courses of brick survive, the west face still retains its veneer of alternating headers and stretchers like the main wall of the enclosure. Most interestingly, the lowest course was made with the distinctive bricks of the first phase of construction, indicating that this internal chapel was part of the Fort's plan from the very beginning. Unfortunately, the southern extension of this wall still eludes us, buried beneath the ridge of debris that runs along the southern side of the enclosure. It is here that potentially the entrance to the chapel may lie, since the Abydos chapels all have their entrance on the east. The concentration of Second Dynasty pottery, especially the distinctive beer jars, here also suggests an entrance is close by, as deposits of pottery have been noted around the entrances in the chapel in the Abydos enclosure of Peribsen (predecessor of Khasekhemwy) and Khasekhemwy himself.
Not only Second Dynasty pottery was found in concentrations by the chapel. We also encountered Late Predynastic pottery (ca. 3200-3000 B.C.), often well-preserved, in some quantity. This pottery certainly originates from the tombs found below the Fort, but why it should be so prevalent by the chapel was unclear until we examined the archival photographs. It now seems clear that Garstang gathered the various pots he found and examined them on the exposed walls of the chapel. After selecting what he wanted to keep, he launched the rest over the sides, for us to find later. It must be said, he didn't leave behind much of interest, especially since the grave context has been lost.
Selection of Late Predynastic pottery from the graves in the Fort left behind by Garstang.
Early pottery collected in the Fort. The mottled brown polished pottery with the carination, or sharp angled turn of the body, indicates an early Naqada I or possibly Badarian (4000 B.C.) occupation of the area.
Far more intriguing (and pretty) were the sherds of pottery of much greater antiquity found mixed with the debris. In fact, some of the earlier Predynastic pottery at Hierakonpolis has been recovered here. These include soot-covered cooking pots of simple form, but also fragments of highly polished vessels with a sharp carination at mid body. Pottery of this type is known from the Naqada I period (ca. 3800 B.C.) and even earlier into the Badarian. Unfortunately it is all mixed up with later deposits, but it does suggest that the prehistory of the Fort was far more dynamic than its later history.
The accumulated evidence indicates that this area was a locus of very early settlement occupation ca. 3800 B.C. or earlier. If not already the case, the area was subsequently converted for industrial purposes, to judge from the amount of kiln debris we also encountered. This includes fragments of huge vats filled with residue from the production of a grain-based food, probably some sort of porridge, and the firebars used to support the vats, as well as pottery-making tools and over-fired "wasters." The area east of the Fort is still littered with debris of this type, attesting a bustling industrial zone, part of which we investigated in 2005-2006 (see updates for HK24B) with plans for more work in 2009. Later, beginning in the Naqada IIC period (ca. 3500 B.C.), the area was used as a cemetery. We suspect this change in function occurred because the course of the Nile had shifting farther to the east, leaving the area where the Fort now sits high and dry and well beyond the waters of the annual flood. The cemetery continued to grow to the west and north with time, so that by the Second Dynasty tombs were being built nearly half a kilometer to the north of the Fort's location. An imposing location, at the edge of the cultivation at the mouth of the wadi that bisects the site, it is no surprise that Khasekhemwy, and those before him, chose this spot.
Flattening the Fort is a big job. We couldn't do it all, but by the end of the season, the west side of the interior had been returned to a level about 30cm above the wall base. Any in situ material that may survive remains untouched for future research. A large part of the north-central area was also leveled, and the ground surface around the entrance was raised to the proper level. The stability, appearance and manageability of the Fort have been markedly improved by these efforts and the sweeping views now possible allow its impressive size and grandeur to be appreciated for the first time in living memory.
Now able to scan the interior in its entirety, it is a breathtaking--or should I say, eye-watering--sight. Certainly, the unobstructed view of the damage to the interior wall surfaces is enough to make one cry!
In addition to the large gap in the middle of the west wall, we could now see how severely the wind had scoured the lower halves of all the standing walls making them top heavy and fragile. Deep undercuts all along the base of the walls, created by tomb excavations and general subsidence, extend back to the first phase wall at the core, destabilizing the wall faces. It became very clear that we would have our hands full even before we got close to our main concern, the yawning hole in the center.
Leveling the west side of the Fort allowed us to appreciate
its impressive size and grandeur for the first time.
The big gap on the interior (about 7 m wide, 5 m high and up to 3.5 m deep) was originally matched by an equally large damaged area on the exterior (AKA "the central gap"), with only ca.1.5 m of wall thickness between them. We repaired the outside gap in 2006-2007 (see earlier updates), but its partner on the inside is a far more complicated affair.
Originally two separate, deep and ugly, holes, erosion has now joined them into one large spot of bother. To compound the matter, these holes occur in conjunction with an area of profound weakness in the foundation. Late Period burials inserted into the wall base and later excavated by Garstang were never adequately backfilled. As a result of this weakness, sections of the second phase wall to the north and south of the gap are separating and slipping downward. In addition, someone has helpfully dug out a small corridor at the back of the deeper gap, which runs for many meters within the core of the wall. Looking up inside this gap, if only very briefly, one has to wonder what in the world is keeping this wall standing at all.
Widening cracks and falling bricks told us that the central gap wasn't going to wait for us. It wanted attention now.
Out of time to implement permanent repairs, we created a temporary support system with steel beams, timbers and pillows.
Near the end of the 2008 season, we discovered the answer to this question: very little.
Our original plan had been to approach this highly dangerous and frankly pretty scary gap by repairing the weakened areas adjacent to in succession. In this way, we hoped to creep up on the central gap slowly, conserving and stabilizing the areas all around it before having to really confront it face to face, but the Fort had a different timetable....
Widening cracks and increasing brick fall indicated that the west wall was on the move. Careful examination revealed that it was actively sinking vertically at a place where it was the weakest--right over the central gap. Immediate action was required, but unfortunately, this perilous state of affairs only became clear in the last eight days of the 2008 season, when we lacked sufficient time and supplies to implement any permanent fix. Instead, we immediately began to design and erect a series of braces to hold the wall temporarily until final repairs could be carried out.
To provide temporary support in the time allotted, a series of five steel U-section girders, up to 6 m long, were securely fixed to a temporary bench in the ground before the gap. The other ends of the girders were padded with the team's donated pillows and then carefully positioned to make contact with the wall and act as a halting presence against any further movement, without putting undue pressure on the old bricks.
Timber braces (similarly padded) were then placed to support lower courses, while a network of interconnecting timbers made the props into a steady and powerful support system to prevent the upper and middle sections of the wall from collapsing. Padded steel tubes on screw-threaded jacks were inserted into the deeper recesses to offer vertical assistance against the forces of gravity.
Minutes before we got in the taxi to leave the site for the season, our dedicated crew put the final touches on the temporary supporting structure after seven days of non-stop work. So far, reports are good--the supports are is still doing their job!
Then to complete the supporting structure, the timbers were painted to protect them from the white ants, and their bases were encased in a substantial construction of red (fired) brick set in mud mortar to prevent movement and theft.
Once this dangerous area was secured, it was then possible for our chief mason, Abdullah Nour, to squeeze between the girders to implement the first of the permanent repairs--a column of mud-brick masonry at the critical juncture between the two deepest parts of the gap. This is a good start, but we have a long way to go.
Coming up in February it will be time to finish the job. Permanent repairs will require full reinforcement of the heavily damaged foundations, large quantities of new mud brick, industrial strength scaffolding for safety and height and the skill and dedication of our experienced crew. We are gathering the equipment, now we just need a little luck!
Keep your fingers crossed for us and watch this space.
Acknowledgements: The 2008 season of conservation at the Fort was made possible through a grant from the World Monuments Fund administered Annenberg Program for Endangered Cultural Heritage in the Developing World and generous donations from our many Friends of Nekhen to whom we are very grateful. We also wish to thank the School of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology of the University of Liverpool for the use of the Garstang archive photographs.