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November 2002-April 2009Excavating Hierakonpolis
Two views of the Narmer temple show the 1980s excavation in progress, top, and a more recent look from a cherry-picker, bottom, which shows the postholes and one end of the oval court. We'll be taking away the big pile of sand in the middle and working along the side to uncover the pits.
All photos courtesy of the Hierakonpolis Expedition. Click on images for larger versions.

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by Renée Friedman

Narmer's Temple

The site is perhaps best known as the home of the exquisite ceremonial Narmer Palette. Found buried in a cache of temple furniture, the palette had been commissioned by Narmer, the first king of Egypt's First Dynasty, who reigned at about 3100 B.C. The palette--so-called the first political document in history--shows Narmer subduing an enemy ruler.

Based on this palette and other important objects found in this cache, Hierakonpolis has long been considered King Narmer's capital in Upper Egypt from which he conquered Lower Egypt. Our research reveals that Hierakonpolis was the capital of Upper Egypt for at least 500 years before Narmer's birth.

At about 3500 B.C., Hierakonpolis--a vibrant, bustling city stretching for over three miles along the Nile floodplain--was one of the largest urban centers along the river, a city of many neighborhoods and quarters inhabited by rich and poor, commoners and kings.

The early kings' power is most evident than in the center of the vast town, where in 1985 we began excavating Egypt's earliest temple. The scale and the nature of the finds indicate that the complex was a three room shrine with a facade of huge timber pillars, possibly cedars imported from Lebanon. This shrine opened onto a large oval walled courtyard in which stood a solitary pole, perhaps once displaying the image of the god Horus, around which ceremonies took place. There was also a mud-brick platform from which the early kings of Upper Egypt watched as newborn goats, cattle, and even crocodiles were slaughtered in their honor. Around the courtyard, in little workshops, craftsmen transformed raw materials gathered from the far reaches of the realm into luxury goods for their princely and divine patrons: ivory boxes, polished stone jars, carnelian beads, and ceremonial weapons. This imposing complex dominated the early town. Its shrine--the prototype for later Egyptian temples--was a potent symbol of the power of the king and the local god Horus, the patron deity of Egyptian kingship for the next 3,000 years.

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One of our goals is to finish excavating a pit in the temple courtyard that was only half dug in 1989. Among the objects recovered then is this pot (left), which dates from the time of Narmer. Fine stoneworking was carried out in the temple area, with microdrills being used to produce beads and crescent drills, like these (right), for carving stone vases.

Over half of the temple complex is still buried under three feet of wind-blown sand and many of its secrets have yet to be revealed. There is still a mysterious pit discovered in 1989 cut into the courtyard floor. Only partially investigated at the time, this pit contained fine pottery, some of it imported from Palestine and the Delta, that had been intentionally smashed or ritually killed before being deposited in it. Even more intriguing is the date of the pottery. It is all from the time of Narmer and can only be the remnants of what must have been the very last usage of the temple--perhaps the coronation of king Narmer himself--before it was abandoned for the another temple built in the new center of town. This intentional deposition of ritual pottery suggests that caches of other cult objects may be located close by.

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