HK6: the Elite Predynastic and Early Dynastic cemetery
Excavations at HK6 began in 1979 and are still in progress as are our interpretations of what we have unearthed here. One of the most exciting areas of the site of Hierakonpolis, discoveries made here are continually rewriting the history books. Discoveries include the largest tombs of the early Naqada II period, the earliest above ground funerary architecture, the first funerary temples, the most extensive and varied animal burials known from any early site, remarkable figurines in flint, early ceramic masks, limestone statuary and the first falcons…the list goes on. Here we present a brief discussion of where we are so far (December 2012 - plan at June 2013. For information about Tomb 72 discovered in March 2014 click here) and what are current thoughts are about certain aspects. The cemetery is a work in progress and with each year we learn more, sometimes our finding overturn earlier ideas, while presenting different questions to investigate. It is sometimes easy to get confused, so we also include here an updated check list of the nearly 60 tombs discovered to date.
The first excavations (of a scientific nature) at HK6 were undertaken from 1979 to 1985 by Michael Hoffman who demonstrated the special status of this cemetery with the discovery of massive brick-lined (and one rock-cut) tombs of the Naqada III period (Tomb 1, 2 10, 11), the largest tombs in Upper Egypt outside of Abydos. Despite extensive plundering they still containing some of fine and exotic materials showing that even after power had shifted north to Abydos and then to Memphis, Hierakonpolis was still a very rich and important place.
Applying techniques of settlement excavation in the cemetery, Hoffman also revealed the remnants of the unique wooden architecture that once surrounded these tombs, a type unknown at any other site, which we now they they inherited from their ancestors.
He was also the first to uncover the burials of animals (Tombs 7, 12) which at the time he was unable to date. Graves of the early Naqada II period were also discovered, many also containing animals in conjunction with human occupants (Tombs 3, 5, 6, 9). Large tombs, they were undoubtedly originally quite rich, but they were not any larger than elite tombs at other sites of the Naqada II period, and contained nothing that set Hierakonpolis ahead of the pack to correspond with the sophisticated nature of the settlement. This was eventually to change.
From 1997 to 2000, Barbara Adams resumed the excavations, working in the central part of the cemetery in search of evidence to determine whether the perceived gap in burial activity in the Naqada IIC-D period was real (so far it does appear to be). She uncovered several more graves of both the Naqada II and III period, but her most significant discovery was Tomb 23 (although she was unable to complete the excavations). Measuring 5.5m long by 3m wide, it is the largest known tomb of the Naqada IIB period, which in addition to its size, was, at the time of its discovery, the earliest in Egypt to exhibit above ground funerary architecture. This involved an enclosure wall all made of wooden posts surrounding a pillared superstructure above the tomb, on the east side of which was a special columned area we call an offering chapel, based on the deposits of fine objects found in it. These objects include animal figures knapped from flint (an ibex and the head of a Barbary sheep), an ivory cylinder, which is possibly a mace handle, and more disturbingly a human vertebra with cut marks indicative of decapitation.
It is also from the chapel that fragments of Egypt’s first near life size human stone (indurate limestone) statue were recovered. The statue’s size and shape are based on the well-carved nose and two ears, while the rest of it is represented by over 600 small fragments that have proved difficult to mend. The overwhelming majority of the fragments have worked surfaces suggesting the statue had been intentionally defaced with glancing blows and its core hauled away for reuse. As a result it is impossible to determine who this statue represented, and we can only speculate on whether it was standing or seated.
Further exploration of the adjacent areas in 2006-2007 revealed another large tomb (Tomb 26) with clear evidence of wooden superstructure (as well as a scorpion statuette and an imported wine jar), but more remarkable were the structures, below which there were no tombs, which took the form of multi-columned, or pillared, halls.
These pillared halls not only provide the first examples of an architectural style (the hypostyle hall) only previously hypothesized for the Predynastic, but also give ample evidence for the existence of developed mortuary temples and rituals from a very early time. These wooden buildings apparently stretched back for generations, as at least three building phases were detected as earlier structures were replaced over time by even grander structures. A radiocarbon date on the bark from one of the wooden pillars of a later phase hall (Structure E8) of 3790-3640BC (4930+/-50BP) proves their antiquity. Their original appearance is harder to determine, but fragments of plaster with red and green pigment, and some with figural designs, indicate that these structures were both colourful and impressive.
Of the eight structures known, the best preserved is Structure 07; 15m long and 10.5 meters wide, 24 wooden columns originally filled its interior. Although much denuded, a variety of objects were found within the postholes apparently as foundation deposits. These include seashells from the Red Sea, ivory objects, a cow horn, and a bundle of cloth containing malachite. Further objects were found concentrated in the corners. In the northeast, were masses of ostrich eggshells attesting to the original presence of at least six rare and valuable whole eggs, some of which were incised with a hunting scene. In the southeast corner were objects of different types, including a unique ivory wand carved with a procession of hippopotami along the top, a tiny steatite hippo figurine and a falcon figurine masterfully carved from brittle malachite. This is Egypt’s earliest falcon image; falcons only becoming common just before the First Dynasty, especially as markers of royal names. Whether this falcon already carried royal connotations is unknown, but given the elite context and the strong association of the local falcon god Horus with early kingship, it seems highly likely.
From the corners we also collected a large number of elegant hollow-base arrowheads, some of large size anticipating the gigantism of the votive mace heads and palettes of the Main Deposit. The skill involved leaves little doubt that the same craftsmen created the flint ibex also discovered in Structure 07. More flint animals were found in the corners of other structures, always in association with arrowheads and other hunting gear, and suggest ritual activities symbolic of control. Members of a relatively rare class of artifact (only about 65 examples are now known), these flint figurines from the HK6 cemetery, now represents the largest single assemblage of flint animals with known provenance from anywhere in Egypt.
(For more details and pictures see Early Kings: http://www.archaeology.org/interactive/hierakonpolis/field07/6.html)
This precinct of pillared hall, located in the center of the cemetery, was no doubt used for the mortuary cults of those buried here and provide us a view of an elaborate mortuary landscape on a scale hitherto unexpected for this time. But their discovery left us with a problem as the the configuration of pillars around Tomb 23 looked suspiciously like a reused or borrowed pillared hall. Further, when we realized that several posts of pillared hall E8 had been removed to bury the African elephant found in Tomb 24 and presumed to be part of the Tomb 23 entourage, a scenario of “borrowing” became even more likely. (for more information on Tomb 24 follow along at http://www.archaeology.org/interactive/hierakonpolis/field/elephant1.html)
Thus it became critical to determine whether other elite tombs of the period were endowed with architectural features, and in hopes of discovering this we returned to the area first investigated by Barbara Adams in 1999 to take another look at Tomb 16, another large elite tomb of the early predynastic, Naqada 1C-IIA period, around which remnants of wooden posts had been observed.
Although a brick-lined tomb of the Naqada IIIA2 period had later been inserted into Tomb 16 in what appears to have been an act of respectful renovation rather than usurpation, it was still possible to get the measure of the original tomb. Roughly 4.3 x 2.6 m and about 1.45 m deep, it is amongst the largest known from the Naqada IC-IIA period. Despite plundering and reuse, it was still a very rich tomb containing a huge amount of pottery. More than 115 vessels have been recorded from it, including one incised with the earliest known emblem of Bat, showing her close association with power from the beginning.
Two of the best preserved of the ceramic masks known exclusively from this cemetery also probably originate from this tomb. Curved to fit over the human head and attached by means of a string passed through holes behind the ears, they are Egypt’s earliest funerary masks. They stand at the beginning of a tradition whose origin has long been a matter of conjecture. So if any tomb was going to have superstructure, Tomb 16 was going to be the one and it did not disappoint.
Investigations from 2009-2011 revealed a number of wooden posts suggesting a substantial superstructure was raised above it, while six postholes along the north side marked a small offering chapel. And like Tomb 23, surrounding it all was a wood-post fence, but in the case of Tomb 16 it interconnected with a wider complex of enclosures containing a range of smaller tombs. Together these elements form a complex that we tentative reconstruct as imitating the owners earthly residence with household members holding their place in death as they did in life. Although all of the satellite tombs have been heavily plundered, enough remains of their contents to suggest that there was nothing arbitrary about their layout or their occupants: the inner rung flanking Tomb 16 was reserved for human burials, while the graves of animals and possibly their keepers form an outer perimeter, attesting to an extensive menagerie of animals both domestic and wild.
The fine artifacts in all of the human tombs indicate high status owners, presumably family and courtier, amongst which apparently especially favoured was a male achondroplastic dwarf buried in subsidiary Tomb 47, who stood just under 4 feet (120cm) tall.
Dwarfs were highly prized in the court of the First Dynasty kings where they were honoured with burial amongst the retainers around the royal tombs and commemorated with high quality stelae, showing that they were valued as personal attendants as they would continue to be in the Old Kingdom. But there are several indications that the Tomb 47 dwarf was already highly valued companion in the predynastic period. Foremost among them is the location of his grave, which is beneath the floor of the pillared chapel. Burial here would seem to be an incredible privilege, associating him intimately with the owner of Tomb 16 in death, as he no doubt was in life.
Further recognition is also suggested by his possible portrait in flint. Although found in surface levels to the northwest, this remarkable piece may well represent the dwarf with his bowed legs and short arms.
But perhaps the best indication of the special status of the dwarf is his age. At approximately 40 years of age, he is the oldest person in the tomb complex. Of the 39 individuals found within the 14 tombs directly flanking Tomb 16, no one is younger than 8 years of age and no one is older than 35 years; over two-thirds of them were juveniles under 15 years of age and young women. The sample is still limited, but this is far from normal mortality and strongly suggests that few, if any, of them died of natural causes. They may in fact have been specifically chosen for the honour of accompanying their lord.
If this is true for the humans, it is certainly true for the majority of animals amongst which different levels of care and value are evident. Near identical radiocarbon dates from two of these animals indicate that both met their end at the same time: at some point between 3660 and 3640 BC. These animals, buried whole, include an African elephant, an aurochs (wild cattle), a pregnant hartebeest, a young hippopotamus, a crocodile, two baboons, 15 domestic cattle, two large goats, and 28 dogs– 52 animals in all (so far).
Perhaps not surprisingly the most prized appears to be the ten-year-old male African elephant (Tomb 33) and the aurochs (Tomb 19), both requiring extraordinary efforts to acquire as probably neither were locally available at the time. Both were found alone in large, fenced tombs, wrapped in vast amounts of linen and matting. Whether they were endowed with additional grave goods remains unclear, but both were given a substantial final meal, as a great deal of it was still present inside them. In addition to half-digested items of settlement debris, detailed analysis of the botanical content of the elephant’s final meal indicate that he dined on river plants, acacia twigs and emmer wheat, both chaff and grains, suggesting he was well maintained.
Although neither the elephant nor the aurochs show explicit evidence of long-term captivity, that the animals were sustained alive for some time is indicated by the hartebeest who exhibited deformation of her dentition similar to that seen on wild animals kept in prolonged captivity in zoos today. In addition, she was also 3 months pregnant, and the articulating leg bones of the fetus were found in place within the womb tissue. Thus it is likely that breeding herds of what was becoming an increasingly rare breed, and is in fact now extinct, were being maintained.
Likewise kept in breeding troops were the baboons, which are not native to the Nile Valley. Healed fractures on the forearms are common to almost all of them, indicating they were subjected to probably disciplinary violence, but then nursed back to health over the course of a minimum of 4 to 6 weeks, which is the time takes for the bone to knit, after that we cannot tell how long they survived. For more about the baboons from the cemetery see: http://www.archaeology.org/interactive/hierakonpolis/animals.html
Acquired closer to home, was a 4 month old hippo. Although the hippo’s tomb was badly disturbed, almost the entire skeleton was recovered. Amongst the bones, a healed fracture on the lower back leg indicates that this young hippo was probably tied to a tree and held in captivity for several weeks before its death, breaking its own leg as it strained to be free. Also from the river, came a crocodile (Tomb 45), the size of its head indicating it was originally about 2 m long.
Dogs are by far the best represented species and were found interred in seven different graves. Most of them were fairly large, high quality animals, but mongrel types were also present. Interspersed around the complex, they probably served as hunters, herders or controller of the other animals, especially the wild animals, which can be considered statements on the power of their owner. But the dogs probably also herded the domestic animals, which appear to be expressions of his ostentation and excess.
The sacrifice of valuable assets is visible in the burial one old bull in a large tomb of his own (Tomb 43), as well as the neighbouring tomb with a cow and calf (Tomb 36), but these are nothing compared to Tomb 49, a long, trench like tomb 13.5m (45 feet) long, which contained 12 cattle, buried whole and unbutchered, all under 3 years of age, and thus prime food.
It is not entirely clear to whom these 12 cattle belonged. From the location of Tomb 49, they could be part of the Tomb 16 complex or just as easily part of another complex to the south, since we can now confirm that several such complexes were constructed across the cemetery.
During the 2012 season a set of tombs (Tomb 50-60) due east of Tomb 16 was investigated and these appear to belong to a different complex, probably just a little later in date, perhaps only a generation.
So far we have examined 10 graves in this new complex which reveal a reassuring range of similarities but also an intriguing range of differences, showing that the rules were far from fixed. The inhabitants thus far include a leopard, another aurochs, another crocodile, an ostrich, six more baboons, eight large sheep, as well as 14 humans, one of which was another dwarf! Find out more in Nekhen News vol. 24, available to Friends of Nekhen.
But why bury all of these animals? This is not an easy question to answer. Within the various complexes, the different levels of effort taken in the burial of the animals suggest that their meaning need not be the same. In generally, it seems that the wide variety of taxa interred around the perimeter of the Tomb 16 complex symbolically provided protection against the natural chaos they represented. The burial of domestic animals may also have insured an eternal food supply and companionship as well as being an ostentatious display of the wealth. But the burial of the large wild animals was probably more than anything else a display of power. The ownership of these exotic animals would have been strong visual statement of their owner’s power and wealth. The creation and maintenance of royal menageries is known to have been a means of legitimizing New Kingdom pharaohs and may also have served this purpose at this early time. Yet the power exhibited here was not simply the authority to control or kill these creatures, but also to become them, taking their formidable natural attributes for one’s own. In this way, these graves reflect the physical reality behind the animal-based iconographies of power that dominate in the early periods of Egyptian history, as seen for example on the Narmer palette and other documents, where royal power is manifest in several animal guises. The evidence from Hierakonpolis now suggests this royal symbolism was not metaphorical, but can be traced back to actual physical mastery over some of the most powerful creatures of their world.
To read about the discoveries from Tomb 73, click here.
To follow along on our voyage of discovery at HK6, see the Nekhen News. Just about every issue has something to say about this amazing cemetery.
For more on the animals see:
For more pictures of the site and its finds see older (but not always out of date) reports at archaeology.org see
Elite cemetery Intro: http://www.archaeology.org/interactive/hierakonpolis/cemetery.html
To follow along as we excavate the elephant in HK24 see
For further information see Basic Bibliography where the most significant publications are listed.