Today Hierakonpolis appears as two separate archaeological zones. One is the low grass covered mound located in the midst of the cultivation. This is the remains of the town and temple mound of the Dynastic site of ‘Nekhen’. The other zone is the collection of inter-related localities stretching across the low desert representing the multi-component Predynastic occupation of Hierakonpolis. Recent geological testing has shown that, until extensive land reclamation activities in the Classical period separated them, the two archaeological zones were part of one contiguous settlement expanding and contracting over time. The incredible diversity and sheer volume of Predynastic remains make Hierakonpolis a singularly unique phenomenon in Egypt. A site of many localities, each one has an interesting story to tell.
The site of Hierakonpolis has been continuously inhabited since at least the Badarian period (c 4500BC) as deep coring up to 4m below the water table in the town mound at Nekhen (square 10N5W) has shown.It was clearly at its greatest at about 3700-3500BC when the settlement was not limited to the floodplain location where the Palette of Narmer was found (which may have been an island at the time), but spread out into the low desert where remnants of predynastic occupation stretch for over 3km along the edge of the desert and back almost 2.5km into the great wadi (Wadi Abu Suffian) that bisects the site. Coring and geological examinations show that predynastic occupation was present in the cultivated zone, but is now unfortunately deeply buried and its full extent is unclear.
Although little of the low desert settlement is now visible above ground, explorations on-going since 1978 are producing insights into a complex urban and cultural landscape unmatched at any other site of this age, providing glimpse at domestic areas, industrial zones for pottery and beer production, cultic and administrative centers, trash disposal areas and more.
This is just a sample of the settlement sites examined to date.
On the outskirts of the town center stood the semi-subterranean dwelling of a potter who burned his house down with his own kiln (HK29), thus insuring its fine preservation down to the charred roofing timbers and wall beams, found in 1978 just as they had fallen 5500 years earlier. While up the wadi, out in the suburbs, excavations within a roomier estate (see HK11: Settlement features) has revealed a variety of domestic features including hearths, storage pits and food preparation areas enclosed by a fence that still retains its mud-coated reed matting after all these years.
Pot-making appears to have been a growing occupation in the Predynastic period. Stratified deposits within the HK11 house show a rather rapid change from the home-make cooking pots used earlier to the relatively inferior (straw tempered) product that was mass produced at the time of the city’s peak by the potter at HK29 and elsewhere. Others specialised in making the fine polished red and black-topped red vessels, characteristic of the Naqada I and early Naqada II phase of the Predynastic and some of the finest pottery ever made in Egypt. Production sites for this type of pottery were tucked away in the cliffs lining the great wadi (HK59 etc), possibly to keep secret the specialized knowledge needed for its manufacture. The piles of cracked, over-fired and melted pots which identify these production sites indicate that much skill was required to form, dry and fire these elegant thin-walled vessels and that it was not easy to master.
Another great industry at the site was apparently beer. Evidence for Egypt’s first industrial scale breweries come in the form of huge pottery vats arranged in installations to allow them to be heated up together. A major zone for beer production was located near the edge of the cultivation at HK24 with another set of breweries located in the wadi at HK11C. Outfitted with large vats capable of holding at least 20 gallons each, it is estimated that even the smallest of these early brewery complexes could have produce about 300 gallons of beer a day (or every other day depending on whether it was fermented in the vat). The secret to Hierakonpolis greatness may well have been the early development of the redistributive economy that kept Egypt alive.
Control of this enterprise may have emanated from the administrative and cultic center located in the midst of the densest accumulation of settlement remains in the low desert (HK29A/B). Here a palisade wall of wood-log posts (HK29B), over 50m long, may form part of the temenos wall enclosing an area potentially of one hectare, which included workshops for lithic and stone vessel manufacture, mysterious stone mounds, believed to be the remnants of administrative structures and a ceremonial establishment (HK29A). Refuse from the rituals undertaken here includehundreds of fine vessels and thousands of bones of sacrifice animals, including crocodile, hippopotamus and gazelle along with prized domestic stock, providing us with a unique glimpse at actual religious practices in the Predynastic age.
These discoveries and more have put Hierakonpolis on the map as a pre-eminent site for the study of the remains of the living at the dawn of history. Read on to learn more about these settlement localities and what we have learned from them.