The earliest known western visitor to Hierakonpolis was Vivant Denon in 1798 as a member of the Napoleonic Expedition to Egypt. At Hierakonpolis, aside from considerable amounts of habitation and structural debris, he noted an eroded but intact portal to a much destroyed sandstone building of substantial size. This edifice was the Ptolemaic temple which once stood in the alluvium over the town-mound of ancient Nekhen. His drawings, both originals and the etched version for publication in the volumes of his adventures and its subsequent reproduction on a dinner plate for Napoleon's Egyptian dinner service remain the only information we have about this structure. For more info see Nekhen News 23 (2011) 'The Fort Forgotten'.
Subsequent visitors reported on the Dynastic tombs and other inscribed monuments scattered throughout the area. Yet, it was only Petrie who seems to have noticed the wide extent of the debris covering the low desert. During a brief visit in 1887, he was stunned by the high quality of the flint work littering the surface, but puzzled by the strange nature of the pottery, which, less than ten years later at Naqada, he would be the first to describe. Ironically, it was Petrie's spectacular finds at Naqada that sparked the illicit flood of Predynastic artifacts from Hierakonpolis. Prompted by the mass of material appearing on the Luxor antiquities market, Petrie's newly formed Egyptian Research Account dispatched J.E. Quibell, who was later assisted by F.W. Green to salvage the site in 1897.
The initial focus of this first scientific examination of the site was the Fort which dominates the low desert, standing at the northern edge of the mouth of Wadi Abul Suffian which bisect the desert site. To either side of the wadi, spread along the edge of the cultivation, Quibell faced a desert which appeared much dug over by sebakh (fertilizer) diggers and antiquities dealers. Nevertheless, he did find some intact Predynastic graves in the vicinity of the Fort and elsewhere and made some interesting finds in the Early Dynastic mastabas to the north. Yet, despite testing various sherd clusters in the low desert, which resulted in the discovery of the granaries on the ‘Kom el Ahmar’ (see breweries at HK24) and also further west into the wadi, which revealed what apparently were kilns, he failed to recognize the domestic nature of the majority of the deposits. What was called the "Predynastic Cemetery" is in fact the largest Predynastic settlement still extant.
Dismayed by the results of their desert exploration, Quibell turned to the low rectangular mound in the cultivation which seemed equally unpromising. All remnants of the Ptolemaic temple were gone, having been removed some thirty year prior to build a factory in Esna. Since that time, the town-mound had suffered considerable reduction. Any misgivings he might have had, however, were soon abated when, during the first week of work, he discovered the gold and copper cult statue of the hawk god, Horus.
This statue had been carefully buried in a pit beneath the floor of a room. This room was one of five which formed part of the mud-brick temple of Dynastic date. This spectacular find was soon followed by the discovery, in similar circumstance beneath the floor of another room, of a life size copper statue of King Pepi I of Dynasty VI within which a similar statue of his young son, the future king Merenre had been placed. These statues remain the earliest large scale metal statuary to come down to us from antiquity and have recently been conserved with amazing results (see Nekhen News 18 (2006) 'Resurrecting Horus and Pepy'). The same pit contained a pottery lion and the schist statue of King Khasekhemwy, among other less dramatic finds.
More was yet to come. To the east, below the floor level of another set of chambers, lay heaps of objects generally clustered by type: mace heads, ivory statuettes, stone statues, faience figurines, pottery, and so forth, known collectively as the "Main Deposit." Among the hundreds of objects in this cache of discarded temple furnishings were some of the most important documents of the Proto- and Early Dynastic periods: the large ceremonial maceheads of Scorpion and Narmer and the Narmer Palette, to name but a few. Read more about this discovery Nekhen News 9 (1997) Hierakonpolis Centenary; and for life on site at this time see Nekhen News 24.
In the following season (1899), Green, working alone and with great care, continued his exploration of the town-mound. There, below the level of the Dynastic mud-brick temple, he discovered a sloping, oval stone wall or revetment constructed of small, naturally exfoliated sandstone blocks. This revetment, which stood about 2.5m high and encased a mound of clean white sand, served as the raised platform for the Dynasty I temple to which the objects from the Main Deposit presumably were dedicated. His stratigraphic observations indicated that this structure antedated Dynasty II deposits, but sat upon Predynastic debris, and thus the revetment has been dated to Dynasty I.
Besides the investigation of various Early Dynastic dwellings within the town-mound, Green also cleared a series of large tombs located at the southern end of the desert site. Although known to the natives for some time and essentially robbed out, one tomb still retained justly famous painted scenes on its plastered walls. The similarity of the boats in this "Painted Tomb" to pottery motifs current in the Naqada IIC phase served to date the grave, and its size and decoration suggested it was the tomb of a powerful ruler, however its importance for confirming the status of Hierakonpolis at this time was obscured for a long time by the disputed function of the tomb. Its unique paintings and the mud-brick lining of both the walls and floor led some scholars to suggest that the tomb was in fact a small temple. This controversy was finally put to rest with the publication of Green's excavation notes and photographs (Kemp 1973, Payne 1973). To read more about Green and his time at Hierakonpolis see Nekhen News 10, 11, 22.
Ostensibly to locate missing portions of the important historical pieces from the Main Deposit, but no doubt in an attempt to duplicate the spectacular successes of Quibell and Green, Garstang made further excavations at Nekhen in 1905-6. Although he did recover the head of a lapis lazuli figurine which matched the body found by Quibell (now in Oxford), and unbeknownst to him also a fragment of the schist statue of Khasekhemwy (Adams 1990), he had to satisfy his backers in Liverpool with the spoils from 166 Late Predynastic graves found within the Fort (Adams 1987) and the material from some Early Dynastic houses (Adams 1995).
It was not until 1908 that Henri De Morgan recognized the desert deposits to the south of the Fort as "kitchen-middens". Trained in an appreciation of prehistory, de Morgan examined these remains with great gusto but unfortunate technique. He found that wonderful lithic implements could be retrieved from these deposits with ease by attacking the surface with rakes (!). During two seasons of exploration he recovered many interesting objects from both the settlement and tombs. Unfortunately his premature death in 1909 prevented fuller publication of his result until 1984 (Needler 1984). Among the various sites in the vicinity he investigated was the cemetery at Mamariya, located just a few km north of Hierakonpolis and may now considered a satellite of the site. Here he discovered 16 terracotta statuettes, one of which has now become an icon for Egyptian prehistory.
The credit for identifying the Predynastic Town of Hierakonpolis and its significance goes to Brunton who made a quick visit to the desert site in 1927 after completing his work in the Badari region. In a few hours time, Brunton filled his pockets with several interesting sherds. Examples of Petrie's C ware and three pieces he suggested might be Badarian provided the first indication of the remote age of the desert occupation. He found his entire visit so fascinating he was moved to write:
“To anyone who has worked over a Predynastic settlement there cannot be the slightest doubt about the character of the place. The most amazing thing about it is its extent. Hierakonpolis has been thought, no doubt with reason, to have been the capital of southern Egypt at the time of Narmer; and we can now see that it was, in all probability, the capital for centuries before that” (Brunton 1932:274).
Despite’s Brunton's observations regarding the predynastic riches to be found, in 1934, Lansing obtained the concession to excavate at Hierakonpolis with the express purpose of supplementing the Old Kingdom holdings of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Upon clearing the forecourt of the rock-cut tombs located behind the Fort (the Lower Tombs), much to his surprise, he found the stela of Horemhawef, dating to the late Middle Kingdom. The search for further Old Kingdom material at the foot of the tombs led only to the clearance of Predynastic graves around the Fort. Tests further into the wadi revealed apparently well preserved Predynastic localities including a kiln, adjacent to Operation A, now understood to be part of a brewery (see Wadi Breweries), a rock shelter (see HK11), and an impressive rock-cut tomb at HK6 (our Tomb 2). However, publication of his work has yet to appear.
It was not until the 1956 visit of Kaiser (1961) and Butzer (1960) that the Predynastic significance of Hierakonpolis was made graphically clear. Publication of updated sketch maps and the identification of functionally specific zones and possible house plans made it abundantly clear that this huge site had tremendous potential.
The present inter-disciplinary project at Hierakonpolis began in 1967 under the direct of Walter Fairservis with test excavations at Nekhen and a surface survey of sites in the low desert at which time the locality numbers used today were assigned. A major expedition in 1969 resulted in the discovery at Nekhen of an elaborately niched, mud-brick gateway and enclosure of an Early Dynastic palace. As such, it is the only non-funerary example of a niched facade known (Weeks 1972). Further investigation of domestic, religious and industrial architecture elucidated the nature of the Dynastic town (Fairservis 1972, 1983, 1986). The 1969 season also saw the first scientific excavation of a Predynastic settlement (HK14) since Myers' work at Armant over 30 years before.
After a delay of nine years caused by the international political situation, the expedition resumed work in 1978. At that time, the archaeological concession was split along geo-temporal lines. Fairservis continued to investigate the nature of early complex society as head of the excavation of the Early Dynastic palace at Nekhen. Directorship of Predynastic research in the desert was handed over to Michael Hoffman. In addition, in 1984 he undertook the important stratigraphic sondage in 10N5W in the town mound at Nekhen specifically to determine the depth of Predynastic deposits below the Dynastic town. The importance of his findings are hard to over-estimate, and the stratified material which extended some 4 m in depth is currently being re-studied. Archaeological exploration of the desert continued on a more or less regular basis until Hoffman's untimely death in 1990, followed by study seasons in 1991 and 1992.
For a more detailed overview of past research see:
Adams, B., 1995. Ancient Nekhen: Garstang in the City of Nekhen, Whitstable.
For more information see:
Adams, B., 1987. The Fort cemetery at Hierakonpolis, excavated by John Garstang. London: Kegan Paul International.
Viewable on Google books
Adams, B. 1974. Ancient Hierakonpolis and Supplement. Warminster.
Bouriant, U., 1885. Les tombeaux d'Hieraconpolis, in Etudes archeologique, linguistiques et historique dedicees a M. de Dr. C. Leemans. Leiden.
Brunton, G., 1932. The Predynastic Town-site at Hierakonpolis, in S. R. K. Glanville (ed.), Studies presented to F. Ll. Griffiths. London: 272-276.
de Morgan, H., 1912. Report on Excavations made in Upper Egypt during the Winter 1907-1908, Annales du Service des Antiquités de l’Égypte 12: 25-50.
Fairservis, W. 1972. Preliminary Report on the First Two Seasons at Hierakonpolis, Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 9: 7-27.
Fairservis, W. 1983. The Hierakonpolis Project. Season January to March 1978. Excavation of the Temple Area on the Kom el Gemuwia. (Hierakonpolis Occasional Papers in Anthropology 1) Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Fairservis, W. 1986. The Hierakonpolis Project. Season January to May 1981. Excavation on the Kom el Gemuwia. (Hierakonpolis Occasional Papers in Anthropology 3) Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Garstang, J. 1907. Excavations at Hierakonpolis, at Esna, and in Nubia, Annales du Service des Antiquités de l’Égypte 8: 132-148.
Lansing, A. 1935. The Museum's Excavations at Hierakonpolis, Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 30: 37-45
Needler, W. 1984. Predynastic and Archaic Egypt in the Brooklyn Museum. New York.
Quibell, J.E. 1900. Hierakonpolis I. Egyptian Research Account 4. London.
Quibell, J.E. and F.W. Green. 1902. Hierakonpolis II. Egyptian Research Account 5, London.