Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 June 2005
Issue No. 745
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Discoveries in 'falcon city'

New finds are bringing added understanding to the way ancient communities in Upper Egypt functioned, and to the importance of commerce and cultural development. Nevine El-Aref has been finding out about a pre-dynastic funerary complex and new evidence concerning trade with the legendary land of Punt

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New discoveries

An American-Egyptian team working on the site of ancient Nekhen -- known in Greek times as Hierakonpolis -- in the area of Kom Al-Ahmar near the Upper Egyptian city of Edfu has found what is believed to be the largest pre-dynastic funerary complex ever found. This major discovery, which dates back to the period identified as Naqada II (c. 3600 BC), is expected to cast more light on the period when Egypt was first developing into a nation.

The complex belonged to one of the early rulers of Nekhen, who undoubtedly also controlled a large portion of Upper Egypt. It was enclosed within a well- preserved wall of wooden posts, and comprised a large rectangular tomb with the earliest known superstructure and a wooden offering table.

Excavations of this important monument began in 2000 under the leadership of the late Barbara Adams, and continued during the last archaeological season from December 2004 to April 2005 under the direction of Renee Friedman.

Although the tomb and its surroundings were severely plundered in antiquity, the excavators have unearthed four bodies in situ on the stone floor at the tomb's western end. The first was found in a flexed position on its left side facing magnetic west; the second was partly extended; while the third and fourth were perpendicular to the others. No grave goods or matting were found with the bodies, which were in a very poor state of preservation.

The position of the bodies suggests that if they are not intrusive later additions, they may belong to sacrificed retainers or prisoners who were buried at the foot end of the grave. Thus they would have been figuratively beneath the feet of the tomb owner, who would have been buried in the eastern part of the grave -- where Adams found several fine grave goods.

On the question of the practice of sacrificing retainers and burying them near their rulers, Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) noted that this was a practice during the First Dynasty but was discontinued at the beginning of the Second Dynasty.

While brushing sand off the longer sides of the burial chamber, workers located eight deep holes, four on each side, still bearing the remnants of the ancient wooden posts. Friedman suggests that they could be the remains of the tomb's superstructure, the earliest known in Egypt. Six more post-holes to the east, in two rows, suggest the additional presence of an offering chapel.

A shallow subsidiary tomb found within the enclosure wall of the funerary complex may be a later addition, but is definitely associated with the main tomb. It houses the well-preserved remains of three adults as well as a large quantity of textiles used to wrap and pad the deceased before covering them with another, thicker layer of matting.

At the northeast corner of the complex a deposit of burnt ostrich eggshell was discovered. This was probably a foundation deposit, traditionally linked with the desire to ensure a magical rebirth.

The entrance to the complex appears to have been located on the northeast side, where a gap in the foundation trench is flanked by two sizeable post-holes. Inside one of these were found the bones of two newly-born animals, a sheep and a goat. They were laid in an ashy deposit along with fragments of ritual vessels.

Against the enclosure wall, also in an ashy and burnt deposit, excavators came across a complete figurine of a cow's head skillfully carved in flint. This appears to be the companion of a flint ibex figurine previously found in the same tomb and now exhibited at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Such flint figurines are extremely rare, with only about 50 examples unearthed to date. "The discovery of two fine examples at one site is really a stroke of luck," Hawass says.

The team also unearthed a portion of a wooden handle -- possibly made of ebony -- for a mace head. The excavations produced other interesting finds, among them 46 limestone fragments of Egypt's earliest-known human life-size statue -- other fragments of which were earlier discovered, fragments of two ceramic funerary masks, and a number of fine pots which made it possible to estimate a date for the funerary complex.

The most unusual find of all during the 2003 excavations was a pit grave for the burial of African elephants, which were used for transport during the lifetime of the owner of the complex.

Early analysis dating the funerary complex to the early Naqada II period means that it coincides with the time when this settlement was the largest urban centre anywhere along the Nile. It is estimated to have stretched for about two kilometres along the edge of the floodplain and to have had more than 7,000 residents from all walks of society, ranging from masons and potters to farmers and officials.

The new discovery may reveal conclusively whether ancient Nekhen was a centre for local craft production, a trade centre for exotic goods, or simply an important cult centre for the falcon-god Horus, symbol of the living king.

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