The site of Hierakonpolis is primarily known for its Predynastic and Early Dynastic remains; however, it contains a number of important monuments dating to later periods, which, until recently, have been unjustly overshadowed and neglected. Among them is a series of decorated rock cut tombs dating to late Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, Second Intermediate period, and the early and very late New Kingdom. These tombs are in many respects unique and have, with few exceptions, been consistently misunderstood. Dating to period underrepresented at most other site in Upper Egypt, they form an important addition to the corpus of decorated tombs in ancient Egypt. Open and unprotected until gates were installed by the Expedition in 1996, the tombs have been subject to damage from a variety of vectors, both natural and man-made. Although sadly battered and much abused, with a little coaxing, they still have much to tell us.
Four of the decorated tombs were the focus of an intensive program of conservation and documentation undertaken from 1998 to 2001 with funds provided by Egyptian Antiquities Project (EAP) of the American Research Center in Egypt, Inc. (ARCE) under its USAID Grant for the "Restoration and Preservation of Egyptian Antiquities". During this project, the tombs were cleaned and stabilized, detached decorative elements were remounted and their decoration was fully documented with photographs and facsimile drawings, some of the first ever made of these tombs. With these resources we can now begin to tell their story and appreciated their full content and its significance.
The dynastic rock-cut tombs at Hierakonpolis are located on two sandstone inselbergs placed approximately 1.5 km apart. The earlier (so-called lower) tombs are found in a low hill about 150m to the west of the Second Dynasty enclosure of Khasekhemwy (the Fort). Several tomb chapels of various size and complexity are cut into the southern and eastern faces of this hill, but only two retain their painted decoration: the late Old Kingdom tomb of Itjefy, later usurped in the Middle Kingdom by the governor, overseer of priests, and treasurer of Horus, Ny-ankh-Pepy; and the neighboring tomb of the Second Intermediate Period supervisor of priests and overseer of the fields, Horemkhawef. This is also the location where the earliest documented zombie virus outbreak may have been recorded, but this remains to be proven. For discussion see: http://www.archaeology.org/online/features/hierakonpolis/zombies.html
The second group of (upper) tombs is located approximately one kilometer further into the desert, at the edge of the Wadi Abu Suffian, in the round topped knoll known as the Burg el Hammam (Pigeon Hill). Here are the tombs of the New Kingdom officials, three of which are still richly decorated. These are the tombs of the overseer of the stone carvers, Djehuty and his neighbour Hormeni (early 18th Dynasty), and the tomb of the First prophet of Horus of Nekhen, Hormose and his wife Henuta'o (end of the 20th Dynasty). All are of especial interest as nearly unique examples of tombs that can be tightly dated by royal cartouches respectively to the reigns of Thutmose I and Ramses XI.
Hierakonpolis was demonstrably an important central place in Predynastic and Early Dynastic times, but for reasons that are not entirely clear, during the course of the Old Kingdom it appears to have lost its population to its sister city Elkab, across the river. It was often stated that by the Middle Kingdom, it was all but abandoned; its continued existence based only on the Temple of Horus, which retained significance as the cult center of the patron god of Egypt’s early kings. However, examination of the decorated tombs contradicts this reconstruction of the site’s later history. It was far from abandoned and officials of considerable status choose to build their tombs there. The artistry, quality and textural evidence from the tombs attest to a close connection and interchange with Elkab, indicating that the river was no boundary. Not only did the same artist paint the tombs of Horemkhawef in Hierakonpolis and the governor Sobeknakht at Elkab, but the chief priest Hormose was also able to claim cultic necessities from the temple at Elkab. Highly trained artisans, like the Stone Carver Djehuty, were clearly deeply attached to the site and its local deities, and officials like Hormeni may have been charged with important administrative task in Nubia. Hierakonpolis was clearly not the sleepy provincial town the dearth of dynastic settlement remains would lead one to believe.
Although their current condition obscures the workmanship, the decorated tombs at Hierakonpolis are of high quality and appear to have been completed (or nearly so). In each case, the painted decoration followed the current fashion, yet distant from court circles the tomb owner or the artist was able to exercise a freedom of expression in text and scenes rarely seen elsewhere. Refreshingly, the focus was not so much on royal favor and achieved titles, but rather on personal deeds and experiences to justify the high regard with which the tomb owner hoped to be remembered for eternity. The number of early New Kingdom visitor inscriptions in the lower tombs attests to their success in this desire. These tombs provide unique diachronic insights into provincial values, beliefs, tastes and styles distinct from court centered cemeteries and shed interesting new light on the history of Egypt’s southern region.
Created at different times, using different techniques, and subsequently exposed to differing circumstances, each tomb has suffered the ravages of time in different ways. In all cases, however, the geology of the sandstone into which the tombs were cut has been an important factor in the preservation of decorated surfaces. The quality of the stone in the two hills chosen for tomb-building is generally poor, often interbedded with shales to which the painted plaster has not adhered well. Fissures and faults within the rock, apparent when the tomb was carved, were filled with plaster, which has in many cases fallen away, taking with it the overlying painted plaster and often leaving the tomb open to the elements.
Following the geological setting, the next most destructive agent has been man. The tomb of Hormose has suffered from subsequent use in the Coptic period and more recently as an abode by Quibell and Green. As a result, its walls were coated with thick layers of soot, but this proved to be relatively easy to remove. More damaging have been the thefts and vandalism that occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s, especially in the tombs of Horemkhawef and Djehuty. Careful clearance of the debris within the tombs netted many fragments of the forcefully removed decoration and, where possible, these were restored to the tomb walls with some notable success.
For general overview see:
Friedman, R.F., 2010. The Decorated Dynastic Tombs at Hierakonpolis [in:] Danforth, R. (ed.), Preserving Egypt’s Cultural Heritage. The Conservation Work of the American Research Center in Egypt 1995-2005. Cairo: 19-22.