HK64 is an isolated sandstone outcropping on the north side of Hierakonpolis overlooking the Wadi Tarifa. Scarcely 30m in diameter and rising only some 4-10 meters above the barren desert, this remote hillock was the focus of a number of activities, the elements of which when put together archaeologically and epigraphically tell an exciting and very unexpected story.
In 1987 brief excavation of the site revealed a surprisingly dense array of petroglyphs (carved rock art), several hieroglyphic inscriptions and a painted boat manned by five human figures with a horned animal (bovid or Barbary sheep?), also in black pigment, placed below it. This is one of the few petrographs north of the First Cataract. Even more intriguing was the discovery of a campsite of people of clearly non-Egyptian material culture (i.e., Nubian) who were most certainly responsible for some of the petroglyphs. Further excavation of the site in 1996 and analysis of the rock art has shown that these images are not idle doodlings, but insights into personal and popular religion that can illuminate enigmatic religious texts of centuries later.
In order to determine what brought people to this barren hillock in the first place, careful study of the petroglyphs was necessary. Painstaking copying of all the carvings made it possible to see how the individual petroglyphs related to one another and to distinguish distinct scenes or units. Several patterns among the non-random sets of symbols emerged. Most suggestive was a recurrent unit of 1) scooped out area or natural crevice; 2) several small circular pecked holes; 3) sandal outline or name in hieroglyphs; and 3) an ostrich. The depressions were no doubt to receive libations from the individual signified by name or sandal-print for the deity symbolized by the ostrich. But it was not until the excavations were resumed at the foot of the outcropping in the campsite that the significance of these units finally became clear.
The campsite was composed of a series of adjacent and superimposed fireplaces. These "camp fires" were filled with charcoal and surrounded by a scattering of pottery of Nubian type, bone and a large amount of chipped quartz debris typical the Nubian lithic industry. Although a small amount of ostrich feathers had been found throughout the course of excavation, it was quite a surprise when a large circular mass of feathers appeared. Gingerly excavating around the mass, it soon became clear that it was a deposit of feathers, carefully laid within a circular pit some 50cm in diameter and 20cm deep. The pit had been lined all around with the long tail feathers placed quill end up. Within it were several layers of smaller feathers and nestled between them was a small inscribed stone which provides an unexpected explanation for this deposit and the recurrent visits to this remote site.
Three hieroglyphic signs carved on the stone read: "The Golden one, she appears in glory" and they refer to the goddess Hathor in her solar function. As the Eye of the Sun, Hathor left Egypt in anger and roamed the deserts of the far south in the form of a bloodthirsty lioness. Various deities had to seek her out and entice her back to Egypt. Rituals texts relate that when Hathor finally agreed to return a large entourage was assembled. Among those who escorted her back to Egypt were Nubians and Libyan tribesmen who lived in the desert to the west of the Middle Nile. They danced for her and made specific offerings in her honor. A stanza from one ritual papyrus reads: "Let us take for her feathers off the backs of ostriches which the Libyans slay with their throw sticks..."
The return from the south of the distant goddess was a popular celebration and corresponded with the coming of the Nile inundation in late June/early July. The hymn, as well as graphic representation from the site itself of an ostrich and throw stick, makes it easy to see the ostrich feather deposit as an offering from the desert tribesmen and their Egyptian associates who were celebrating the annual return of Hathor. The unique discovery of the actual remains of this popular celebration is an exciting new explanation for the activities at the site.
The middle of the desert may seem an odd place to celebrate the coming of the Nile flood, but new research on the geomorphology of the Nile Valley and religious iconography suggests that a desert location such as HK64 was in fact the natural place to greet the inundation. The millennia of silts deposited by the Nile on its banks meant that the flood plain was actually higher than the low desert that surrounded it. Before the Nile would flood its banks, a rise in ground water would be noticeable in the low desert, particularly where the high plateau of the desert was not distant. Even today at HK64 the high water table is evident and there is a perennial well near the edge of the Wadi Tarifa, about a half a kilometer from the site. The waters of this well are reputed to be effective in curing skin complaints and those who make use of it are still in the habit of leaving behind offerings of soap and combs.
Hathor's return, during the hottest part of the year, would have coincided with the northern seasonal migration of desert-pastoralists. The rapid growth of desert flora induced by the rising ground water would have been a magnet to parched pastoralists and a potent signal to their urban neighbors. Ritual celebration of this event provided the circumstances in which the desert and urban populations could interact in a prescribed way and on a mutually beneficial basis. The ritual texts suggest that, although officially despised, the desert inhabitants themselves eventually became symbols of Hathor's return and came to play key roles in this and other celebrations.
The site also features the name and titles of a number of high ranking persons of the Second Intermediate period, the names and titles of various artisans as well as two cartouches of Amenhotep I. Pottery at the site also indicates that it was recurrently visited from the Predynastic period to the early New Kingdom, and many of the petroglyphs and inscriptions are superimposed. The specific reasons for their visits to this remote spot remain unclear, but let us hope they were mainly on joyous occasions.
For more information:
Nekhen News 4.1 (1988) Well Kept Secret
Nekhen News 8 (1996) New Secrets
Nekhen News 24 (2012) available to Friends of Nekhen
Friedman, R. et al., 1999. Preliminary Report on Field Work at Hierakonpolis 1996-1998, JARCE 36:1-35.
Friedman, R., 1992. Pebbles, Pots and Petroglyphs: Excavations at Hk64, [in:] Friedman, R. and Adams, B. (eds.), The Followers of Horus. Studies Dedicated to Michael Allen Hoffman. Oxbow Books, Oxford: 99-106.
Friedman, R., 2000 "Pots, Pebbles and Petroglyphs part II: 1996 excavations at Hierakonpolis Locality HK64. [in:] Leahy, A, and Tait, J. (eds.), Studies on Ancient Egypt in Honour of H.S. Smith, Egypt Exploration Society Occasional Publication 13, London: 101-108.
Huyge, D., 2003. Grandeur in Confined Spaces: Current Rock Art Research in Egypt. [in:] Bahn, P.G and Fossato, A. (eds.), Rock Art Studies. News of the World 2.Oxford: 59-73.