The cemetery at HK27C was a source of continual surprise from the first day in 2001, with the discovery of a beautiful scarab with Tomb 2A, to the last in 2007, with the mass of braided hair in Tomb 58. Of course, the biggest surprise was that this cemetery belonged to the Nubian C-Group and is probably the last of its kind in existence after the waters of Lake Nasser flooded the heartland of this indigenous Nubian culture.
Although these Nubians (called Nehesy in Egyptian sources) were also prized for their fighting skills and in the employ of nomarchs in the First Intermediate Period, it seems that they either adopted Egyptian funerary practices or returned home at death as little evidence of their physical presence in Egypt was previously known. During the latter Middle Kingdom, when Egypt occupied Lower Nubia to the Second Cataract with a series of imposing forts built to control a people they called “wretched” and “vile”, lack of evidence for their presence suggested that these particular Nubians were not welcome north of Aswan. Thus, a C-Group cemetery, located over 100km north of the political border, the northernmost attestation of this culture, was definitely an unexpected discovery.
Excavations at HK27C undertaken in 2001, 2003 and 2007 exposed a total of 60 graves. All but the most plundered provided clear evidence for the Nubian cultural affiliation of their owners, preserving (among other aspects), the distinctive architectural feature of a stone or brick-ring superstructure (tumulus) around the burial shaft; the characteristic ritual practice of placing both Egyptian and hand-made Nubian pottery externally around the superstructure; and remnants of traditional dress, including typical Nubian jewellery, hairstyles and the fine leather garments (skirts, loincloths and sashes). Together, the finds show that at least in death the inhabitants proudly displayed their cultural links despite being positioned within Egyptian territory.
The cemetery is located on a prominent rise behind the Fort. Its borders were detected on three sides, and it is estimated that probably no more than 10 further burials remain, so overall it was a small group. The graves date from the 11th Dynasty into the middle 12th Dynasty with some continued activity in the early Second Intermediate period (2055-1700 BC). The wealth in the graves, even after sometimes severe plundering, suggests these people were not slaves or prisoners of war, but members of a community that was resident at the site for several generations. A scene in the tomb of Ny-ankh-Pepy (see Lower Tombs), may show that some of them found employment as unters of even militia men for this official, however, as the majority of the individuals buried here are female, this may not be the whole story. The reason for their presence, their lifestyle and their interaction with Egyptian population are issues that we are currently exploring as we prepare the material for final publication.
Excavated over three different seasons, study of the material recovered shows that we essentially dug it in reverse chronological order. The earlier part of the cemetery is in the south and it is here that the typical Nubian traits are most pronounced. Although disturbance has rendered their traces difficult to detect, many of the graves in this sector were probably marked by circular tumuli of locally collected field stones, in typical Nubian fashion. However, better preserved were the mud-brick superstructures, rings of mud-bricks preserved to c.50cm high that were built around the tomb shaft and subsequently filled with rubble. Brick tumuli were found around 17 tombs in the southern and central part of the cemetery. The use of brick from this purpose is extremely rare in the archaeological record of the C-Group and may well be the result of Egyptian influence on this group at Hierakonpolis.
Despite this Egyptian influence, the characteristic practice of placing offerings outside the grave and around the tumulus continued unchanged. Pottery of both Nubian and Egyptian manufacture, often in association with ashes and nestled among stone, were placed around the exterior of the tumulus, generally adjacent to the head end of the grave. Several with sometimes still intact pottery were found. A good example was around Tomb 17, which we discovered in 2003, pots under almost every rock on all sides of the grave. See:
Rectangular coarse weave reed mats were also found on four occasions laid out on the original ground surface by the offerings. Offerings were not limited entirely to pottery, as a short string of beads just below the surface by Tomb 21 soon revealed itself to be part of a string of over 1600 tiny blue faience beads wrapped around an iridescent shell pendant. Painstakingly collected in small clustered for restringing in their original order, the result is an elegant addition to any outfit.
To follow excavation of this pendant see:
None of the graves had entirely escaped plunder, but organic preservation in a select few was spectacular, revealing colorful aspects of Nubian dress sense and their love of leather. In fact, the leather remains from the cemetery at HK27C now constitute the largest collection of C-Group leather garments currently in existence. Garments include the remains of leather skirts composed of a series of coloured leather panels stitched together, with a draw string thong to tighten the garment at the waist. Such skirts were found in several graves, all of women. Although of later date, the depiction of Nubian women in the Tomb of Huy (Theban Tomb 40) can be used to suggest their original appearance.
Leather loincloths and beaded sashes belonging to men were also recovered as well as the remains of sandals, one of which was decorated on the interior sole with an incised pattern of crossing bands
Jewelry was also not rare, and included beads and rings, some still in place on the body.
Pottery was the most common item of material culture preserved in the cemetery, although the tomb with which it was associated could not always be determined. Egyptian pottery was prevalent, but the Nubian assemblage was still rich and varied, suggesting the importance that these vessels had in the funerary ritual. In total, only 10 examples of the distinctive incised bowls, the hallmark of the C-Group culture, were found. Their rarity, compared to Lower Nubia, suggests that these ornate vessels may have been imported. Black-topped bowls were far more frequent. While excavation in the northern part of the cemetery suggested that each tomb possessed at least one of these bowls, investigations of the southern sector indicate many more at least around certain tombs. Their number and the recovery of hand-made utility jars, with combed or rough exteriors suggest that some pottery making may have taken place at locally.
Although Nubian identity was maintained throughout the time the cemetery was in use, with time the effects of Egyptian influence can be seen. This is evident in the three brick-lined and vaulted graves in the cemetery (Tomb 16, 37, 42). In these tombs, long narrow bricks (35 x16 x 6-8 cm) were laid along the long walls of the shaft in a diagonal pattern, allowing a ‘leaning’ vault to be created without the use of forms or supports. Particularly notable is Tomb 37 (12th Dynasty), which was composed of two adjacent brick vaulted chambers topped by a low rectangular brick wall, although it is not entirely clear if the upper wall was meant to be seen. In stark contrast to Nubian tradition in general and the usual practice at HK27C, it contained four individuals, potentially a family group of parents and two children, a composition more familiar in Egyptian burial tradition.
As we move into the northern sector of the cemetery, we move later in time. The orientation of the burial shafts changes, a shift also documented in the cemeteries of Lower Nubia. Coupled with this change in orientation, there appears to be less interest in tumulus building at HK27C and a notable decrease in the amount of Nubian pottery placed by the tombs. Nevertheless, Nubian pottery, especially the black-topped bowls, were still clearly of importance to the funerary ritual since in one case we found a bowl of Egyptian manufacture that had been painted red and black in imitation.
Rectangular wooden coffins were adopted fairly early in the history of the cemetery, but become even more common with time. Averaging about 40cm wide and 150 to 180cm long, they appear to have held the body, laid on its right side in an extended or slightly contracted position, but the evidence for this was only clearly preserved in Tomb 18, which contained an almost complete, naturally desiccated body of a male we named Mr Stiffy. Learn more about him at :
However, not everyone went in for the new fashion. Several, especially of the older, women were laid out in the traditional flexed position on the right side, wrapped often in mats and skins. One of these ladies was discovered in Tomb 9, who preserved a lot more than just tradition. The preservation of her skin allowed us to reconstruct the pattern of elaborate tattoos. A diamond of short dashed lines adorned her left hand, and a row of diamonds ran down the back of her left arm. Skin adhering to the ribs preserved a dotted zigzag line along the front of the torso, with a more elaborate lattice pattern of dotted squares running down along the abdomen, up over the hip and onto her back. Tattooing is typical of Nubian cultures, and it is from Nubia that the Egyptians adopted the practice in the Middle Kingdom.
The same tomb also contained copious amounts of leather. Unique to this burial were delicate fragments of cut-work leather of differing quality. One mass of perforated leather turned out to be loin cloth composed of a patchwork of precut panels with a specific number of cut-out rectangles per row. Parallels with a Ramesside ostracon depicting a tattooed dancing girl wearing a cut-work loincloth, apparently as her special (and only) performance costume, gives us strong reason to suggest what our Nubian lady did in her younger years. Although she was well into her forties and had lost all of her upper teeth by the time of her death, a localized injury to her lower back suggests that in her youth she may well have done a back flip or two.
It would seem that age apparently also brings modesty, as our lady was buried with far more clothing that the girl on the ostracon. Impressions on the skin of the ear and chin suggest that finer quality leather, with perforations less than 4mm in length, making for an astonishing 42 slashes per square cm, may be the remnant of a leather hair net that was tied under the chin. Her other garments include a leather top with brown and white, horizontally striped, flaring sleeves which connected to a bodice of pink leather with yellow appliqué. A colourful combination indeed!
For more information on the lady in Tomb 9 and her loincloth and tattoos see:
Despite being so far north in what we consider to be Egyptian territory, the occupants of the cemetery appear for the most part to have made few concessions to Egyptian influence other than a general use of Egyptian pottery, mud-brick instead of stone for their tumuli, and in some cases simple wooden coffins. In death, at least, they dressed like Nubians, constructed Nubian funerary architecture, and deposited Nubian grave goods above ground in traditional Nubian fashion. The effort expended on the construction of the tombs and the wealth still evident in them, even after at least two phases of plundering, indicates that the Nubian population was not financially disadvantaged in comparison to those in their cultural heartland. In fact, the early adoption of wooden coffins and Egyptian pottery, both apparently considered status symbols in Nubia, suggests they were perhaps better off than their countrymen, at least during the early history of the cemetery. While clearly a discrete cemetery, its very visible setting adjacent to the rock cut tombs of the contemporary Egyptian officials strongly suggests that the C-Group population was not considered an underclass despite the distain voiced in official documents of the 12th Dynasty
What brought this seemingly singular community of Nubians to the site some 113km north of Aswan and kept them there over several generations is not clear. While it is certainly tempting to create a scenario in which the Nubians, initially recruited from the south into the private armies of the First Intermediate period nomarchs, continued their service to the elite as hunters, herdsmen, entertainers or other careers for which a Nubian identity might be useful or lend prestige, further research is required to determine whether this is true.
To what extent the political events of the age affected the resident Nubian population at Hierakonpolis also remains to be determined. The decrease in overt Nubian features in the cemetery in its latest phase could be evidence of the gradual assimilation of Egyptian culture or a response to a less friendly climate occasioned by events in Nubia and southern Egypt. As work continues we hope to understand more fully the relations between the different Nubian peoples, their place within Hierakonpolis and, indeed, all of Egypt.
Acknowledgements: Excavation and study of the Nubian localities was made possible by grants from the National Geographic Society, the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the Michela Schiff-Giorgini Foundation, with additional funds from the Friends of Nekhen.
To follow along with the excavations in 2003 see:
For more information:
Nekhen News 13 (2001)
Nekhen News 16 (2003)
Nekhen News 19 (2007)
Nekhen News 24 (2012) available to Friends of Nekhen.
Friedman, R. 2001. Excavations in the Nubians Cemeteries. Sudan & Nubia 5: 29-37.
Friedman, R. 2004. Excavation of the C-Group cemetery at HK27C, Hierakonpolis. Sudan & Nubia 8:47-51.
Friedman, R., 2007. The C-Group Cemetery at Locality HK27C: Results of the 2007 Season, Sudan & Nubia 11: 57-62.
Irish, J.D. & Friedman R.F. 2010. Dental Affinities of the C Group inhabitants of Hierakonpolis Egypt: Nubian, Egyptian, or both? Homo: Journal of Comparative Human Biology 61(2): 81-101.