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HK21A and HK47: The Pan Grave cemeteries

Cemeteries of the distinctive Pan Grave culture have been detected all along the Nile Valley, and all considered to belong to Nubian mercenaries brought into to defend Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period. But the people themselves remain a mystery. We still do not know for certain who they were, where they came from, and where they went when the job was done. First discovered by WMF Petrie, he coined the name Pan Grave because their shallow round graves resembled frying pans, and indeed some of them do.

Test excavations at HK21A in 2001, located on the far northeastern edge of the site by the Wadi Tarifa, uncovered six of these skillet-like graves, all unfortunately badly plundered, but with enough of their characteristic incised pottery and jewellery to mark their presence. Careful excavation revealed matting on the floor of some of the graves and in one case the outline of the body indicating a contracted position, oriented with head north, facing west. Other depressions in the mud at the base of this same grave indicate that the owner was buried with long objects, probably weapons.

pan hk21a

Far richer and better preserved were the graves at HK47, located on the opposite side of the site, near the Wadi Khamsini. A more extensive cemetery, it stretches at least 100m north-south and about 50m east-west. The original wealth of the burials was apparent from the surface, which was strewn with distinctive pottery and beads. The area for test excavation was chosen within a dense accumulation of Pan Grave pottery and an area of 10x7.5m was examined revealing nine graves and several offering deposits.

pan map

The graves had been dug deeply into dry white sand and therefore organic preservation was good despite extensive plundering. This sand deposit was covered with a layer of Nile silt about 20cm thick, which served as a pavement around the graves. This silt surface, although natural, was culturally modified by the Pan Grave people who not only cut into it for their graves and offering places, but also left their fingerprints in it in patterns around the graves.

pan pavement

Of the nine graves discovered, seven were fully excavated. They were between 0.50 and 1.50m below the surface of the pavement where present and were round or oval in shape. Most were about 1m in diameter at the base and lined with two pieces of carefully cut, often multi-colored animal hide with the hair side inward. A reed mat with leather edging was placed over the hide and the tightly contracted body was then placed upon the mat. In most cases, unguent had been poured onto the sand beneath the hide to consolidate it and in some cases the sand that covered the bodies was similarly impregnated making it very sticky, and later, very hard. Because of the extensive disturbance, it is unclear whether the burials were also covered with skins or mats. Above the grave was a tumulus made up of stones and a large quantity of potsherds collected from the nearby but long abandoned settlements of the predynastic period.  

pan animalskin

Although all of the burials had been plundered, the funerary offerings left outside the graves often escaped untouched. These above-ground offerings are typical of Nubian funerary practices and here included a number of pots (Egyptian and Nubian) and baskets (sometimes containing the bodies of babies).

One small Egyptian marl jar was found nestled within a deposit of fine ash within a leather platter deposited on top of the pavement (feature A). With this jar was a leather bag containing a tool kit (flints, polishing stones) and cobbles for making carnelian beads. The leather of the gourd-shaped bag had deteriorated but still preserved was the band of woven beads that once adorned it. White, blue, and dark blue faience beads were used to create an intricate diamond pattern, which thanks to modern consolidants, we were able to recover still in position.

pan feature a

pan feature a beads

Other offering places consisted of holes in and through the pavement containing a single pot (features E, F) or grain (feature B). The horns and frontal bones of goats, so characteristic of Pan Grave cemeteries, were found associated with three burials (Burials 7, 11 and 13), however none were found in situ.

pan feat e

Despite the disturbance of the graves, we found a surprising amount of new information about the appearance and profession of the Pan Grave people. Many graves still contained remnants leather garments, often dyed red and occasionally decorated with tassels of twisted leather thong.

pan tassel

pan leather

Textiles were also found with frequency (in contrast to the C Group cemetery). Amongst them were fragments of elaborately woven fringed cloth patterned with a design formed by rows of raised knots with which they possibly lined their leather kilts. A similar type of textile was found amongst the wrappings of the 60 slain soldiers of King Mentuhotep II Nebhepetre of the Eleventh Dynasty. It was described as a “Turkish bath towel” by the excavator, H. E. Winlock (1945). Although separated in time, the association of this unusual textile with warriors may not be entirely co-incidental.

pan textiles

Large quantities of beads were also found, some still on their string, thus preserving the original pattern. Most common were ostrich eggshell disk beads mainly 4-5mm in diameter which often alternated with blue faience ring beads on multiple fibre strings. A complete bracelet of garnet beads still on their string was also found in Tomb 10. The characteristic Pan Grave rectangular shell plaques beads were found in almost every grave. In one case, by piecing together the preserved bits of raw hide thong remaining around the plaques, conservator Fran Cole was able to reconstruct the armlet in its original curve over the arm.

pan garnet

pan armlet before 2

pan armlet

A leather bow grip, bow string and arrow shafts with the trimmed feather fletching remarkably still attached leave little doubt about their day jobs.

pan arrows

Examination of the skeletal remains by physical anthropologists shows that the people interred here were mainly young men, 17-25 years of age, of over average Egyptian stature, (171–180cm; 5’6"-5’9"), with strong muscle attachments in their legs as one might expect of military bowmen. Colourfully adorned with tasselled leather garments, fringed kilts, and bespangled with beads at neck, arms, wrist, and ankle, they must have been an impressive sight. The number of children interred in discrete graves (Burials 9, 14 and 16) suggests that the population included family groups living here on at least a semi-permanent basis.

Pottery was of course prevalent, but Egyptian products represented less than a third of all pottery found. Notable among them were a few jars made of Marl C2, vessels believed to originate in the northern part of Egypt and may indicate that rations are being supplied to the Pan Grave people from the government in the north.

pan marlc

More than 150 rims and body sherds of Pan Grave pottery vessels were studied. The pottery corpus was divided into preliminary classes, based upon surface treatment and technique, as well as decorative design and motifs. The first group, consisting of Uncoated Ware includes a bag-shaped bowl with an incised criss-cross pattern covering its entire exterior. Although rare, this type of are present in the most important cemeteries belonging to this culture.

pan incised pot

The second group, Black-Topped Ware, represents the major part of the pottery from HK47. Bowls are characterised by an emphasis on the rim which may be offset by an incised line or by modelling. Some were decorated with incised motifs (herringbone, chevrons, criss-criss patterns) concentrated in the upper part of the vessel. Large black topped bowls simply decorated with incised criss-cross patterns may be considered cooking-pots. The fabric is quite coarse and burnt patches are present on the base. Moreover residues of organic material, probably animal fat, were found on the inside wall of these bowls. 

pan pottery

There were also several specimens of the “four-horns plate”. These are plates for offerings, which were generally placed outside the grave, around the tumulus. The plates are decorated by incision or impression. All of the fragments found are typical of the Pan Grave culture, some presenting some of its finest products.

pan pottery draw

The two Pan Grave cemeteries on opposite sides of the site present an interesting situation. The severe deflation and plundering of HK21A makes it difficult to discuss differences in status, although the level of wealth at HK47 is hard to deny. Nevertheless the pottery at HK21A is amongst the finest known anywhere with regard to the quality of its manufacture. The location of the cemeteries is also of significance. The Pan Grave cemeteries flank the wadis that formed the ancient boundaries of the site, the areas requiring the most guarding against incoming danger from the deserts, both in life and death.


For more information see:

Nekhen News 13 (2001)

Overview at :

Friedman, R. 2001. Excavations in the Nubians Cemeteries. Sudan & Nubia 5: 29-37.

Giuliani S., 2001. Pottery from the Nubian Cemeteries, Sudan & Nubia 5: 40-45.

Giuliani S., 2006. Defining Pan-Grave Pottery [in:] Kroeper, K.; Chlodnicki, M. & Kobusiewicz, M. (eds.), Archaeology of early northeastern Africa. In memory of Lech Krzyzaniak. Poznan : 647-658.

Jones, J., 2001.Textiles from the Pan Grave cemetery, Sudan and Nubia 5:38-39; fig. 10; pls 23, 24.



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