The cemetery called HK43, belonging to the non-elite (or workers) segment of the predynastic population, is located on the southern side of the site beside the Wadi Khamsini. Work here in 1996 when a land reclamation scheme threatened its preservation and excavations continued until 2004, resulting in the discovery of a minimum of 452 graves holding over 500 individuals of Naqada IIB-IIC date (roughly 3650-3500BC). Dug into the loose sand, the graves were rarely larger at their base than required to fit the flexed body on a layer of matting. Depth from the original surface was usually less than 1m. The full expanse of the cemetery is not entirely clear due to disturbance, but archaeological testing indicates that in the Naqada IIB phase it was c. 80m north-south and at least 100m east-west, but may also have incorporated the cemetery locality called HK44 and extended westward to HK45. If the grave density in the excavated area of 1 grave per 4.2m2 was maintained throughout, this cemetery represented a major burial ground for the non-elite population of the time. In Naqada IIC burials spread further to the north and west as shown by excavations undertaken F.W. Green in 1899 (see Adams 1974), although no detailed map of his work survives.
The graves in the contiguous area of 1860m2 excavated by us appear to be arranged in a circular fashion, densely placed around empty central areas on which fragments of large domestic vessels of types not found in burials were recovered. These pottery concentrations suggest that these central areas were reserved for funerary feasts and rituals, and may have been marked only by the pottery left behind. The graves themselves may well have been marked with a mound of sand or some stones, though no indication remains. Given the close spacing, some marking must have been present, as there are relatively few cases where one burial overlies another or cuts part of an earlier burial by accident.
The hot dry sand into which the graves were dug has led to outstanding organic preservation of mats and baskets as well as hair, bone, body tissues, foodstuffs and gut contents, all of which are providing unparalleled information on diet, nutrition, health and lifestyle. In heyday of Predynastic research at the turn of 20th century, over 65 cemetery and an estimated 20,000 graves were excavated; however due to the interests and abilities of the time, the organic materials were often ignored and the skeletal remains were not adequately studied. The study of the material recovered from this cemetery is therefore allowing us to set the record straight on many topics.
As usual for Predynastic cemeteries in Upper Egypt, the bodies were placed on a mat in a crouched position on their left side facing toward the west. Covered with a linen shroud, the corpse was often protected by more mats and in some graves at HK43 we found up to 10 different mats laid over body. Two basic types were used, and one made by running a string through the center of the reeds may have been manufactured especially for the grave.
Only 9% of all the burials in the HK43 cemetery were found intact. Based on pottery found in some of the graves we can suggest that plundering took place in ancient, Roman, and medieval time (c.11th cent AD). From archival records, we know that F.W. Green also conducted excavations here and some bones marked by him were found. As a result, it is not easy to assess the true wealth of those buried here.
Of the 452 burials, grave goods can be attributed to less than half (c. 210 graves). These grave goods involve mainly pottery, usually one to three pots, in a limited range of shapes—small blacktopped jars, red polished bowls, straw tempered bottles, both large and small, and cooking pots. The largest number of vessels recovered was 10 in Burial 450 and 8 in Burial 71, both intact tombs of women containing objects of no other type. Greywacke cosmetic palettes were found in only five graves, evidence of copper items in four (apparently kept in pouches worn on the hip mainly of men), beads in situ in only two (both children). Food was a fairly common provision for the dead and included round loaves of bread, although one was so full of chaff it could not have been eaten in life. Fruits such as melon, ‘nebk’ (the crab-apple like fruit of the Zizyphus spina-christi), and the balanos or desert date were frequent parting gifts. With one older woman, a complete bulb of garlic was found wrapped in fabric and still retained its aroma after 5500 years.
Despite the disturbed condition of the graves, several intriguing finds were made.
Notable burials include the intact Burial 333, which belonged to a woman between 40-50 years of age at the time of her death. When we cleared the sand away from the four complete pots by her head, we knew the burial would be an interesting one, but just how important we could never have guessed. Our first surprise was a greywacke palette in the shape of a bird nestled between her elbows and knees, but even more surprising was the basket against which it rested. This basket was filled to the brim with remarkable objects. Just beneath its basketry lid was a series of stone pendants including one carved with the face of a bearded man, the string connecting them still preserved. Below was a set of tools made from animal bone, an ivory hair comb, chunks of galena (lead-ore or kohl) and ochre to be ground as cosmetics on the palette with the two polished stones, fine flint bladelets, a hook shaped object of shell and rounded stones of unknown purpose. In addition, the basket also contained a leather bag in which were chunks of resin and small cones of mud resting within an unparalleled mixture of plant remains including seeds and tubers as well as chips of imported cedar and juniper making up an odiferous incense mixture or potpourri.
The care and effort taken over this particular burial indicates that the deceased was a very important woman and this can also been seen from her special Mohawk-type hairstyle. While most of the objects in the basket are known from other sites, the purpose and function of some of them has long been a matter of speculation (a very similar collection also in a basket was found at Abydos grave E381 see Naville, Cemeteries of Abydos I (1914), p.17). If the collection has any coherence at all, it may represent a magic or medical kit and this woman may have been a wise woman. The number of children interred around her grave seem to suggest that she was considered a strong protective presence for some time after her death.
In many cases the objects placed in the graves had been used extensively in life. In Burial 209, of a women, approximately 45 years of age at her death, the pottery included three Polished red ware bowls, a deep bowl of marl fabric and two Rough ware bottles whose necks had already broken off and the edges ground down before they were placed in the grave. This burial also included two stone vessels, one of basalt and one of calcite, which was badly chipped, as well as a bone hair comb that had also already lost a tine by the time it was placed in the grave.
Another burial of note was Burial 412, belonging to a middle aged male. Although the tomb had been plundered, we managed to find something the robbers missed. Wrapped in an animal hide and hidden beneath the hair still on the head was a fishtail flint knife still hafted to its reed handle. In addition to its wrapping, it also had a leather sheath over the blade, suggesting that these knives were not only highly prized weapons, but also ones that were still considered dangerous.
In other graves, respect or care for the dead is manifest in special treatment of the body. The discovery of thick pads of resin-soaked linen carefully placed around the jaw and hands still in place in three burials indicates a growing concern with the preservation of the body, and particularly its ability to feed itself in the afterlife. The three well-preserved examples are all burials of women, but fragments of similar thick pads of linen found in several other more badly disturbed burials. These pads have also been recovered from tombs in the elite cemetery at HK6 and this suggests this treatment was not restricted to women. To explore these burials in detail, see First Mummies?
The evidence to date suggests that these wrappings were not intended to preserve the actual physical appearance of the deceased, but rather its articulation. But this does not mean they weren't interested in looking their best for eternity. This is made clear by the hair of an older woman (Burial 16), who dyed her greying tresses with henna, and plumped out her thinning locks with hair extensions, knotted into the natural hair to create an elaborate hairstyle with that fashionable lift in the center. Vanity wasn’t limited only to women, for we also have a toupee made of animal skin that was tied on to the remaining natural strands of a folically challenged male and a very well-trimmed beard.
Harder to explain are the cutmarks found on the neck vertebrae of 21 individuals, indicating the cutting of the threat and in some cases, complete decapitation. The individuals involved include men and women ranging from 16 to 65 years of age, five of whom (all young men) were also scalped, their skulls covered with up to 197 shallow cut marks. The focus of the activity was limited to the vault, while the facial and associated post-cranial remains were devoid of any cut marks. This strongly suggests that the purpose of the act was simply to remove the scalp, but for unknown reasons. The same can be said for the throat cutting. The standard location of the lacerations to the throat—always from the front, high up on the neck, most frequently on the second and third cervical vertebrae —and the lack of defensive injuries indicate these marks are not the result of crime or warfare. In the few intact or relatively intact burials with cut individual, the skulls have been found in place, as in Burials 85 and 123, or at least in the correct location, as in Burials 271 and 438, where cut marks suggest full decapitation before the head put back in place. The burials of the affected individuals are scattered around the cemetery and the graves appear no different than any of the others, neither richer or poorer.
Explanations for this treatment range from a ritual practice of dismemberment, perhaps related to a precursor of the Osiris myth, in which the god was dismembered by his brother Seth, reassembled by his wife Isis, and then wrapped and mummified by Anubis before attaining the afterlife as King of the underworld. Later on, when we have texts to guide us, we know that in death all Egyptians became Osiris, and the mummification of the body was viewed as a reenactment of the events in Osiris’ death. On the other hand, if this were the case one would expect more examples of cut marks. As only less than 5% of the individuals show evidence for this treatment, other proposed explanations include capital punishment for crimes, the body of the criminal then released to the family for burial. At the very least, given that the graves show nothing special in placement or contents, it seems that human sacrifice for ritual purposes can be ruled out, here at least. It may be a different story in the elite cemetery at HK6, where one isolated human vertebrae was found to bear cutmarks.
On-going examinations of the skeletal material from this cemetery are the subject of several PhD thesis and are informing various studies about life at this time. Almost all of the people buried here were robust, well nourished and muscular, and had good teeth. Pathologies are rare and include a number of fractures and breaks, but several individuals also suffered from fractured skulls, the result of severe blows to the head. Some healed, some were fatal, which suggests that life in ancient Hierakonpolis was not always peaceful.
To follow along as we made our discoveries see Nekhen News volumes 8 (1996)-16(2004).
For more information see the reference below, but also check out the Big Bibliography for further discussions:
Dougherty, S.P. & Friedman, R.F., 2008. Sacred or mundane: Scalping and decapitation at Predynastic Hierakonpolis [in:] Midant-Reynes, B. & Tristant, Y. (eds.), Egypt at its origins 2. Proceedings of the International conference “Origin of the State. Predynastic and Early Dynastic Egypt”, Toulouse, 5-8th September 2005. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 172, Leuven: 311-338
Fahmy, A.G., 2003. Palaeo-ethnobotanical studies of the Egyptian Predynastic cemeteries: new dimensions and contributions [in] Neumann, K., Butler, A. & Kahlheber, S. (eds.). Food, fuel and fields: Progress in African archaeobotany. Africa Praehistorica 15. Köln: 95–106.
Friedman, R.F., 1999. The Predynastic cemetery at HK43 [in:] Friedman, R.F.; Maish, A.; Fahmy, A.G.; Darnell, J.C. & Johnson, E.D, Preliminary report on field work at Hierakonpolis: 1996-1998. Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 36 (1999): 3-11.
Friedman, R.F.; Watrall, E.; Jones, J.; Fahmy, A.G.; Van Neer, W. & Linseele, V., 2002. Excavations at Hierakonpolis. Archéo-Nil 12: 55-68.
Jones, J., 2007. New perspectives on the development of mummification and funerary practices during the Pre- and Early Dynastic periods [in:] Goyon, J.-C. & Cardin, C. (eds.), Proceedings of the ninth international congress of Egyptologists. Grenoble 6–12 septembre 2004: Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 150. Leuven: 979–990.
Viewable on Google books
Greene, T.R., 2007. Diet and dental health in Predynastic Egypt. A comparison of Hierakonpolis and Naqada. Saarbrücken.
Batey, E.K., 2012. Population dynamics in Predynastic Upper Egypt: Paleodemography of cemetery HK43 at Hierakonpolis. Ph.D. University of Arkansas. http://gradworks.umi.com/35/41/3541926.html
Zabecki, M., 2009. Late Predynastic Egyptian Workloads: Musculoskeletal Stress Markers at Hierakonpolis. UMI.