Locality HK11 is one of the largest concentrations of Predynastic settlement on the Hierakonpolis concession, which is somewhat surprising considering it is located about 1.5km from the edge of the modern cultivation on the south bank of the Great Wadi (Wadi Abu Suffian). The locality covers in excess of 68,000m2 and is made up of several different activity zones. The remains of houses and domestic activities are concentrated on the east side, while on the west are the brewing and pottery making establishments at Operation A and B (wadi breweries). To the south is an extensively plundered cemetery (HK11E) and the concentration of petroglyphs at HK 61 (rock art). Why settlement and industrial activity is taking place so far up the wadi remains an intriguing question, but is it the relatively undisturbed condition of the site that makes it especially important. Unlike the settlement areas closer to the cultivation, where farmers have dug out the ancient organic materials (sebakh) to fertilize their fields turning the low desert into a lunar landscape of sherd covered mounds and sand filled pits, the surface of HK11 is smooth with only a light scattering of pottery. This belies the well-preserved and often stratified deposits lying below.
Archival photographs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art New York attest to excavations by Ambrose Lansing here in 1934, about which we know little. A deposit of early pottery he discovered in a cave in the cliffs behind the site is now on display in New York and the mounds of debris from his other excavations at the foot of these cliffs are also still visible. We also know he explored around the brewery at Operation A, but it is more difficult to determine what it is he found.
The locality was next examined by J.F. Harlan (1982) in 1978-1979, who made initial excavation in square 6N.-21W or what is now known as Operation A (wadi breweries). Here he uncovered one fairly well preserved vat surrounded by fire-bars. Further squares (0N-0E; 0N-6E) were excavated to the west of the brewing and pottery complex now known as Operation B (wadi breweries). But the most important area he excavation was a trash mound at the south edge of the site, providing us with a serendipitous view of the lifestyles of the inhabitants at about 3800 to 3600BC in the stratified levels of accumulated debris.
Trash Mound A
The excavation trench at Trash Mound A was 2x3m in size, was excavated through stratified layers of trash (midden) to a maximum depth of 2.15m below surface where sterile soil was encountered. The excavation was conducted in arbitrary levels of approximately 10cm each, with a total of 20 levels recorded. The strata were composed of thin, discontinuous lenses of soil mixed with cultural, botanical and faunal material indicating a midden built up through the dumping of small amounts of refuse over time. The time frame involved appears relatively limited. The ceramic material indicates a Naqada IC-IIA date (ca. 3800-3700BC) for the majority of the accumulation and the nature of the pottery and the deposits in general suggest that it for the most part predates the intensive industrial brewing and pottery-making activities uncovered at Operations A and B. Overall, the material in the trash mound appears to originate from domestic refuse generated by household activities and from it a wealth of information can be gleaned.
Analysis of the botanic content by Dr Ahmed Fahmy (Helwan University) revealed grains and chaff of emmer wheat, the main crop grown for human consumption as well as remains of barley, a cereal which seems to have been used more to feed animals than humans. Flax, grown for making linen, was also identified, and its seeds were possibly also used as animal fodder. Also present were seeds of cultivated melons and edible wild fruits (Balanites aegyptiaca, Citrullus colocynthis and Zizyphus spina-christi), which added sugars and carbohydrates to the diet; as well as the seeds, fruits and leaflets of field weeds and desert growths, which are useful for reconstructing the ancient environment and farming practices.
For example, the presence of a considerable numbers of field weeds among the cereal crop refuse can help to determine how the crops were harvested. The data suggest the stalks of grain were cut about 40cm above the soil surface. The stubble was then left in the soil as organic fertilizer. This is the traditional method of cereal harvesting in Ancient Egypt and is illustrated in many tomb reliefs.
In addition, the high presence of desert growing plants in lower levels of the deposit and the notable change to more sparse vegetation in the upper levels, suggest a change in climate. This, together with diminished evidence of desert trees and shrubs in the upper levels, supports general palaeoclimatological and archaeological assumptions that the rate of precipitation was lower after 3500 BC. Intensive tree cutting to provide fuel for brewing and pottery-making may also have played a role in altering the ecology, but this drying of the climate ultimately led to the abandonment of the low desert for habitation.
Overall Dr. Fahmy’s study of the trash mound and other areas of the site shows that the economy of Predynastic Hierakonpolis was based on the cultivation of emmer wheat and barley. Both crops were cultivated in the winter and only one crop a year was grown. Fields were in the floodplain, but whether dry farming was also possible in the wadi before the climate dried out is still under discussion. Emmer wheat and barley were consumed by humans and their by-products (chaff and straw) were used to feed the livestock. Humans and animals also exploited wild food resources to supplement their dietary needs. This is reconstruction is also supported by analysis of food offerings and preserved stomach contents recovered especially from the cemetery at HK43.
The House at Operation G
Ever since the discovery of the house remains at HK29 by Michael Hoffman in 1978, the Expedition has sought to examine comparable habitations. Attempts to achieve this have led to a number of important discoveries (e.g., the ceremonial center at HK29A), but a fully domestic assemblage remained elusive until an extensive magnetometer survey in an undisturbed sector at HK11 was carried out by Tomasz Herbich in 1999 revealing a number of small but strong anomalies indicative of subsurface settlement remains. While several of these turned out to be related to the brewing and pottery industry, in the eastern part of the locality, a domestic habitation was uncovered at what we now called Operation G.
Excavations undertaken at Operation G by Ethan Watrall in 2000 and 2001 succeeded in uncovering part of a house compound with a variety of storage pits and domestic features bounded by a remarkably well-preserved wood post fence. Following visible strata, the excavations revealed six discreet occupational episodes within approximately 30 to 60cm of deposition. These combine to form an overall picture of a relatively continuous cycle of occupation spanning from the Naqada IC to Naqada IIB period, with later incidents of trash disposal in Naqada IIC. These excavations have revealed the most clearly defined stratification and chronological phases of a domestic structure known to date in the desert portion of Hierakonpolis. Analysis of the variety of materials recovered suggest that its stratified remains document a period of significant technological and social change in Predynastic society and indicate that the transition from Naqada IC to IIB was one of profound importance.
The first phase (Phase I) is the earliest Predynastic domestic occupation so far found in situ anywhere within the desert region of Hierakonpolis. Dated by diagnostic ceramic material to the Naqada IC-IIA period, evidence for this phase consists of a sub-rectangular floor with a foundation trench for a wall along the northern edge. Associated features included post-holes, numerous shallow pot emplacements, a series of small circular features, which may represent post-holes in which small, non-load bearing posts had been placed, and a large stone lined hearth. Beside the hearth, reed matting had been laid over the floor. Nearby, a food preparation area featured a large ovoid quartzite grinder and a small storage pit lined with gray mud.
The following phase (Phase II) is primarily characterized by trash pits, which cut through portions of the Phase I house floor. The pit fillings contained loose dark brown/gray sediment in which a large amount of faunal material, ceramics, lithics, high amounts of charcoal, and botanical remains was deposited. It therefore seems that the Phase I structure was abandoned and the area was used for refuse disposal.
The second major period of habitation (Phase III) involved a significant change in the architectural layout. The most notable feature is the addition of a post and reed mat fence that ran the entire length (20m) of the southern side of the excavation unit. Constructed out of more than 40 acacia posts, lengthy sections of reed matting were affixed using twine. The matting was then coated on the southern side with a light layer of mud. A deliberate gap near the fence’s western end where the posts doubled back probably served as an entrance to an enclosure or courtyard whose full dimensions are still unknown.
The fence was associated with a hard packed gray floor with a rock-lined hearth surrounded by reddened soil and ash concentrations. A small copper needle and a finely-made copper fishhook were discovered embedded in the floor. These artifacts, although clearly used, exhibited remarkable preservation. The fishhook is of particular interest when one considers the site is currently some 4km from the present location of the Nile.
In the north-western sector of the excavated area was an installation that included two mud-lined pits and three shallower mud-lined features. While the deeper pits may have been used for storage, the shallower ones may have been pot emplacements. Alternatively, because of the associated ash deposits and numerous "dung cakes", which were burned as fuel, these features may have served as food preparation areas. Discontinuous lines of posts frame this area, but they may date from a later phase.
The next occupational phase (Phase IV) was characterized by a relatively extensive accumulation of garbage along the matting fence, which was subsequently covered with a second and final hard packed grey floor (Phase V). Significant amounts of garbage continued to pile up along the fence, especially near the entrance, throughout Phase V. The large amounts of animal dung in the refuse suggest that cattle and other domestic animals were kept in this part of the compound at this time. The full extent of the house is still unclear as the southern part of the area was heavily disturbed. Nevertheless, it appears to have been fairly spacious based on the excavated courtyard area.
The final activity phase (Phase VI) is represented by a large refuse pit that was dug down from the top of the occupation to the underlying wadi sediments. The pit, some 86cm deep, contained ceramic material dating from the Naqada IIC and it was undoubtedly dug after the house was abandoned.
The stratified ceramic assemblage from this structure provides an important indication of changing inventories and production methods over time. We could chart a gradual change in the composition of the pottery assemblage as home-made cooking wares in a range of shale tempered fabrics were replaced by mass produced of straw tempered domestic wares. In the Phase I habitation, fine black-topped and red polished table wares comprised 42% of the total assemblage, straw tempered wares 40% and homemade shale pottery made up 18%. By Phase III, straw tempered wares made up 73% of the assemblage while the red polished and homemade wares had diminished to 20% and 6% respectively. Over time straw tempered pottery became more and more prevalent until it made up over 85% of the assemblage in the Nagada IIC (Phase VI) trash pit.
A few examples of Petrie's white-cross line (C) ware together with Black-topped and Polished red ware date the first phase of occupation to Naqada IC. The straw tempered wares were limited in this early stage and appear mainly as large storage jars and mixing bowls that would be difficult to create in other denser or coarser fabrics. Cooking pots were generally composed of shale tempered pottery. These home-made pots, with their hard, wet smoothed exteriors, were no doubt more difficult to make than straw tempered vessels, but they were clearly more suited to their job. The hard exterior surfaces were less porous and the shale temper also promoted thermal stability, allowing the pot to withstand differences in temperature without cracking for much longer than a straw tempered vessel. From the numerous examples with mending holes, the value of these homemade vessels was clearly recognized. Nevertheless, the mass produced straw tempered cooking pots eventually prevailed and the production of homemade cooking vessels ceased. By phase V any homemade vessels were relics.
Textile remains recovered during the excavations also point to changing technologies. The small amount of clean woven cloth and spun yarn discarded in the various refuse pits were examined by Jana Jones of Macquarie University. The textiles were made of good quality, well-prepared flax, and were very finely and evenly spun, but the samples also suggest that the spinners and weavers were in the midst of technological change. Some examples show a combination of the old technique of using Z-spun, 2-plied threads, which appears in Egypt at c. 5,000 BC, and the new technique of S-spun threads, which was to become characteristic of Dynastic Egyptian textiles. By Naqada IIB, all extant predynastic textiles are woven of S-spun threads, which was far more efficient since by following the natural rotation direction of flax fibres spinning in this direction made a tighter and stronger thread that did not require double plying. The factors leading to this change in technology are still under investigation, but the material from HK11 provides important data on when this change occured. Numerous possible spindle whorls (potsherds shaped into disks and perforated), and a small bundle of weaving remnants suggest that the inhabitants of HK11 were engaged in the manufacture of fine textiles, perhaps as just one or many activities undertaken at the domestic level.
The lithic assemblage gives no indication of any specialized undertakings. The dominance of retouched pieces indicates an extremely expedient industry and the low number of formalized tools suggest situations calling for a wide variety of tools. While an assemblage for an animal processing site or industrial area for example would be very focused on a specific set of tool classes, a domestic assemblage reflects the fluidity of activity that is characteristic of a household. Other finds include the mid-section of chipped stone animal figurine, which is possibly a hippo, three fragments of small discoid stone mace-heads, and a fragment of a cylindrical limestone vessel with a small vertical handle.
The faunal assemblage (c. 4000 elements) was examined by Wim Van Neer and Veerle Linseele. This material was well- preserved with horns, hooves and skin present in some instances. The traditional domestic species (cattle, sheep/goat and - to a lesser extent - pig) predominate. Hunted species were not common but included gazelle (Gazella dorcas), hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius), fox (Vulpes rueppelli) and crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus). Among the fish, Nile perch (Lates niloticus) and Synodontis catfish are the most common. Burned bones were abundant. Bones of a human neonate were also recovered from one of the pits and suggest burial beneath the house floor as is well attested at the contemporary site of Adaima.
Many questions still surround the HK11 occupation. We still don’t know for sure who was living there (herders?, farmers?, brewers? potters?) and why (to service the funerary cult at HK6 or find temporary shelter during the flood season?). Whatever the case, its exploration is opening a fascinating window into domestic life at this remote time.
For more information see:
Nekhen News 12 (2000)
Nekhen News 13 (2001)
Friedman, R.F.; Watrall, E.; Jones, J.; Fahmy, A.G.; Van Neer, W. & Linseele, V., 2002. Excavations at Hierakonpolis. Archéo-Nil 12: 55-68.
Fahmy, A.G., Fadl, M. & Friedman, R.F., 2011. Economy and Ecology of Predynastic Hierakonpolis, Egypt: Archaeobotanical Evidence from a Trash Mound at HK11C [in:] Fahmy, A.G, Kahlbeher, S. & D’Andrea, A.C. (eds), Windows on the African Past. Current approaches to African archaeobotany. Frankfort: 91-118
Harlan, J.F., 1982. Excavations at Locality 11C [in:] Hoffman, M.A. (ed.), The Predynastic of Hierakonpolis. Egyptian Studies Association 1. Giza/Macomb: 14-25.
Jones, J., 2008. Pre- and Early Dynastic textiles: Technology, specialisation and administration during the process of state formation. in:] B. Midant-Reynes, B. and Y. Tristant, (eds.), Egypt at its origins 2. Proceedings of the International Conference "Origin of the state, Predynastic and Early Dynastic Egypt”, Toulouse (France), 5th-8th September 2005. Leuven: 99-132.