Locality HK11C is a large area of settlement remains located on the wadi terrace flanking the south side of the Great Wadi (Wadi Abu Suffian). On the opposite bank and further to the southwest is the HK6 elite cemetery. Settlement occupation is documented in the eastern part of this locality, but on the west side, it was mainly industrial pursuits that were uncovered, the major industry being beer with associated pottery production. The scale of these industries can be gauged by the large amounts of ash and debris deposited in piles, pits and other apparently disused structures around the west part of the locality, radically altering the topography. Intensive investigations in this industrial zone began in 2003 and are still on-going. Nearly ten years on, we continue to be surprised by the natural of the features preserved here, their level of preservation and what they can tell us about industrial production in the predynastic period.

hk11c map


HK11C Operation B

The excavation site, Operation B (grid squares B 4-5) is situated about 30 m south of the wadi bed, and less than 10 m from the vat and firebar installation uncovered at Operation A (squares A6-7).

Excavations at Operation B were first undertaken in 2003 in order to verify a strong anomaly detected by magnetometry. No indication of what was below was evident on the surface when excavations began. Further investigations undertaken by Masahiro Baba from 2004 to 2009 revealed at least two different phases of occupation.

The upper level, which probably dates to the mid Naqada II period, was characterized by a platform kiln structure (Kiln A) composed of highly fired mud in which were cut numerous firing pits open on one side. Further to the north were the remains of a rectilinear fence-like structure of wood posts. Around this structure were several caches of worked sherds, which had been made into an oval-shape apparently for use in pottery-making. Most of the caches were found within conical jars set upright in emplacements sunk into the floor. The largest of these caches contained 554 sherd tools. The tool caches and the platform-kiln suggest that the upper level occupation was associated with pottery-making activities, with the wooden fence structure being part of a potter’s house or workshop.


hk11c kiln annotated

hk11c upper level

hk11c sherd tools

hk11c tool cache

In the lower level, which can be dated to the first half of Naqada II, an array of five pit-kiln features was identified. Next to each pit-kiln was a segment of wall about 30 cm high, crudely constructed of stones and mud. The pits were on average 60–70 cm in diameter and were found filled with kiln debris, including charcoal, ash, stone slabs, sherds and burnt mud rubble. Many of the sherds had burnt mud adhering to them indicating their use as building materials. When considering the firing technique, these materials become important, and suggest that the pits, once filled with fuel and pottery, were then covered with an ad hoc superstructure composed of sherds cemented together with mud (see pottery production). Based on close observation of the condition of the burnt soil around each of the pits, it is clear that the kilns operated individually.

hk11c lower level

hk11c lowerlevel view

Located immediately to the north of the pit kilns was a set of five more or less well-preserved vats containing residue from the cooking of grain for the production of beer amongst other possible foodstuffs. These freestanding vats were found arranged in two rows and were bounded on two sides by walls with openings at intervals like those at HK24B. These vats were preserved to a height of 40 to 60cm and had diameters ranging from 60 to 85cm, but were originally wider and higher when complete. All are now missing their rims. In addition, a vat was once probably present in Feature 3, a pit filled with many vat fragments and surrounded by standing sherds, all suggesting that it is the remains of a vat that was removed in antiquity. Therefore, it is probable that six vats were originally installed within the low walls. 

hk11c opb view

Although the vats differ in size, their construction and support method is the same in all cases. First the vat was placed in a shallow pit and supported with some stones. Then the exterior of the vat was coated with sherds and mud, and a ring was made around the base of the vat using sherds (mainly from big vats) and mud cement to create an enclosed space for the fire. Openings were left in the ring to allow in air and fuel. Obviously these vat installations aimed to heat something and in large quantities

hk11c vat support

hk11c vat crossection

hk11c morevats

Inside each vat a thick layer of shiny black residue adheres to the interior. Preliminary botanical examination showed that the residue contained amongst other things, malted emmer wheat, so there is no doubt that the vats were made for heating grain mixed with water, the final product being either porridge or beer. Beer seems the most likely based on the thick mud coating on the vat exteriors, which was probably intended to prevent excessive heat getting into the vat’s interior. In brewing, the wort-making process requires heat at low temperatures of about 70 degrees centigrade. An experimental reconstruction showed that in a configuration as found at Operation B, the interior of a sherd and mud covered vat could not reach more than 100 degrees. Thus, thickening the vat walls was a technique to keep the interior temperature suitable for wort-making as well as preventing the vat from cracking due to heat stress.

Putting the various elements together, Operation B appears to have an integrated production plant with the vats functioning in the brewing process and the pit-kilns making the containers to hold the final product. Even after the vats fell out of use and were completely covered over by the upper level occupation, pot-making activity continued, presumably to service vats working at a different location, probably Operation A.

In the area immediately adjacent to the west, excavations by J.F Harlan in 1978 (squares 0N.-6E, 0N.0E) also revealed various features that might be associated with the preparation of the grain. A mud trough and basin, initially believed to be a feeding trough for animals, may have been for malting the grains, although this cannot be confirmed. A large scatter of wheat chaff and grains was also found nearby.

During the excavation of Operation B, large quantities of sherds were retrieved. The assemblage was dominated by fragments of straw-tempered Nile silt pottery, which accounts for over 80% of the total. In this fabric, the most common shape is the modelled-rim jars. Over 60% of all rims recovered here were from these jars. Therefore, the main product of kilns in Operation B was probably the straw tempered modelled-rim jar. Jars with mid-sized bodies and flat bases were found in and around the pit-kilns and vat structures in the lower level and have close parallels in several elite tombs at HK6, all of which are dated to the Naqada IC to IIB. Furthermore, radiocarbon testing of the residue inside Vat 4 resulted in a date of 3762-3537 cal BC (C14 4875±40 BP), which also corresponds to the Naqada IC to IIB. This is very close to radiocarbon dates from the Tomb 16 complex in HK6 elite cemetery, which dates to the Naqada IC-IIA period based on pottery and other finds. These data suggest that the vat installation at HK11C Operation B may be the oldest brewery in the world. Intriguingly the activities at Operation B seem to begin at the same time as the foundation of the large elite tomb complexes at HK6. It is thus possible that this brewery, which is on a smaller scale than those near the cultivation, was established specifically to supply the funerary rituals and/or grave goods for the elite tombs.


hk11c jar type

hk11c vat from above


HK11C Operation A Brewery

Excavations at HK11C Operation A (squares A6-7) were initiated in 2003 and continued until 2007 under the direction of Izumi Takamiya. The area was selected for excavation firstly because in 1979 J.F. Harlan (1982) had discovered here (square 6.5N.-21W) what he considered the remnants of a shallow pit-updraught kiln for the production of pottery; secondly because a magnetometer survey carried out in 1999 detected a strong anomaly in the immediate area, which suggested the existence of further kilns below ground; and finally because portions of an eroding semi-circular kiln structure were already visible on the surface. Thus, we expected to bring to light kilns for pottery production, but instead we found what is presumably a brewery, but definitely an establishment for cooking a cereal based food rather than for baking clay.

hk11c fred

hk11c opa excav

Located at the edge of the wadi terrace, the excavations uncovered a large semi-subterranean heating installation. Although the upper levels of the structure had been destroyed, the general plan could be identified. The complex was originally rectangular in shape, confined by straight walls on at least the east, south and west. The northern wall, if it existed, has been washed away by subsequent water action in the wadi bed. The approximate dimensions of the complex are 3m E-W and at least 7m NS with a U-shaped feature incorporated into the south wall, presumably as a flue to facilitate ventilation. Within these walls were found eight circular features (approximately 100-120 cm in diameter) arranged in two rows along the north-south axis of the complex. Two or more features may have existed at the northern end, where the floor is now seriously eroded. The best preserved was Feature 12, which consisted of 13 fire-bars (the upper parts broken off) still in situ, standing upright but slightly slanting inward. The fire bars, with their pointed ends embedded about 10 cm in the natural deposits, were arranged in 4 concentric circles around a small deposit of sand, upon which once stood a ceramic vat, fragments of which were strewn throughout the upper levels of the structure.

hk11c opa map

hk11c opa

hk11c opaf12

Fire-bars with a pointed end, a wedge-shaped top, and a D-shaped cross section along the shaft, were found strewn throughout the area. Three different sizes were discerned: the shortest is about 33cm; the middle-height about 54cm; and the tallest 64cm. Thus in the concentric arrangement the shortest ones were positioned near the centre and the tallest ones outermost. A reconstruction of the original vat emplacement based on the evidence uncovered indicates that a total of 24 firebars were required to support each vat, which is a considerable investment compared to the sherd and stone support method at HK24B and HK11C Operation B.

hk11c opa firedogs

hk11c reconstruction

Before the vat was put in place, it was coated on the exterior with mud and sherds as at Operation B to protect the interior from excessive heat and the vat itself from heat cracks. But here, to keep these materials in place a rope had been wrapped round. On various vat fragments with mud adhering to them the remnants of charred rope could still be seen occurring at 5cm intervals. The wedge-shaped edges of the firebars were then fitted around the circumference of the vat and adhered with mud.

hk11c opa rope

The walls of this semi-subterranean rectangular complex were lined with large fragments of square ceramic plates cemented with mud plaster. The square plates often more than 70 cm on a side, (though none were complete) and more than 10cm thick, were set almost vertically into the sides of the trench cut in the natural deposits. It is obvious that these ceramic plates played an important role in the structure, but they were presumably created originally for another purpose, but what this was is still unknown.

hk11c ceramic plate

The floor of the complex was covered with a thin layer of white ash resting upon the levelled surface of the natural Pleistocene wadi terrace deposits, which had been intensely rubified. The reddening of the soil extended more than 20 cm below the surface all over the complex, indicating the presence of strong or prolonged heat.

hk11c red floor

Thick deposits of charcoal, including the charred remains of thick logs, were found concentrated along the east and west walls, often forming prominent heaps between the firebar features. The concentration of fuel along the walls and the even extent of the rubification of the floor suggest that the interior of the structure and all of its features were heated together at the same time.

Vat features supported by fire-bars have been excavated at Abydos, Mahasna and Tell el-Farkha. The structure and features at Operation A resemble most closely the complexes excavated at Abydos in Region D and near the Osireion by Eric Peet in the beginning of the 20th century (Peet 1914; Peet & Loat 1913). At Abydos, the complexes were rectangular structures, containing 23 or more supported vats. Peet reported that the large vats in the structure near the Osireion were supported by fire-bars of different lengths placed concentrically around them, although a single arrangement of fire-bars was employed elsewhere. Furthermore, the vats were coated with burnt mud, analogous to findings at Operation A. Peet suggested that the installations were grain parching kilns, and at Mahasna a similar configuration was considered by Garstang as a pottery kiln. J. Geller later suggested that they were used for brewing beer, an identification confirmed by analysis of the residue within them at Hierakonpolis and Tel el Farkha.

The labor intensive method in which the Operation A installation was created compared to those at Operation B, HK24A and 24B suggests the fire-bar technology imparted some special benefit, though what this might have been is still unclear Overall, the Operation A heating structure appears much more formal and planned and this may be due to its date and developing technologies over time.

The complexes at Abydos were dated to the Late Predynastic (Naqada III), and a similar date may be attributed to the Operation A installation based on a conventional C14 date of 4287+/-55BP, calibrating to about 3000BC, but this sample is problematic. Nevertheless, it corresponds with the renewal of burial activity in the HK6 elite cemetery, and further suggests that the wadi breweries were built to supply the funerary cults of the elite.  

The discovery of the breweries at Operation A and B was unexpected. Follow the progress and how we gradually realized what we had found in the Nekhen News, volumes 2003-2009, with further discoveries in the vicinity in 2010, 2011 and 2012. Find out how we built our own brewery in Nekhen News 21 (2009).


For further information see:

Harlan, J.F., 1982. Excavations at Locality 11C [in:] Hoffman, M.A. (ed.), The Predynastic of Hierakonpolis. An interim report. Egyptian Studies Association 1. Giza/Macomb: 14-25.

Takamiya, I.H., 2008. Firing Installations and Specialization: A View from Recent Excavations at Hierakonpolis Locality 11C [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 (France), 5th–8th September 2005. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 172. Leuven: 187-202.

Baba, M., 2008. Pottery-making tools: Worked sherds from HK11C Square B4, 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 (France), 5th–8th September 2005. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 172. Leuven: 7–20.

Baba, M., 2011. Pottery Production at Hierakonpolis during the Naqada II Period -Toward Reconstruction of the firing technique- [in:] Friedman, R.E. & Fiske P.N. (eds.), Egypt at its Origins 3. Proceedings of the Third International Conference ‘Origin of the State. Predynastic and Early Dynastic Egypt’, London, 27th July - 1st August. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 205. Leuven: 647-670.

Peet, E. 1914: The Cemeteries of Abydos. Part II. 1911-1912, Egypt Exploration Fund 34. London

Peet, E. & W.L.S. Loat 1913: The Cemeteries of Abydos. Part III. 1912-1913, Egypt Exploration Fund 35. London.



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