Hierakonpolis - City at the Start of Egyptian Civilization

Close-Up of Narmer Pallette Facsimile in the Royal Ontario Museum
A procession of the early dynastic Pharaoh Narmer is illustrated on this facsimile of the famous Narmer Palette, found at Hierakonpolis. Keith Schengili-Roberts

Hierakonpolis, or "City of the Hawk," is the Greek name for the modern city of Kom el-Ahmar, known to its ancient residents as Nekhen. It is a large predynastic and later townsite located 70 miles (113 km) north of Aswan on a 1.5 km (.9 mi) stretch of the west bank of the Nile River in Upper Egypt. It is the largest pre- and proto-dynastic Egyptian site discovered to date; and it is a key location for understanding the emergence of Egyptian civilization.

Key Takeaways: Hierakonpolis

  • The "City of the Hawk" was an important town on the Nile River when dynastic Egyptian civilization was emerging
  • The ancient ruins date between 4000–2890 BCE
  • Buildings include an early dynastic palace, a ceremonial plaza, large cemeteries including animal burials, and a beer-making facility
  • The site includes references to early pharaohs Menes, Khaskhemwy, and Pepi 

Chronology

  • Early Predynastic (Badarian) (ca 4000–3900 BCE)
  • Middle Predynastic (Naqada I or Amratian) (ca 3900–3800 BCE)
  • Late Predynastic (Naqada II or Gerzean) (ca 3800–3300 BCE)
  • Terminal Predynastic (Naqada III or Proto-Dynastic) (ca 3300–3050 BCE)

People began living in the region that would become Hierakonpolis at least as long ago as the Badarian period beginning about 4000 BCE. The predynastic part of the site includes cemeteries, domestic areas, industrial zones, and a ceremonial center, called prosaically HK29A. The city contained multiple complex settlements, with dwellings, temples, and cemeteries. Most of the Predynastic occupation of the site dates between about 3800 and 2890 BCE, during the periods known as the Naqada I-III and the first dynasty of Old Kingdom Egypt.

  • It reached its maximum size and importance during Naqada II (Naqada is sometimes spelled Nagada), when it was a regional center and twin city to Elkab.

Buildings known to have been constructed during the pre-Dynastic period include a ceremonial plaza (perhaps used for sed ceremonies), a mudbrick enclosure known as the Fort of King Khaskhemwy; an Early Dynastic palace; a tomb with painted walls; and an elite cemetery where a wide variety of animals are interred.

The Painted Tomb

Mural painting of burial chamber at Hierakonpolis, reconstruction
Mural painting of burial chamber at Hierakonpolis, reconstruction. DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI / De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images

Perhaps the most famous building in Hierakonpolis is an elaborate Gerzean period tomb (3500–3200 BCE), called "The Painted Tomb." This tomb was cut into the ground, lined with adobe mud brick and its walls were then elaborately painted—it represents the earliest example of painted walls known in Egypt. On the tomb walls were painted images of Mesopotamian reed boats, attesting to Predynastic contacts with the eastern Mediterranean. The Painted Tomb likely represents the burial place of a proto-pharaoh, although his name is unknown.

There are, however, explicit references to a handful of early pharaohs at Hierakonpolis. The Narmer palette found among the ruins includes the earliest representation of any Egyptian king, tentatively defined as Narmer, or Menes, who ruled about 3100 BCE. A mudbrick enclosure is associated with King Khaskhemwy, the last king of the second Dynasty, died 2686 BCE. A stele dedicated to King Pepi, the third pharaoh of the 6th dynasty who ruled 2332–2287 BCE, was reported in the late 19th century excavations, but was lost to the Nile floods, and tentatively relocated in the 21st century by gamma ray spectrometry.

The more typical residential structures at Hierakonpolis are post/wattle-construction houses and partly intact mudbrick-constructed pottery kilns. One particular rectangular Amratian house excavated in the 1970s was built of posts with wattle and daub walls. This dwelling was small and semi-subterranean, measuring roughly 13x11.5 ft (4x3.5 m). An industrial-level production structure with five large ceramic vats used for making beer (or possibly making bread dough) has been studied by Egyptian archaeologist Elshafaey A. E. Attia and colleagues.

Ceremonial Plaza (Ritual Structure HK29A)

Discovered in the 1985–1989 excavations by Michael Hoffman, HK29A is a complex of rooms surrounding an oval open space, believed to represent a predynastic ceremonial center. This set of structures was renovated at least three times over its use-life during the Naqada II period.

The central courtyard measures 148x43 ft (45x13 m) and was surrounded by a fence of substantial wooden posts, which was later augmented or replaced by mud-brick walls. A pillared hall and a tremendous number of animal bone suggests to researchers that feasting took place here; the associated refuse pits include evidence of a flint workshop and nearly 70,000 potsherds.

Animals

Scorpion modeled in serpentine from Hierakonpolis, Early Dynastic Period (circa 2950 BCE–circa 2575 BCE). 4 in (10.3 cm) long
Scorpion modeled in serpentine from Hierakonpolis, Early Dynastic Period (circa 2950 BCE–circa 2575 BCE). 4 in (10.3 cm) long. Ashmolean Museum / Heritage Images / Getty Images

The remains of many wild animals were found in and around HK29A: mollusks, fish, reptiles (crocodile and turtle), birds, Dorcas gazelle, hare, small bovids (sheep, ibex and dama gazelle), hartebeest and aurochs, hippopotamus, dogs and jackals. Domestic animals include cattle, sheep and goats, pigs, and donkeys.

The assemblage could be interpreted as the results of ceremonial feasting, which almost certainly did occur within the halls of KH29A, but Belgian archaeologists Wim Van Neer and Veerle Linseele argue that the presence of large, dangerous and rare animals suggests a ritual or ceremonial presence as well. Additionally, healed fractures on some of the wild animal bone indicate they were held in captivity for a prolonged period after their capture.

Animal Burials at Royal Cemetery at Locality 6

The Pre-dynastic cemetery at Locality 6 in Hierakonpolis contains the bodies of ancient Egyptians as well as a wide variety of animal burials, including wild Anubis baboon, elephant, hartebeest, jungle cat (Felis chaus), wild donkey, leopard, crocodile, hippopotamus, auroch and ostrich, as well as domesticated donkey, sheep, goat, cattle, and cat.

Many of the animal graves are near to or within larger tombs of the human elite of the early Naqada II period. Some were buried deliberately and carefully in their own graves either singly or groups of the same species. Single or multiple animal graves are found within the cemetery itself, but others are near architectural features of the cemetery, such as enclosure walls and funerary temples. More rarely, they are buried within a human tomb.

Human Burials

Some of the other cemeteries at Hierakonpolis were used for burying elite personages between the Amratian through Protodynastic periods, a consistent use of almost 700 years.

By about 2050 BCE, during Egypt's Middle Kingdom, a small community of Nubians (called C-Group culture in the archaeological literature) were residing at Hierakonpolis, and their descendants live there today.

A C-Group cemetery at Locality HK27C is the northernmost physical presence of Nubian culture identified in Egypt to date. Excavated in the early 21st century, the cemetery has at least 60 known tombs, including a few mummified individuals, within an area measuring 130x82 ft (40x25 m). The cemetery shows distinctive architectural features of Nubian society: a stone or brick-ring around the burial shaft; the placement of Egyptian and hand-made Nubian pottery above ground; and remnants of traditional Nubian dress, including jewelry, hairstyles, and fine colored and perforated leather garments.

Nubian Cemetery

The Nubians were enemies of the Middle Kingdom elite Egyptian power source: one of the puzzles is why they were living in the city of their enemy. Few signs of interpersonal violence are evident on the skeletons. Further, the Nubians were as well fed and healthy as the Egyptians living at Hierakonpolis, in fact both males and females were more physically fit than the Egyptians. Dental data supports this group as being from Nubia, although their material culture, like that of their home country, became "Egyptianized" over time.

The HK27C cemetery was used between the early 11th Dynasty through the early 13th, with the most burials dated to the early 12th Dynasty, C-Group phases Ib-IIa. The cemetery is to the northwest of the rock-cut elite Egyptian burials.

Archaeology

The earliest excavations at Hierakonpolis were conducted in the 1890s by British Egyptologists and again in the 1920s by British archaeologists James Quibell (1867–1935) and Frederick Green (1869–1949) Hierakonpolis was excavated in the 1970s and 1980s by the American Museum of Natural History and Vassar College under the direction of American archaeologists Walter Fairservis (1921–1994) and Barbara Adams (1945–2002). An international team led by Renée Friedman has been working at the site, detailed in Archaeology magazine's Interactive Dig. The official Hierakonpolis project site contains detailed information about ongoing studies at the site.

The famous Narmer palette was found in the foundation of an ancient temple at Hierakonpolis and is thought to have been a dedicatory offering. A life-sized hollow copper statue of Pepi I, the last ruler of the 6th Dynasty Old Kingdom, was discovered buried beneath the floor of a chapel.

Selected Sources and Further Reading