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Special Report: New Finds from the Elite Cemetery April 22, 2005
by Mark Rose

[image]An overview of Tomb 23 looking toward the east (Supreme Council for Antiquities) [LARGER IMAGE]

The Hierakonpolis Expedition, directed by Renée Friedman and working under the supervision of Egypt's Supreme Council for Antiquities, completed its 2004-2005 season at the end of March. In addition to conservation of the Fort (the 4,700-year-old mud-brick ceremonial enclosure of King Khasekhemwy), the season included excavation at a predynastic kiln site (HK 11), and the completion of the excavation of Tomb 23 in the elite cemetery (HK6). The last of these has yielded important new discoveries for the understanding of Predynastic funerary customs.

Excavation of Tomb 23 began in 2000, when the late Barbara Adams investigated about one-half of it. She found that Tomb 23, which dates to ca. 3600 B.C. (the Naqada IIB period), was part of an elaborate complex, with a superstructure over the tomb and a wall, made of posts and mats, surrounding it. No earlier evidence for aboveground funerary structures has ever been found in Egypt. Artifacts from the excavation include a figure of an ibex chipped out of flint and pieces of a unique life-size statue of a man (or perhaps a god) carved out of hard limestone, the earliest such statue known from Egypt.

Completion of the work at Tomb 23 took place this past February-March. The area Adams had investigated was reopened and the adjacent areas excavated, showing that the tomb--the largest of this date known so far--measured 5.5 meters (east-west) by 3 meters (north-south). On the stone floor of the tomb, at its western end, were the partial remains (lower skeletal parts only) of four individuals. The remains are not well preserved and had no grave goods with them or mats (with which other bodies in the cemetery are wrapped, laid upon, or covered). While evidence indicates that the tomb was plundered more than once in the past, Adams had found fine grave offerings at the tomb's eastern end. Friedman suspects that if the four individuals in the western end of the tomb are not later, intrusive burials, they may be retainers or prisoners who were sacrificed. (Evidence of the sacrifice of retainers in the First Dynasty has been found by the NYU-Pennsylvania-Yale Expedition to Abydos.)

[image]The nose and ear of a limestone statue and a beautiful flint ibex found in the Tomb 23 funerary complex in 2000 (Courtesy Hierakonpolis Expedition) [LARGER IMAGE]

Eight square posts (20 by 20 cm), indicated by four postholes on each of the tomb's long sides, supported the superstructure over it. East of the tomb, six additional posts (set in two north-south rows of three each) may be from a one- or two-room offering chapel, the walls of which were made from matting. To the west of the tomb was another grave, Tomb 25, which held remains of three adults with textile wrapping and padding and layers of matting covering them. Postholes at each corner suggest that Tomb 25 also had a superstructure. Although Tomb 25 seems to be later than Tomb 23, it is within a wall enclosing the entire complex and is part of the whole.

The enclosure wall, made from poles 6-10 cm in diameter, measures 16 meters (east-west) by 9 meters (north-south). Burnt ostrich egg deposited in the posthole at the northeastern corner might be a "foundation deposit" related to beliefs about rebirth. On the northeast, there is a gap in the wall--likely the entrance to the complex--flanked by large postholes in one of which were ritual vessels fragments and bones of a newly born sheep or goat. Another deposit, between the enclosure's northeastern corner and the entrance, held a ram's head flaked from flint, in the same fashion as the ibex found by Adams in 2000, and mace handle of ebony.

In 2000, Adams found more than 500 fragments of a near life-size statue, and 46 more pieces of it were recovered this season. This degree of fragmentation suggests that the destruction of the statue was deliberate. The enclosure wall and superstructure over Tomb 23 were both burnt, but exactly when this happened and if it is related to the destruction of the statue remain unknown.

The elaborate burial complex, which includes Tomb 23, the statue, and the elephant burial excavated in 2003, likely belonged to an early ruler of Hierakonpolis, which was then the largest urban center in Egypt.

Mark Rose is executive editor/online editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

* See also InteractiveDig Hierakonpolis. The latest on the conservation of the Fort, King Khasekhemy's ceremonial enclosure, will be posted next Monday, April 25.

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America