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Weighing the evidence for and dating of Solanum virus outbreaks in early Egypt


This nondescript tomb (center) may be the location where the first historical evidence of a zombie attack was discovered. (Courtesy of the Hierakonpolis Expedition)

Hierakonpolis is a site famous for its many "firsts," so many, in fact, it is not easy to keep track of them all. So we are grateful(?) to Max Brooks for bringing to our attention that the site can also claim the title to the earliest recorded zombie attack in history. In his magisterial tome, The Zombie Survival Guide (2003), he informs us that in 1892, a British dig at Hierakonpolis unearthed a nondescript tomb containing a partially decomposed body, whose brain had been infected with the virus (Solanum) that turns people into zombies. In addition, thousands of scratch marks adorned every surface of the tomb, as if the corpse had tried to claw its way out! [Editor's note: click here for an interview with Max Brooks and a timeline of archaeologically documented zombie outbreaks.]

With the records available to us (Mr. Brooks obviously has access to others), the British dig can be identified as that conducted by Mssr. Somers Clarke and J.J. Tylor, during which they cleared the decorated tombs of Ny-ankh-pepy (Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom) and Horemkhawef (Second Intermediate Period) on Old Kingdom hill. The notes of Tylor are lost to us, but Clarke's are preserved in the Griffith Institute, Oxford. Unusually cryptic in his discussion, he makes no mention of such a momentous discovery. Thus we can only infer that the tomb in question is one of those in the adjoining courtyard, and just a short distance from the underground chamber we examined in 2006 (see Hierakonpolis 2006: Adventures Underground). The tomb in question may indeed be the one we use a cozy and sheltered spot to take our lunch while working on the Fort, as its plastered, but unpainted walls are indeed covered with innumerable scratch marks that defy photography. If is the case, we might quibble--purely for the sake of scientific accuracy--that the 3000 B.C. date ascribed for the attack should be revised downward to the Old Kingdom, but its premier historical position remains unaffected. [Editor's note: this proposed re-dating, if accepted, necessitates a revision of Brooks's zombie-attack timeline.]


Decapitated bodies on the front of the Narmer palette: overview shows Narmer, at left, with catfish and chisel motifs at top center. See detail of decapitated bodies. (Courtesy of the Hierakonpolis Expedition)

On the other hand, in support of the earlier date, some have claimed that the famous Palette of Narmer (ca. 3000 B.C.), also from Hierakonpolis, far from recording a victory in the war of unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, is instead a celebration of the successful repulse of a zombie attack. Although we tend to focus on the verso where the king is shown smiting a kneeling enemy, it is the other side that is actually the front. It is the side with the depression for mixing the cosmetics for adorning the cult statue, and so it would seem that the scene of the king marching in procession to view a pile of decapitated bodies is the really important message. Nevertheless, while this scene may be evidence for zombie activity, reliance solely on pictorial records for such claims is scientifically questionable at best. There may be more to this in that Narmer's name means catfish-chisel, which sounds strange, and a catfish and chisel appear on the palette. But this could make sense if the palette refers to a victory over zombie forces. Perhaps Narmer wielded a large Nile catfish, Clarias?, grasping the tail and using it as a sort of black jack to stun the zombies, then removed their heads with a chisel. While it is an attractive idea, no serious archaeologist would hang their fedora on it without further evidence.

Recent work at Hierakonpolis has, however, revealed compelling evidence that zombies may have been problematic already in Predynastic Egypt (ca. 3500 B.C.). Because this work has been undertaken with the most modern techniques, there is also the potential to uncover the hard scientific facts to illuminate the matter fully.

[image] Headless at Hierakonpolis. Left is one of several Predynastic graves from cemetery HK43 where the head is missing but the rest of the burial is intact including several lovely grave goods. (Burial 165)


These beads were found around the neck, but the head was gone. (Courtesy of the Hierakonpolis Expedition)

From the very beginning of Predynastic research, Sir W.M. Flinders Petrie reported several headless, but seemingly intact, burials during his famous excavations at Naqada in 1895. Further excavations at Gerzeh and other sites revealed more of these curious burials, but no satisfactory explanation could be proposed at the time. More recently, excavations in the non-elite cemetery at Hierakonpolis (HK43), undertaken from 1996 to 2004, have uncovered more of these strange headless burials in addition to 21 individuals whose cervical vertebrae bear cut marks indicative of complete decapitation. The individuals include men and women ranging in age from 16 to 65. The number and the standard position of the cut marks (usually on the second-fourth cervical vertebrae; always from the front) indicate an effort far greater than that needed simply to cause the death of a normal (uninfected) person. The standard position also indicates these are not injuries sustained during normal warfare.

[image]Left, first to third cervical vertebrae with cut marks, ventral aspect. Lower arrows point to complete removal of the left and right uncinate processes of the third cervical vertebrae suggestive of complete severance of the spinal column leading to full decapitation (HK43 Burial 350). Right, inferior aspect of axis vertebrae showing cuts going all the way through. This head definitely came off. (Courtesy of the Hierakonpolis Expedition) [image]

Overall, those with cut marks represent less than 4% of the cemetery's population. Thus, one might suggest that the threat of zombification was relatively low, and those manifesting the disease were dealt with swiftly (though in some cemeteries evidence for cannibalism has also been found suggesting that one or two got a good meal first). Of course, if left unchecked, the virus could rage fiercely and it may have been the need for decisive and brave action that was the impetus that led to the development of early kingship in Egypt and at Hierakonpolis in the first place. (Perhaps a careful review of excavation records and skeletal remains from early Mesopotamian city-states is in order.)

While currently this might seem a speculative theory for state formation, the fine preservation of the brains rattling around in the skulls of some of the cut folks does provide the potential for scientific verification. We are currently seeking funding for a major research project to determine if remnants of the virus can be distilled from the preserved brain matter and, of course, more importantly, whether this virus is still viable. If so, it may allow for a vaccination to be developed so that this scourge, which seems to have threatened mankind for even longer than we previously imagined, can finally be put to rest.

[image] Brain preserved in the skull of Burial 350. Analysis may provide the answer to the history of the virus and ultimately leads to its cure!


Close up of Predynastic brain--our best hope! (Courtesy of the Hierakonpolis Expedition)

Little is known about how long the virus can lay dormant, thus it is possible that another outbreak could occur at any time--given its history, especially at Hierakonpolis. With this potential in mind, we asked Tom Flanigan, zombie eradication expert for the U.S. Forestry Service, to draw up a contingency plan for us--see his report below. However, we stress that nothing amiss has been observed during any of our recent excavations (though the number of missing heads is a bit curious).


Do not panic. We stress that nothing unusual has been observed during recent excavations. (Courtesy of the Hierakonpolis Expedition)

Renée Friedman is director of the Hierakonpolis Expedition.


Tom Flanigan demonstrates trowel technique for zombie eradication.


Shovel technique


The threat will most likely come from local population centers, most probably those working on the excavation.


The physical anthropologists are obviously the most exposed to the potential of infection.


Physical Anthropologist Sean Dougherty, our chief asset in the event of a zombie attack.


If all else fails, places like Hoffman house are designed to withstand a zombie outbreak.

Solanum Outbreak Contingency Plan
by Tom Flanigan

A contingency plan for a Solanum outbreak at Hierakonpolis

When we think of zombies, our thoughts turn to the ghouls from Hollywood movies. Some of us with a background in anthropology may first think of Wade Davis' groundbreaking work in Haiti. Davis purported to discover that zombies were indeed real, and were the work of "Bokor" Voodoo sorcerers using a powder derived from fish toxins called poud zombie (Davis 1988: 1715). Davis' zombies were not truly reanimated dead bodies, but people put into a death-like coma. When the person regained consciousness they were made to be slaves in remote villages.

However here we are concerned with real zombies, reanimated bodies of the recent dead who are driven by an urge to consume living people, in turn, creating more zombies. The idea that zombies are supernatural beings needs to be discarded. They are not the Spawn of Hell, although, they certainly look the part. They are, or were, people who were infected by the Solanum virus. The virus creates a zombie by eating away the frontal lobe of the brain for replication, thus destroying it. The virus mutates the brain and allows the brain to remain alive but dormant and without the need for oxygen. Once the mutation is complete, approximately 23 hours from infection to fully functioning zombie, the ghoul will be on the unending search for living human flesh, thus spreading the infection (Brooks 2003: 2).

What to do in the event of an outbreak

While the history of the Hierakonpolis outbreak (or outbreaks) is certainly educational, it provides us with enough information to know that the potential exists for another one. Great care must be taken during any tomb excavation and when dealing with human remains. A little mummy dust in an open wound or scratch could have you driving the Devil's Cadillac in the fast lane all the way to Zombie-town.

Assuming the virus is unleashed, your first thought might be that you will be dealing with throngs of the ancient Egyptians. This is not the problem. Remember, that Solanum does not reanimate the already dead, it kills living beings and reanimates them into flesh eaters. The threat will therefore come from local population centers, and most likely the Hierakonpolis team itself.

There are two ways to stop a zombie. The first is simply to wait out the outbreak for a number of years until the living dead have decomposed to a level that they no longer present a threat. The second is the head shot. You have to disconnect what is left of the brain from the body. Given the tools on hand at Hierakonpolis this will likely be done with trowels (Marshalltown recommended), but shovels have also been shown to be effective.

Almost certainly the first sign of infection will come from the Hierakonpolis team. I would surmise that the most likely hosts will be physical anthropologists working in the lab environment due to their continued exposure to human remains and that good old fashioned "mummy dust" we are all familiar with. The unfortunate side effect of the infection starting within this specialized group of researchers is that they are generally the least squeamish about decapitation duty. I know for a fact that Sean Dougherty, a physical anthropologist with extensive experience at the site, wouldn't hesitate to lop off the head of any member of the team at any time, and for any reason. As morbid and disturbing as it sounds, guys like Sean can be a real asset in this type of situation.

However, should these experts be unavailable, or have already succumbed, it might be time to consider barricades. The Hoffman House has a number of rooms that could easily be secured against zombie intrusion. Just make sure the room is ghoul-free prior to barricading yourself in it. Treat the outbreak as you would any other natural disaster. Have a contingency plan for food, water, and other necessities, and be prepared to be self sufficient. The fact that the Hoffman House has an existing wall around it with a locking metal gate, a water system, solar power, fruit-bearing trees, and a vegetable garden, puts you in a great position to survive. In fact, the house is situated so well, tactically speaking, it is hard to imagine that the original architect was unaware of the potential of the house as a defensive position in the event that the dead would rise again.

This may seem absurd, but you won't think its funny when you are feasting on the corpses of your friends and fellow researchers, in fact, you won't be thinking at all.

Tom Flanigan, Archaeologist, Wasatch-Cache National Forest, Utah


Brooks, M. 2003. The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead. Three Rivers Press, New York

Davis, W. 1988. "Zombification," in Science, New Series, Vol. 240, No. 4860. Pp. 1715-1716

Dougherty, S.P., 2004. A Little More off the Top. Nekhen News 16: 11-12. (on line at

Flanigan, T., and T. Lewis. 2004 Clearing the Nest: Vampires in the Nevada Desert. Report on file at the U.S. Forest Service, Ely, Nevada

Friedman, R. 2002. The Predynastic Cemetery at HK43: Excavations in 2002. Nekhen News 14: 9-10. (on line at

Maish, A., 2003 Not just another cut throat. Nekhen News 15:26. (on line at

Maish, A., and R. Friedman. Pondering Paddy: Unwrapping the Mysteries of HK43. Nekhen News 11: 6-7 (on line at

Murray, M.A., 1956. Burial customs and beliefs in the hereafter in Predynastic Egypt. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 42: 86-96.