Hierakonpolis (Egypt) - Largest Predynastic Community in Egypt

Hierakonpolis (Egypt) - Largest Predynastic Community in Egypt

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Hierakonpolis ("City of the Hawk" and known anciently as Nekhen) is a large predynastic and later town site located 113 kilometers (70 miles) 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.

Hierakonpolis was first occupied at least as long ago as the Badarian period beginning about 4000 BC. 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 BC, 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).

Predynastic Chronology

  • Terminal Predynastic (Naqada III or Proto-Dynastic) (ca 3300-3050 BC)
  • Late Predynastic (Naqada II or Gerzean) (ca 3650-3300 BC)
  • Middle Predynastic (Naqada I or Amratian) (ca 3900-3650 BC)
  • Early Predynastic (Badarian) (ca 5000-3900 BC)

Buildings at Hierakonpolis

Perhaps the most famous building in Hierakonpolis is an elaborate Gerzean period tomb (3500-3200 BC), 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 to date 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.

The more typical residential structures at Hierakonpolis are partly intact mudbrick-constructed pottery kilns and post/wattle-construction houses. 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 4x3.5 m (13x11.5 ft).

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 uselife during the Naqada II period.

The central courtyard measures 45x13 m (148x43 ft) 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.


The wild animals found in and around HK29A include moslluscs, fish, reptiles (crocodile and turtle), birds, Dorcas gazelle, hare, small bovids (sheep, ibex and dama gazelle), hartebeest and aurochs, hippotamus, dogs and jackals. Domestic animals include cattle, sheep and goats, pigs, and donkeys.

While ceremonial feasting almost certainly did occur within the halls of KH29A, Linseele et al. (2009) 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.

Cemetery at Locality 6

The Pre-dynastic cemetery at Locality 6 in Hierakonpolis contains not just Egyptians but 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.

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 BC, 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 40x25 m (130x82 ft). The cemetery shows distinctive architectural features of Nubian society: a stone or brick-ring around the burial shaft; the placement of 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.

Hierakonpolis and Archaeology

Hierakonpolis was first excavated in the 1970s and 1980s by the American Museum of Natural History and Vassar College under the direction of Walter Fairservis. An international team led by Renee Friedman has been working at the site, detailed in Archaeology magazine's Interactive Dig.

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 (Illustrated in the photo).


By all means, see the Hierakonpolis project site for detailed information about ongoing studies at the site. This article is part of the guide to the Egyptian Predynastic period.

Friedman R. 2009. Hierakonpolis Locality HK29A: The Predynastic Ceremonial Center Revisited. Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 45:79-103.

Friedman R, Judd M, and Irish JD. 2007. The Nubian cemetery at Hierarkonpolis, Egypt. Results of the 2007 Season. Sudan & Nubia: The Sudan Archaeological Research Society 11:57-72.

Hoffman MA. 1980. A Rectangular Amratian House from Hierakonpolis and Its Significance for Predynastic Research. Journal of Near Eastern Studies 39(2):119-137.

Irish JD, and Friedman R. 2010. Dental affinities of the C-group inhabitants of Hierakonpolis, Egypt: Nubian, Egyptian, or both? HOMO - Journal of Comparative Human Biology 61(2):81-101.

Linseele V, Van Neer W, and Friedman R. 2009. Special Animals from a Special Place? The Fauna from HK29A at Predynastic Hierakonpolis. Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 45:105-136.

Marinova E, Ryan P, Van Neer W, and Friedman R. 2013. Animal dung from arid environments and archaeobotanical methodologies for its analysis: An example from animal burials of the Predynastic elite cemetery HK6 at Hierakonpolis, Egypt. Environmental Archaeology 18(1):58-71.

Van Neer W, Linseele V, Friedman R, and De Cupere B. 2014. More evidence for cat taming at the Predynastic elite cemetery of Hierakonpolis (Upper Egypt). Journal of Archaeological Science 45:103-111.

Van Neer W, Udrescu M, Linseele V, De Cupere B, and Friedman R. in press. Traumatism in the Wild Animals Kept and Offered at Predynastic Hierakonpolis, Upper Egypt. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology.


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