Archaeologists unearth 5,600 year old tomb which predates the pharaohs

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An international team from the British Museum, under the direction of Dr. Renee Friedman, working near Edfu, have discovered a nearly intact tomb from the pre-dynastic period at the site of Kom el Ahmar, ancient Hierakonpolis, which may belong to one of the site’s early rulers.

Hierakonpolis, located on the Nile River about 500 kilometres south of Cairo, was the most important settlement in Egypt’s pre-dynastic period, a five century stretch that began around 3,500 BC and preceded the formation of the ancient Egyptian state.

Hierakonpolis is best known as the place where the famous palette of Narmer was found, belonging to the first king to rule over all of Egypt, but this tomb dates to more than 500 years before this time (approximately 3,700 BC).

The tomb contained an ivory statuette, 32 cm tall, of a bearded man, which is unique among scientifically excavated finds. It may depict this early ruler or a protective god.

Xavier Droux investigates the statue

The tomb had been disturbed and the wooden building above it was burnt, probably in pre-dynastic times, as an act of aggression. It was later restored in the early first dynasty.

The discovery of this nearly intact tomb provides archaeologists with new information about funerary ritual and practices in the time before the first pharaohs and the respect they paid to their deceased ancestors.

A selection of combs were found with one adorned with the figure of a donkey

The most important object found in the tomb was the nearly complete statuette of a standing bearded man carved out of hippopotamus ivory, 32 centimetres high.

Only the narrow arms are missing, which were originally carved free from the sides of the torso, with the hands resting on the upper legs.

The nearly complete statuette of a standing bearded man carved out of hippopotamus ivory

The original polished surface of the ivory has been destroyed by termites, but the features of the face, including an aquiline nose, very large ears, arched eyebrows, protruding lips and a short pointed beard can still be seen.

Archaeologists found an ivory statue of a bearded man

The features of the statue strongly resemble the pottery masks known only from the HK6 cemetery, the elite predynastic site where excavation work has been carried out since 1979.

This similarity in facial features suggests that both the statue and the masks depict the same entity, but whether this is meant to be a pre-dynastic ruler or a god or spirit remains to be determined.

One of the pottery masks previously discovered at HK6

Near the centre of the tomb was a comb with the figurine of a hippopotamus carved on its top. A spot on the top of the hippo figure’s back seems to have been intentionally burnt, potentially as a way to protect against the danger the hippopotamus might pose.

This comb was found just above the remains of the tomb owner’s pelvis.

The ‘hippo’ comb found above the remains of the tomb owner’s pelvis.

The statue was found on the west side of the tomb, near the north corner, together with an intact pottery jar of brown polished Nile silt.

This jar is decorated with the outline of a large lion, incised before the pot was fired.

Degraded organic matter in the area suggests that the ivory figurine and the vessel had been placed within a wooden box or a basket. This material was subsequently eaten by termites.

Intact pottery jar of brown polished Nile silt decorated with the outline of a large lion

The body of the tomb owner had been disturbed. The bones of a young person, between 17 and 20 years old, were found scattered in the upper fill and surrounding areas. Only some fingers and a part of the pelvis were found on the floor of the tomb.

Despite the disturbance of the body, the contents of the tomb were found mostly in their original place and form a unique assemblage of materials for the pre-dynastic period.

His high status in life is reflected in the deadly ceremony that must have accompanied his death. He was buried with at least 20 people. It is unlikely their deaths were natural.

Analysis of their skeletons suggests most were well nourished and unusually tall for the time, between five feet eight and five feet ten. Two of them were dwarfs, who were fascinating to ancient Egyptians.

Tomb 72 and the remains of its superstructure

On the floor of the tomb were found traces of matting. The objects date the tomb to roughly 3,700-3,600 BC.

The almost complete removal of the human bones from the floor of the tomb, while many objects were left in place suggests that the disturbance of the tomb took place in very ancient times, probably in the pre-dynastic period.

This seems to have been an act of aggression against the tomb owner, rather than merely robbery.

Overview of the site of tomb 72

The orientation of Tomb 72 suggests that it was the main tomb for the complex of tombs on the eastern side of the cemetery, which included the burials of several young humans, a leopard, wild cattle, baboons, sheep, goats, dogs and possibly an ostrich. 

Therefore the owner of Tomb 72 may have been one of ancient Hierakonpolis’ pre-dynastic kings.

If you are interested in the work being carried out at Hierakonpolis you can visit their website at www.hierakonpolis-online.org

Photos:  Hierakonpolis Expedition