Hierakonpolis is one of the most important early archaeological sites in Egypt. The settlement and building of the city spans the time from 4000 BC when the elements of Egyptian society were first forming to the opening of the historic era. It provides substantial evidence for understanding the foundations of that ancient civilization. A century of archaeological research has shown this vast site's central role in the transition from prehistory to history of the rise of early Egyptian civilization.

Hierakonpolis was one of the largest prehistoric urban centers along the Nile, a vibrant, bustling city that already contained many of the cultural features that would later become Dynastic Egyptian civilization. Strung out for over 3 miles along the Nile, by 3500 BC it was a city of many neighborhoods and quarters, with busy industries and privates homes. It was Egypt's first capital.

Since the time the site was first opened to modern eyes in the late 1890's excavation has produced a large number of First’s, i.e., the first occurrence of objects, practices and styles that were destined to typify Egyptian civilization. These include the first temple and first mummies. It has also produced a similar number of "onlys," that is, the only preserved examples of early artifacts.

The developing culture gave rise to increasing differentiation between the common folk and the social elite. The wadi Abu Suffian that bisects Heirakonpolis became the location of the cemetery of the latter, the princes of Hierakonpolis who where buried in large and rich tombs. Tombs from the Early Predynastic period, c. 3800 BC, through Protodynastic times, c. 3100 B.C. have been excavated. Among those of the early period, Nagada Ic-IIb, c. 3800-3600 BC, are some of the largest tombs of their age. This elite cemetery apparently was abandoned later in the Predynastic period in favor for the Painted-Tomb cemetery, but then brought into use again for the massive graves of the elite of the early Dynastic age (Nagada III).

Excavations in from the late 1970's under the direction of Michael Hoffman and Barbara Adams revealed nearly two dozen tombs. This work provides the first evidence of superstructure built above the large mud brick tombs of the Early Dynastic graves. By early Dynastic times the contents of the tombs shows the wealth of the elite. The earliest known rock-cut tomb, with architectural parallels in Nubia, was also found. The people were sufficiently wealthy to bury animals to accompany them on their journey into the heavens. These included dogs, bovids, baboons, and a juvenile elephant, c. 3700 BC. Of particular interest were three ceramic face-masks, the earliest in Egypt, recovered from Nagada IIa contexts. These materials continue to add new understanding of the wealth, ritual, and iconography of the elite prior to the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt. These people were able to garner exotic items and animals from widespread geographical regions extending from Afghanistan to Ethiopia. Even though heavily plundered, these tombs attest to the wealth of their owners and their ability to obtain very fine exotic goods, such as turquoise, lapis lazuli, gold, silver and obsidian.

This was also the period when they began to paint their pottery with pictures, symbols, and ideograms.

Evidence for the daily life of the residents of this town is slowly coming to light.

A Pottery Maker

At the edge of the main town the house and workshop of a potter have been uncovered. He made cooking pots and other domestic wares for clientele from the town. This was an exceptional find because most dwelling places from the Predynastic era are rare. Reconstruction of this semi-subterranean rectangular house was possible due to an industrial accident. Apparently the potter worked a little too close to where he lived. For some reason the flames from his pottery kiln, located just over five meters from his house, spread and caused the house to burn to the ground. The fire reddened and hardened the soil and mud bricks that formed the lower portion of the houses and reduced the posts and mats of its walls to charcoal and ash. Thus it was found as it had fallen 5000 years earlier. It remains today the oldest house still preserved in Egypt.

As described on the Nekhen web site:

From these burnt remains, the house and workshop can be reconstructed with accuracy. The lower portion of the house, which measured 4 x 3.5m was dug about 50cm into the earth. Mud mortar and some of Egypt's earliest mud bricks formed the base for the 8 wooden posts that held up the wattle and daub roof and walls. Based on the preserved height of the charred posts, the structure was baout 1.45m high. Inside the house was a cooking oven or hearth set on a mud platform, while in the opposite corner a storage pot was found sunk into the floor. A series of post-holes to one side suggest an additional enclosure or porch on the leeward side of the building. The remnants of trenches that once held the post or reed walls of additional buildings and animal pens surround the complex.

To the east was his kiln. Although badly disturbed, the kiln was originally a roughly circular platform of earth about 6 x 5m in extent with 8 to 10 shallow basins about 50-80cm in diameter and 5-15cm deep dug into its surface. In three of the basins some of the original dog-biscuit shaped kiln bricks remained in place. Their arrangement in one basin suggested that these triangular fired clay bars supported large jars in which smaller vessels were fired. Opening to the north to take advantage of the prevailing wind was the stoke hole for the fire. The kiln may have been surrounded by a low wall and covered during the firing with a make-shift roof of potsherds and mud to contain the heat.

This potter made only straw tempered rough wares from clays he mined near by. He specialized in medium sized jars or cooking pots on which are often found light impressions made by the potter's finger in the form of an upright crescent that may even be his signature. Five thousand years later, fragments of his pots, some 300,000 of them, still covered the ground where the potter worked. The distribution of pot fragments suggests that many of his products may have been on display for sale, while the recovery of donkey bones from the animal pens indicates that he may have been a mobile pot salesman on occasion.

The carbon-14 date for this establishment is about 3590 BC, placing it in the early Nagada II period.

A Brewery

Beer and bread, both made from wheat, and both requiring fermentation, were staples of the Egyptian diet. An early brewery was found at the Kom el Ahmar area. The discovery shows that this was at the heart of an industrial quarter — an area involved in the production of beer, and possibly bread and pottery in Predynastic times.

The brewery incorporated at least six coarse ceramic vats in two parallel rows set within a mud platform and probably originally covered to contain heat. Each vat, in brewing terms, might be considered a mash-tun, in which the infusion of ingredients is maintained at a warm temperature. Residue found preserved within the vats made it possible to reconstruct the basic recipe for this nutritious, if only mildly alcoholic beer. It was composed of emmer wheat with dates and possibly grapes added to provide the necessary sugars for fermentation.

The brewery vats were estimated to contain about 16 gallons each. The six vats could hold approximately 100 gallons. Thus the brewery could produce 300 gallons a week, allowing two days for fermentation. Output could be as high as 300 gallons a day if the liquid was transferred to other vessels for fermentation. This production rate is clearly far in excess of domestic needs. Using the capacity of the standard beer jar of Dynastic times, the daily output of 300 gallons a day could provide for 45o people if each received one jar, or half that number if they received two (the standard Dynastic ration). That was a substantial number of people.

About 80 meters from the brewery a circular silt platform supporting six hearths may in fact be the site at which these beer jars were produced.

Large breweries such as this one suggests that brewing and the distribution of large amounts of beer was in the hands of powerful individuals or institutions — chiefs or temple — during the Predynastic era. The evidence could be a prototype for the royal breweries familiar from the Pharaonic times. The evidence also suggest that the officials and chiefs of Hierakonpolis who, by directing the provisioning of the brewers and the distribution of their product, were already using a system of commodity exchange and finance that was to persist in Egypt for more than 4,000 years.

Carbon dating showed the brewery was used around 3,500 BC, making it the oldest brewery known in the world.

A Temple

In 1985 archaeologists began to uncover Egypt's earliest known temple. Both the scale and the nature of the discovery indicate that the complex surrounding the temple was a religious ceremonial center. The three-room shrine had a facade made up of four huge timber pillars, and walls lavishly decorated with colored mats. The shrine dominated the temple complex and the town of Hierakonpolis as a whole. This temple and ceremonial complex served as a site dedicated to of Horus, the patron god of Egypt for the next 3000 years. It may have well become the prototype for later Egyptian temple architecture.

The discovery of the temple was completely unexpected. The primary objective of the dig was to find a mid Predynastic (Nagada II/Gerzean) house in the midst of one of the densest accumulations of cultural material in the Predynastic town. However the physical extent of the architectural features were far greater than expected. Both the paved floor of the court and the large wall trench continued until monumental proportions had been discovered. As of this date the northern end of the floor has not yet been found!

At the center of the complex was a large, oval courtyard, over 100 feet long and 40 feet wide, which had been paved several times with mud plaster. The floor sloped up rather steeply at a 9 degree angle toward the south where a large hole about 17 feet deep had been dug. It contained two worked stones perhaps intended to hold a tall solitary pole supporting the figure of the falcon god representing Horus.

A series of walls surrounded the court built of posts and mud bricks. Along the river side of the court was a trench over 115 feet long and 18 inches deep, intended to support a substantial wall of posts, perhaps 6 to 10 feet high. This wall was pierced by a central entrance gateway once flanked by two large posts, possibly flagpoles.

Parallel to the post wall was another made of mud bricks. It may have been built to screen a corridor running from the entrance to the elevated end of the floor and buildings situated at the apex.

Directly across the court from the gate were four enormous postholes, spreading more than 40 feet, which once held the columns forming a facade for the main shrine. The postholes of the facade were more than three feet in diameter and about 5 feet deep. The rear part of the building had three chambers composed of poles and mat-work.

Other features included the remnants of a small square room and mud brick platform near the entrance to the court. Around the courtyard were little workshops of reeds and posts, probably used by trained craftsmen to transform raw materials gathered from far geographical reaches for service to the religious court.

Debris from the manufacture or sharpening of knives was found. Microdrill bladelets for the production of beads were prevalent and crescent drills for the manufacture of stone vessels were also discovered. Beads of carnelian, obsidian, and quartz crystal, as well as several fragments of fine stone vessels in a variety of hard stone were recovered. The association of craftsmen with temples was certainly a regular part of the dynastic economy. The finds here strongly suggest that this practice may have begun already in Predynastic times.

Early Dynastic representations of an archetypal shrine of Upper Egypt portrayed a vaulted structure composed of posts and lattice work. The home of the great shrine of Upper Egypt called the per wer, or Great House has long been thought to be at Hierakonpolis. This temple and complex may indeed be this very shrine. This structure was later recreated in stone at the Step Pyramid complex at Saqqara, the so-called House of the South. The reconstruction of the Saqqare building is remarkably similar in proportions to the remains at Hierakonpolis with a facade some 40 feet across, with pillars 40 feet high, a matwork curtain wall, and a door slightly off center.

An even more intriguing representation of an early shrine with which to compare the remains at Hierakonpolis was found about 2000 feet away within the main deposit at Nekhen. This is the votive macehead of King Narmer.

As stated on the Nekhen web site:

Of particular interest is the small building surrounded by a low courtyard wall. Within the court stands a pole supporting an image now lost and a jar on a pot stand. In the scene immediately below, horned animals cavort within a double walled oval courtyard, perhaps a view into the court shown immediately above it. In several details it is striking similar to the remains at Hierakonpolis, so similar in fact, it is tempting to suggest that the structure on the Narmer macehead actually is a representation of this ceremonial complex. Evidence for Narmer's presence at the site was found during excavations made in 1989. While trying to find the northern end of the court we found an intentionally buried deposit of pottery dating to the time of Narmer. Festivities at that time may have possibly marked the last use of the complex before it was intentionally demolished and its furnishings removed to the new temple being constructed on that mound in the village.

Identification of the complex as a temple is based on more than its impressive architecture. Remains of plants and animals leave little doubt that something very special was taking place. Study of mammalian remains shows that a substantial number of newborn or very young sheep and goats were being offered as sacrifice. Only older animals would have been used for food. Recovery of the skeletons (cattle and sheep/goat), and a huge percentage (80%) of flint debris from the manufacture and sharpening of special ripple flaked knives, shows that ritual butchery was done.

Aquatic fauna are also represented. Skeletal remains of the Nile perch indicate that some specimens were originally over seven feet in length and weighed nearly 400 lbs! To land such massive fish required hooks or nets and line capable of supporting such a size. A big boat was also required to prevent capsizing when the fish was hauled aboard. The transport of such a catch from the fishing vessel to the temple must have called for carts or sleds of sufficient size.

Substantial amounts of turtle and crocodile, both dangerous aquatic fauna, were also found.

The wide spectrum of fauna suggest that the religious ceremonies encompassed representatives from different both land and water.

Pottery at the site also shows examples that have no counterpart in the domestic use. Two shapes, red washed jars and fine black polished ovoid pots were the most frequent forms. These distinctive shapes have not been encountered in any other locality at Hierakonpolis and are unknown or rare elsewhere in Egypt. In addition pottery from Canaan and the Delta were also found, again showing commercial trade over wide geographical regions.

Radiocarbon dates from the site place activity in the Nagada IIcd/ Gerzean phase of the Predynastic, c. 3400 BC.