The City of the Hawk

Seat of Egypt's Ancient Civilization

By: Michael A. Hoffman

Originally Published in 1976

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The origins of civilization have long aroused scientific curiosity and inflamed the popular imagination. At least six different times—in Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley, China, Central America and Peru—civilizations have arisen indigenously in the last five thousand years. What are civiliza­tions, what do they share in common and why are they so important to modern man? When we say someone is “civilized” we are generally using the term in a much different way than archaeologists, anthropologists and historians who study the phenomenon of civilization. A “civilized” person. in the popular sense, is literate, appreciates art and music, cultivates a taste for “the finer things in life” and spends at least part of his or her time living, working or playing in cities. The word civilization itself comes from the Latin for citizen; and in ancient Rome a citizen usually dwell in a city or “orbs.” Thus, we say that a “civilized” person is also “urbane” in that he is intimately connected to the culture of the urban center. This version of what it means to be civilized, although far too culture-bound for the scientist  does hold something in common with the dryer, more materialistic definitions employed by archaeologists. Those of us who try to learn from the past by tracing the regularities and patterns in social and cultural development often find ourselves drawn to certain exceedingly rich and complex cultures typified by the presence of monumental art and architecture; dense populations located within cities or around impressive ceremonial or administrative centers; complex social, political, economic and religious institutions; social stratification  developed sciences like astronomy and mathematics; organized warfare and, in most cases, a written as opposed to an oral literature.

In the last twenty-five years, archaeologists working with anthropologists and historians have made great strides in the study of particular civilizations. Especially in Mesopotamia and Central America. we have developed new strategies for uncovering, studying and interpreting ancient complex societies—strategies more dependent on the social and natural sciences than the arts and humanities. Thanks to massive efforts and funding in these areas of the world and to new archaeological techniques, we are learning details about the rise of civilizations once available to only historians of later, more well-documented ages. Today in Mesopo­tamia and Central America we are beginning to understand the nature of the social, economic, political, religious and en­vironmental systems that generated and supported and occasionally destroyed the amazing metropolis and imposing temples that foreshadowed the awesome complexities of modern urban life.

Unfortunately, in our enthusiasm over the many new and exciting finds in these regions, some of the other civilizations of the ancient world have been forced to take a back seat. There is even a tendency on the part of scientists who study Mesopotamian and Central American civilizations to see the other civilizations of the Old and New Worlds as secondary or derivative. Such, in the last thirty to forty years. has been the fate of Egypt. The focus of civilizational studies has shifted away from Egypt for a variety of reasons, including a decline in prehistoric field work between the Second World War and 1960. a reaction to extreme “diffusionists” who once insisted that all “high culture” was originally spread from the Nile Valley by missionaries of the sun cult of Re, and finally due to more spectacular results achieved in Mesopotamian early urban studies in recent years. Despite the temporary eclipse of prehistoric and problem-oriented archaeology in Egypt, however, the general public has remained fascinated by the unique and striking civilization that arose in the Nile Valley during the fourth millennium before Christ.

In many ways, such popular interest is more than justified. Egypt stands as the second oldest example of an essentially autochthonous complex society—antedated only by Mesopotamia. The uniquely arid Egyptian climate has preserved a greater variety of cultural material than has been found in the other civilizational heartlands, and its distinctive environment and long historical record provide the scientist with an unparalleled opportunity to study special human ecological problems. Moreover, written records, drawings, wall paintings and reliefs provide a rich body of information on the daily lives of the ancient Egyptians. Finally, although long known to the historian, epigrapher and archaeologist, Egypt is practically untouched as a field for anthropological research.

With these factors in mind, an inter­disciplinary team of archaeologists, Egyp­tologists and anthropologists under the direc­tion of Professor Walter Fairservis of the American Museum of Natural History under­took investigations at the ancient site of Hierakonpolis in the narrow, desert-bound defiles of the Upper Egyptian Nile Valley. The aims of the expedition were ambitious—to study the entire culture history of the region around Hierakonpolis using the combined talents of its international crew. The area to be covered included not only the eroded, grass-grown ruins of the walled town of Hierakonpolis itself, but a series of Pre-dynastic farming villages and Paleolithic campsites scattered throughout a largely unexplored stretch of desert on the west bank of the Nile. All told, the archaeological concession involved an area of 144 square miles and cultural remains covering a minimum of 50,000 years of human history and prehistory. There were two principal aspects to Our project—excavations in the walled town (the Korn el Ahmar) and a survey of the adjacent Western Desert. Our goals were shaped by a desire to learn as much as possible about the long-term cultural evolu­tion of the region and by the peculiar importance that the ancient Egyptians themselves attached to Hierakonpolis.

Hierakonpolis—City of the Hawk—was the name the ancient Greeks gave to the Egyptian town of Nekhen. According to Egyptian legend, Nekhen was the first capital of Egypt—the spot from which the first pharaoh. “Merles,” launched the military expeditions that unified the land around 3100 B.C. So important was Nekhen to the principle of kingship in ancient Egypt that one of the five official titles that comprised any royal name derived from “Horns of Nekhen.

This title and the legend that Nekhen had once housed Egypt’s first pharaoh persisted throughout Egyptian history for roughly three thousand years, and has aroused considerable interest and disagreement amongst Egyp­tologists and archaeologists over the last eighty years. Beginning in 1897-98 the British archaeologists J.E. Quibell and F.W. Green undertook extensive explorations within the walled town that added considerable fuel to the controversy. With almost blind luck, they stumbled onto two extraordinary finds that underscore the antiquity and importance of Hierakonpolis to the early kings of Egypt. First, in what are now thought to have been the storerooms of an Old Kingdom temple, Quibell found a golden hawk—a representation of Horns of Nekhen—and a nearly life-size copper statue group of the Sixth Dynasty pharaohs Pepi 1 and his young son Merenre. the earliest large-scale metal sculpture ever found. In neighboring storerooms, Quibell and Green unearthed a number of fancy alabaster and limestone vases that probably once were used in rituals honoring Horus of Nekhen on behalf of his loyal servants, the god kings Pepi and IVIerenre,

A second, and in some ways even more important discovery, was made by Quibell under highly confusing circumstances between Iwo walls of Old or Middle Kingdom date. The find was christened the “Main Depusit” and despite the unfortunate fact that Quibell seems to have kept no field notes, it is possible to determine that the “deposit.” was a collection of “antiques”—artifacts either broken, out of style or of no immediate use, that were buried in sacred ground to add their holy aura to that spot. Some of these relics which the ancient Egyptians so thoughtfully preserved have turned out to be immensely valuable clues to the early political history of Egypt: commemorative stone palettes and maceheads of I he Proto-dynastic kings Narmer and Scorpion portraying their attempts to subdue the northern provinces and their concern for promoting agricultural produc­tion by irrigation; some of the first examples of hieroglyphic writing and carved scenes in stone and ivory of fantastic animals that resemble contemporary work from Sumeria and EIam—countries that lay far to the east.

These objects also raise a number of important questions: Was Hierakonpolis actually Egypt’s first capital and did Narmer and Scorpion, the historical counterparts of the legendary Menes, really use it as a base of military operations against the North? Did those events coincide with and have any effect upon the development of writing in Egypt? And finally, does the presence of Near Eastern artistic motifs indicate that Egyptian civilization owed its origins to invaders from the East or to some other, more subtle, connections with the proto-urban societies of Mesopotamia and the Iranian Plateau?

Unfortunately, the most important piece of evidence, the Narmer Palette, has itself been I he center of controversy. Although in 1900 Quibell initially reported it as coming from the Main Deposit, Green’s recently published field notes indicate that it actually came from a spot one or two meters away. In his portion of the Hierakonpolis report published in 1902, Green even said that the Narmer Palette was directly associated with a Protodynastic or early Archaic temple. Today it is impossible to resolve the question and we cannot really be sure whether the palette had stood in or near the spot where it was originally erected at the time of the unifica­tion, or whether it was buried with the rest of the Main Deposit between five hundred and a thousand years after the events that it portrays, and thus might have traveled long distances before couning to rest at Nekhen. What still make the Narmer Palette and the Scorpion Macehead so important, however, are the events that they portray: On the Narmer Palette, a triangular slab of dark green slate. the king is portrayed on one side wearing the crown of Upper Egypt and ritually slaying an enemy beneath the watchful and protective gaze of the hawk Horus, while on the reverse, Warmer, wearing the red crown of Lower Egypt, reviews the slain on a battlefield accompanied by his allies and courtiers while a rampant bull [another traditional royal symbol] smashes in the wall of an enemy tawn, On the peal’-shaped white limestone “macehead,” King Scorpion is shown in the crown of Upper Egypt engaged in some kind of agricultural ceremony—probably relating to irrigation.

Although the particular archaeological context of these finds and the rest of the Protodynastic material in the Main Deposit will forever be in doubt [we do not even know when the deposit was buried), what cannot be denied is the ceremonial importance that the ancient Egyptians attached to Hierakonpolis and the fact that, beginning with a crude, semi-circular stone platform or “revetment” erected about the time of Scorpion or Narmer or slimily earlier, their kings continued to build and refurbish temples to Humus of Nekhen for the next Iwo and a half millennia. The question left by the British excavations and a number of later. smaller-scale ex­peditions was “why.” Why did the ancient Egyptians shower so much attention on Nekhen? What led them to believe that the site played a crucial role in the unification of the country? And finally. if Hierakonpolis really did play a major part in the transition from prehistory to history, from chiefdom to state, why was it so important?

In the process of trying to answer some of these questions, the American Museum of Natural History 1969 excavations revealed an archaeological level or “stratum” immediately south of the area where Green had found the stone revetment. Thanks to careful digging and analysis of the potsherds, we were able to resolve at least one longstanding archaeological dispute by confirming Green’s dating of the earliest temple stratum to the crucial Protodynastic era. The early date of this level takes on added importance when we consider the discovery of two new structures that are apparently contemporary with the circular revetment—a large mudbrick pave­ment and a slit trench and post building. The paving, although badly decayed, displayed a rather formal pIan and was associated with several boulders of precisely the type used in the construction of Green’s revetment, which lies just 40 to 50 meters to the north. One of these boulders, near the juncture of a paved walkway and the pavement itself, seems to have been used as a door socket. Adjacent to the pavement were found the telltale discolorations left by rotted wooden posts—circular “post molds”—arranged about two parallel “slit trenches” that were originally dug to accommodate perishable walls. probably made of interwoven reeds, which were supported by the posts.

The discovery of this structure is signifi­cant in Iwo ways: First, it demonstrates the importance of and need for extremely careful archaeologica lexcavations geared to the recovery of so-called “perishable” remains. Secondly, the plan of the structure seems to suggest that it is all that remains of a reed and post shrine traditionally sacred to Lipper, Egypt (the Egyptologists have long speculated that such shrines depicted on the walls of later temples should date back to prehistoric: times but none had ever before been reported from actual archaeological excavations).

All our findings have confirmed the presence of a Protodynastic temple precinct at Hierakonpolis, then t he discovery of a niched mudbrick wall and gateway 40 meters to the south has even more pointed implications for the early political importance of the town. From the First Dynasty on, the Horns name of the king was enclosed within an oval or rectangular border or “cartouche” sur­mounted by the falcon [F torus of Nekhen) and resting upon a stylized niched facade. This “serekh” facade was one of the first symbols of kingship and is believed to have derived from the decorative palace enclosure walls such as those known from First and Second Dynasty tombs at Sakkara.

Some Egyptologists believe that the serekh facade as employed in tombs and as represented by hieroglyphs must have been copied from the walls of the royal residence itself. Our finds at Hierakonpolis seem to confirm this suspicion. Not only are the niched wall and gateway associated with a non-funerary structure [a royal or ad­ministrative compound] but its particular style and straligraphic context suggest that it dates to the early First Dynasty. When compared with the securely dated maslaba tombs at Sakkara, the complex style of mudbrick niching, the presence of posts and occasional flagstone paving within niches, and the intrusion of a dog burial into the top of the wall, all suggest that the niched structure at Hierakonpolis was built at the beginning of the First Dynasty—only a generation or two after the construction of the Protodynastic temple precinct and not more than a century after the close of the prehistoric epoch. Here then, in addition to the Narmer Palette and Scorpion macehead we have concrete testimony to the importance of Hierakonpolis at the very moment that Egypt stood poised on the threshold of statehood.

Although those new finds have shown the undoubted importance of Nekhen at the inception ()I’ Egyptian civilization, they do not explain that importance. The question of just how such an agriculturally poor region could serve as a possible focal point for the political unification of Egypt remains a mystery. Over the years a number of theories have been proposed to explain the legendary role of Hierakonpolis—theories which now can be re-evaluated in light of our findings both within the walled Kom el Ahmar and along the parched watercourse that once flowed into the Nile from the Western Desert.

Despite the fact that the archaeologists who excavated the tombs of the first two dynasties at Abydos and Sakkara—Sir William Flinders Petrie and Sir Walter Emery—each believed (that he had found the real graveyard of Egypt’s first kings 1a dispute that is still unresolved). they agreed that the unification of the “Two Lands” was I he work of an invading “Dynastic Race” of cultural supermen. Although such inter­pretations are usually rejected today, many experts think that the evidence for a Mesopotamian or more general Near Eastern role in the beginnings of Egyptian civilization is strong. During the last phases of the Predynastic the late Gerzean period) and in the Protadynastic ern immediately preceding Ilse final unificationion. a number of traits I hat are thought to reflect I his Eastern influence have been isolated. These include: high­ prowed boats, cylinder seals, the animal master motif, the standing winged griffin, serpent-necked panthers, figures wearing headdresses and long robes, and niched mudbrick architecture.

In the desert, adjacent to the cultivated land and close by the Kom el Ahmar, F. W. Green excavated a number of Pre- and Protodynastic graves. In one area in par­ticular the tombs were larger and more impressive than the rest. ‘The most imposing tomb of the lot was a large mudbrick structure that was partitioned into two compartments. Despite the fact that it had been looted, enough artifacts remained to date the grave to the late Gerzean period. Moreover, on one of the walls the archaeologists found a scene painted on plaster depicting boats (one of which was high-prowed) carrying double cabins or shrines, men fighting, assorted animals and the “animal master” motif.

That the “painted tomb” and the large graves around it were buitt to accommodate local prehistoric rulers or big men cannot be denied. But does the presence of animal master motifs, fighting men and a high­prowed vessel reflect Mesopotamian in­fluence or contact any more than the existence of a niched building within the walls of nearby Nekhen? Also, how do we evaluate the so-called “Mesopotamian” or “Eastern” motifs on the Narmer Palette and a smaller, oval palette found in the Main Deposit? Even though our recent excavations at Hierakon­polis have expanded the inventory of Protodynastic and Early Dynastic remains from Hierakonpolis and proven the real political importance of the town, are we really any closer to the riddle of how and why the Egyptian civilization emerged under’ men Iike Scorpion. Narmer and their successors?

In seeking the answers to these questions, we must turn to the second line of archaeological investigation pursued at Hierakonpolis—the prehistoric survey. Ii has become axiomatic in modern archaeology that in order to understand the role of a given site we must first know how it related to other sites in the same area and how all sitos, in turn, related to broader climatic and ecological factors. If the results of our investigations within the walls of ancient Nekhen were encouraging. then the outcome of the site survey conducted by Professor Fairservis and the author was unexpectedly rewarding for the new light ii has shed on the emergence of Egyptian civilization.

For many years, archaeologists have known about a large “town” of Predynastic ago sitting on the low desert, less than a quarter of a mile from the walls of Hierakon­polis itself. Here, an area of approximately one million square meters is covered with settlement debris. II is suspected that not all of the surface area was ever occupied at any one time, and, judging from surface indications, a series of small villages or hamlets probably accounts for the huge extent of the site. As one proceeds from the Predynastic “town” into the sandstone hills and ravines of the Western Desert, one encounters the so-called “Great Wadi”—a wide, dry gulch that is the major drainage channel for the entire area. Today the wadi’s course is bone dry and only occasionally—every few years—does it run with water during a freak cloudburst. What is so striking to the archaeologist, however, is that the banks of this now barren channel are dotted with the remains of Predynastic farming villages stretching back through Gerzean, Amratian and ultimately Badarian times, 5000 years before the birth of Christ.

This unusual pattern of settlement suggests that during a rainy period beginning around 5000 B.C. a considerable population was able o support itself in an area that is now stark wasteland. To gain a more precise view of the way of life of these people and the unusual climatic conditions under which they must have flourished, I undertook test ex­cavations at a locality where local fertilizer (sebakh) diggers had revealed a thick zone of buried occupation debris. In addition to the pottery and stone artifacts that enabled us to date the site to Amratian times (around 4000 B.C.), there was preserved an unbelievably wide range of normally perishable materials seldom available to archaeologists in other areas of the world. Vegetable remains include hundreds of grains of naturally carbonized emmer wheat and two-row barley, and numerous broken branches of the drought-resistant tamarisk tree—a variety that still grows along the banks of the more well-watered wadis of northern Egypt. In one instance, a stalk of wheat was found to which a flint sickle blade still adhered—as if the cutting motion had been arrested and Frozen in time for six thousand years awaiting the archaeologist’s trowel. The well preserved bones of cattle, pigs, dogs, fish and perhaps sheep or goat and gazelle reflect the faunal component of what was rather clearly a typical Near Eastern mixed village farming, herding and hunting economy. Preservation was so good that even insect remains (of a scarab beetle and Pimolia) were found, and five human coprolites provide the most direct and irrefutable evidence of man’s diet.

The existence of such extensive and well-preserved Predynastic remains in the Hierakonpolis region offers an unparalleled opportunity to relate ancient set tlement pat tern, demography, diet, climate and cultural ecology to the political, social and economic questions raised by the slightly later finds made in the Kom el Ahmar. Although many of the explanations I will offer for the rise of civilization at Hierakon­polis need further testing and much more extensive fieldwork, already, I believe, we have turned up some tantalizing clues. For example, it is apparent from our analysis of the organic remains from Great Wadi villages, that the area was occupied rather suddenly around 5000 B.C. by a people already possessed of a mixed farming, herding and hunting and gathering life style that was already three thousand years old in other areas of the Middle East. Whether the earliest Predynaslic peoples (the Badarians) were actually immigrants or whether they were local hunting, gathering and fishing peoples like the “El Kabians” who dwelt right across the river around 6000 B.C., cannot yet be answered because we do not now have sufficient evidence to explain the cultural processes by which farming and herding were introduced o or adopted by the ancient inhabitants of the Nile Valley. What is clear, however, is that intensive village agriculture came to Egypt with a rainy or “pluvial” period that began around 5000 B.C. and lasted for almost two thousand years.

Whether the rains came from the north or the south is not yet certain, but they did permit a temporary flowering of the border­lands of the Sahara or Western Desert. In areas like the Great Wadi at Hierakonpolis, we cannot overstress the immediate effect of even a small amount of fairly regular annual rainfall. Today, after a cloudburst, the desert can bloom for weeks. It is clear from the plant and animal remains found in archaeological sites along the Great Wadi that at least one crop of wheat and barley was grown by Predynastic Egyptians while animals were being pastured and occasionally hunted in and around the waterholes and catchment basins of the surrounding hills. That people resided more or less permanently in their settlements is likely, judging from the density and intensity of cultural debris and by the presence of both adult and child burials in or near the living areas.

Between 3500 and 3100 B.C. something happened to alter this way of life radically. On the basis of our preliminary survey, it appears that most of the sites along the Great Wadi were abandoned by or in the late Gerzean period, and there are absolutely no signs of Protodynastic or Early Dynastic settlements. This suggests, possibly for a variety of reasons, that the desert portion of the Predynastic farming and herding economy of Upper Egypt was lopped off sometime in the late fourth millennium B.C. Climatic change seems the most likely culprit, but we must not rule out the effects of overgrazing, deforestation and man’s deliberate if uninten­tional destruction of his own environment. Particularly in deserts, plant life is unusually susceptible to any variation in moisture and to overuse. Ecologists call such areas “tension zones” because they are so sensitive to change and because they occupy borderline positions between more stable environments. In terms of the everyday life of a Predynastic Egyptian desert villager, any deterioration of the wadi ecosystem would have forced him back toward the floodplain where the annual Nile inundation created a giant, self-renewing oasis.

A shift of the wadi population back ino the Nile Valley in late Predynastic times would have had social consequences of the type that. I believe, would have given Egyptian cultural development an important unlooked for boost. Many scientists and scholars who have studied the rise of civiliza­tion, stress that it is first and foremost a social change that makes possible things like monumental architecture, the state, represen­tational art, social elites, writing and political and economic centralization. In late Gerzean and Protodynastic Egypt such a social change could easily have resulted from the resettle­ment of wadi farmers on or near the valley, and their increased dependence on people who already farmed the land and plied the waters of the Nile. Doubtless, the two peoples were already tied closely by intermarriage and commerce, but such close ties do not alter the fact that some groups were already sitting on the most desirable land and possessed the technical skills to make it produce. In ancient Egypt such technical knowledge was not exceedingly complex—so bountiful was the Nile alluvium. Nevertheless, there were certain minimal decisions that had to be made by a few competent people so that irrigation basins and ditches could be renewed and maintained, water allocated, surpluses stored and trading transactions systematized.

Added to this is the question of riverine trade. The importance of this activity in a land where the Nile was the most efficient route of communication cannot be overstated. But what would be traded for, what would prehistoric Egyptians and their descendants have exchanged? Food certainly—and luxury goods to be sure. These were often buried in graves as indicators of wealth and status, since Predynastic Egyptians like their descen­dants believed that you could and should take it with you. Once again, however, the technical and social intricacies of successful riverine transport would have best been controlled by people who dwelt on or near the river (and not elusive Mesopotamian navigators).

In surveying the broader picture of the emergence of civilization in Egypt, we have seen that just before the unification there seems to have been a shift of population into the floodplain of the Nile Valley. The addition of population from places like the Great Wadi or even the Predynastic “town” would have increased the size and importance of places like Nekhen and placed the most prominent and successful citizens (or most ambitious entrepreneurs) in the position of suddenly having more economic and political dependents—a larger clientele, if you will. It seems small wonder then that “the rich got richer” and buried themselves in fancy tombs—tombs that occasionally were decorated with scenes of river boats and fighting men. It is likewise not surprising that the gods of the valley shrines and their keepers increased in stature and that the task of irrigation and water allocation became critical enough for a man of Scorpion’s rank to personally take a hand. All of these factors suggest —merely suggest—that the apparent rule of Hierakonpolis in the rapid emergence of Egyptian civilization might best be ex­plained by internal facors; and although pharaoh or the local big man might have aped the latest fashions and tastes from the East, his rise o a symbolically distinctive position at the pinnacle of one of the most unusual and original cultures the world has ever spawned, was largely due to changes that were occur­ring within contemporary Egyptian society.

Cite This Article

Hoffman, Michael A.. "The City of the Hawk." Expedition Magazine 18, no. 3 (May, 1976): -. Accessed February 29, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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