National Geographic
Menu

Animal Burials, Early Ruler, and Ivory Statue Unearthed in Egyptian Tomb Complex

As experts in ancient civilizations from around the world meet and discuss their findings at the 2014 Dialogue of Civilizations in Turkey, one in particular is also eager for news from outside the conference.

Dr. Renée Friedman has led excavations at Egypt’s Hierakonpolis Expedition for years, often with support from grants through the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration. This week, while she attended the conference in Istanbul, Ankara, and other sites, she also anticipated a press release from the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities announcing their most recent findings. The news broke early Thursday morning.

In all there were 55 items discovered including a delicate hippo-topped comb. (Photo courtesy Hierakonpolis Expedition)

In all there were 55 items discovered including a delicate hippo-topped comb. (Photo courtesy Hierakonpolis Expedition)

At the site of the city of Hierakonpolis on the Nile in southern Egypt, the capital of an early kingdom before a unified Egypt, Friedman and the team have solved a mystery and given us a glimpse of the intense political atmosphere of the civilization’s earliest days.

In previous years they had excavated an elaborate burial complete with a menagerie of wild animals that dates to the predynastic period (read full story). In 2013 they finished the season having found a second set of animal burials, but no elite human to whom they would belong. This year they found not only the man’s remains, but his tomb full of artifacts including a hippo-ivory statue of a man or god, all dating to around 3600 B.C., centuries before the unification of the North and South when such high-end artwork tied to rulers was thought to begin.

After presentations on Anatolian civilizations through the millennia, she answered questions and told me more about the find:

Big ears, aquiline nose, protruding lips, and pointed beard identify the new statue with the same figure seen in masks of the area. (Photo courtesy Hierakonpolis Expedition)

Big ears, aquiline nose, protruding lips, and pointed beard identify the new statue with the same figure seen in masks of the area. (Photo courtesy Hierakonpolis Expedition)

What for you was most exciting about this find?

RF: After finding our first tomb complex of an early ruler and his menagerie at Hierakonpolis, we began to unearth more animals. There was a leopard with some fur and all 18 claws, a crocodile, a wild bull, sheep with modified horns, ten dogs with their leashes still on, and even a person with the same form of a rare growth disorder as the person with dwarfism from the previous find, but we hadn’t found the tomb of the ruler yet. So we kept looking. Now we have the main tomb of this second tomb complex.

The ivory statue stands some 32cm tall, and must have come from a "mammoth" hippo. (Photo courtesy Hierakonpolis Expedition)How long was that period of looking?

We knew we were in a new tomb complex in 2013. So the season starting in February of 2014 was dedicated to finding this tomb. We had a good idea of where to look, but fooled us till the day before the planned last day of the expedition, which of course didn’t become the last day at all.

Since you’d already excavated a similar site, why was this tomb so hard to locate?

We’d found the four walls of a structure, and we were searching the interior, but all we could see was a sandy pit. It wasn’t until we got deeper than expected that it finally revealed itself.

How was the ivory statue found?

Once we’d found the tomb, we started going down in layers and in the northwest corner what we thought was an animal bone amazed us when team member Xavier Droux realized it had legs. Then it had a head. Then we knew it was an ivory statue and it took our breath away. It’s about 32cm long, made out of the incisor tooth of what must have been a mammoth hippo.

This is only the third ivory statue ever found with context from the pre-dynastic period.

The excitement of the realization that the "bone" was a statue is clear on the face of excavators Abdel Rahim Ghassim and Sayid Haridi. (Photo courtesy Hierakonpolis Expedition)

The excitement of the realization that the “bone” was a statue is clear on the face of excavators Abdel Rahim Ghassim and Sayid Haridi. (Photo courtesy Hierakonpolis Expedition)

Although the surface was eaten by termites, you can see what an accomplished piece of work it was.  And it looks just like the masks we’ve found at the other tomb: huge ears, strong brow, pointy beard. Whatever the masks are depicting, the statue is the same thing, whether god or king.

Most importantly, it shows that the tradition of beautifully carved ivory seen in the temple deposits of the first dynasty kings had already started hundreds of years earlier.

And what about the human remains?

What was interesting was all these things, 55 objects, were in their original places, but the person was gone. Everything but a few finger bones and part of the pelvis. So someone must have been very, very angry with him. They took him out and burned him. And then they burnt the super structure.

If the body wasn’t there, how do you know they burned him?

We found the burned bones. We had come across them at the beginning, but they were scattered and hard to recognize. After we found the tomb, we reexamined the earlier material and saw it added up to the remains of one young person, 17-20 years of age.

The hippo comb appears in the ground, cracked but nearly complete. (Photo courtesy Hierakonpolis Expedition)

The hippo comb appears in the ground, cracked but nearly complete. (Photo courtesy Hierakonpolis Expedition)

And the burning isn’t the end of the story?

Three hundred years later, very early in the first dynasty, the people in power come back and restore the tomb and cover over the mess, hiding the evidence of what would have been a humiliation. It’s a very interesting insight into the presence of a lot of internal strife (say between families) just before state formation and unification. So we see that the bringing together of Egypt was a very long process.

[This Q&A format has been edited from a longer conversation.]

Read Full Story of Previous Tomb and Menagerie

Read All Posts From the Dialogue of Civilizations