Artifact Trove at Egyptian Tomb Illuminates Life Before Pharaohs

Archaeologist uncovers human sacrifices and evidence of strife.

Archaeologists at the Egyptian site of Hierakonpolis have uncovered evidence of the ancestors of the pharaohs.

A recently discovered tomb at a key Egyptian settlement has yielded the largest trove of artifacts ever found in a tomb there—including a young man's burned and scattered bones—and is shedding new light on the ancestors of the pharaohs.

Part of a cemetery complex that predates the formation of the ancient Egyptian state, the find is one of the richest "predynastic" burials archaeologists have ever seen.

The tomb, at the site known as Hierakonpolis, yielded 54 objects, including combs, spearheads, arrowheads, and a figurine made of hippopotamus ivory. Arrayed around the tomb are dozens more burials, including possible human sacrifices and exotic animals.

The latest find, announced earlier this month, is adding to the remarkable story coming out of the Hierakonpolis cemetery, which has been under investigation since 1979.

"It demonstrates the importance of this cemetery, with its high-status burials," says Boston University archaeologist Kathryn Bard. "They have some very interesting secondary burials of humans and animals and wooden structures that are unique to Hierakonpolis."

Hierakonpolis, located on the Nile River about 300 miles (500 kilometers) south of Cairo, was the most important settlement in Egypt's predynastic period, a five-century stretch that began around 3,500 B.C. and preceded the formation of the ancient Egyptian state.

The finds at Hierakonpolis show that the roots of ancient Egyptian civilization stretched back centuries. There are clear signs of social divisions, with elite tombs that are richer and larger than others. "There must have been a whole dynasty of predynastic kings," says Renee Friedman, a British Museum archaeologist who is director of the expedition.

The Hierakonpolis elite erected elaborate wooden structures over their tombs, parts of which have been preserved for more than 6,000 years by the dry climate. Their graves were surrounded by retainers, wild animals, and other accoutrements for their journey into the afterlife, foreshadowings of the mighty civilization that followed.

This statue, one foot (32 centimeters) long, was made from the incisor of what must have been a mammoth hippopotamus. It's the third ivory statue ever found from the predynastic period.

Human Sacrifices, Posthumous Desecration

The man buried in what's known at Hierakonpolis as Tomb 72 was between 17 and 20 years old when he died. 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's unlikely their deaths were natural," Friedman says. 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, which were a fascination for ancient Egyptians.

Because the tomb hadn't been disturbed for many millennia, Friedman's team was able to reconstruct a shocking act of desecration that took place there.

The occupant's skeleton had been scattered, and the tomb's wood posts show evidence of fire damage. Friedman thinks the grave had been violated soon after the owner's death, and the body and the wooden structure over the tomb deliberately set on fire.

The many grave goods left inside indicate that the grave robbers' goal wasn't loot, but some sort of postmortem vengeance. "The owner of the tomb had been yanked out, while the other objects had been left alone," Friedman says. "That's not plundering—this was an act of aggression. The point wasn't to take goodies, it was to destroy this person."

The destruction may have had something to do with political and social changes Friedman says rocked the Egyptian world not long after the man in Tomb 72 died. "There are no more elite burials, and the middle class seems to be getting richer," Friedman says. "There's a real change in the status quo. There must have been some kind of revolution."

Could the destruction of Tomb 72 and its owner have been an early form of class warfare? "Maybe this is about anger at those who have kept you down," Friedman suggests. "Is there something going on where the elite at Hierakonpolis are being called to book?"

Others are more cautious. The evidence for social upheaval is limited, and Bard says it's a stretch to even call the man buried in the tomb a king.

With no inscriptions or other written evidence in the tomb, "no one knows his exact political role, other than that he was a very high-status person," she cautions. "There's no way you can attribute a political role to a prehistoric burial."

A delicate comb embellished with a hippo appears in the ground, cracked but nearly complete.

Exotic Animals and Animal Carvings

Along with the human sacrifices, a menagerie of animals surrounded the tomb.

Archaeologists found the bones of a leopard, an ostrich, a hartebeest, six baboons, nine goats, and ten dogs with leather leashes. In past years, nearby tombs have yielded hippos, an elephant, and falcons.

"Animals represent chaotic forces, and chaotic forces have to be brought under control," says Stan Hendrickx, an archaeologist at the University of Hasselt in Belgium. "That's what a ruler has to do—it's a display of power."

Because modern-day looters overlooked the burial, archaeologists were able to recover many of Tomb 72's grave goods.

The most dramatic artifact is a figurine carved from hippopotamus ivory. A foot (32 centimeters) long, it was carved from a single, tremendous hippo tooth. Its face has a pointed beard and big ears, and it resembles burial masks found elsewhere in the sprawling cemetery and temple complex.

"Whether the kings are depicting themselves or showing themselves as gods, whatever the statue shows and the masks show are the same entity," Friedman says.

Another evocative object found in the tomb: a comb with a hippopotamus decoration. The hippo—a symbol of power—was carefully marked with a burning stick. "We think it was a way of symbolically killing it so it couldn't come back to life and run around in the tomb," Friedman says.

The excavation yielded 54 items in all, including the hippo-topped comb.

More Finds to Come?

Though the role of the men buried in the Hierakonpolis cemetery is the source of debate, later Egyptian kings considered them important. Four centuries later, Friedman says, some of Egypt's earliest rulers returned to Hierakonpolis and restored the damaged tombs.

Later rulers may have valued the cemetery as proof of some connection to their deep past. "That's amazing, that these were apparently maintained centuries later," says Hendrickx. "Egypt is a civilization where tradition is extremely important, and they want to keep up with this tradition."

When she returns to Hierakonpolis next winter, Friedman hopes to uncover the rest of the tomb complex. "We want to find out the full extent of the people and animals he took with him," she says. "Eventually we hope to explore the whole cemetery."

That is, if there's anything left: Most of the site was plundered in the last century, and since the Arab Spring in 2011, the chaos in Egypt has made the situation even worse. Armed guards police Hierakonpolis, but looting remains a constant, and growing, threat.

"It was the worst year to find something good," Friedman says. "I'm very much in fear of what condition the cemetery will be in when we return. It's a very difficult time in Egypt right now."