The first capital of the united country?
The next stage in development came 80 miles to the south, at a site known to the Greeks as Hierakonpolis, meaning city of the hawks. Like Naqada, it declined in the early dynastic period, and was replaced by Edfu, the southern most of the Egyptian towns on the tourist circuit.
Hierankopolis is today marked by two main sites, the largest is that known as the ‘fort’, though it is not a fort at all but a ritual structure, built by the last pharaoh of the second dynasty, Khasekhemwy. It is almost identical to a similar structure also erected by him at Abydos. It is huge measuring 67 by 57 metres, but it is built of unfired mud brick and it is today in a very poor state and in danger of collapse.
There are also the ruins of a temple of the 18th dynasty dedicated to Horus the Falcon, the Royal God. However there is pottery everywhere of the predynastic period, proof that it must have been a very extensive site indeed. Modern excavations are cutting a trench diagonally across it and producing fascinating evidence for an early town and proto palace.
However the most remarkable evidence and the reason for its great importance in the archaeological record is a chance discovery made in the late 19th century, when excavations took place just outside the area of the later temple.
In 1896 James Quibell and F W Green, two younger associates of Petrie went there to investigate. They began digging in the area of the temple and hit lucky. The temple was built over the ruins of an earlier shrine – sadly their excavation standards were not on a par with those of Petrie so the story is rather confused. But to one side they found what was called the ‘Main Deposit’, which appears to have been the paraphernalia from some earlier temple or shrine which had been gathered up and buried in a pit adjacent to a first dynasty shrine, of which virtually nothing remains. However, the finds from the Main Deposit form the basis on which the story of the emergence of the first dynasty has been concocted.
The Ashmolean palette
Of particular importance are the ‘palettes’. There are a number of these palettes from this early period. They were flat palettes for the grinding of beauty preparations, but by this time they had been hugely enlarged to a foot or more in length and richly carved on both sides: clearly ‘ritual’ but ritual of the highest importance. After the excavations the finds were divided, thus the finest palette known as the Narmer Palette (below) is in the National Museum in Cairo whereas the second best, known as the Two Dog palette (above) is in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. This Oxford palette is in fact the earlier, for although artistically they are very different: the Ashmolean palette is quite unlike later Egyptian art, the last in fact example of pre-pharaoh art, whereas the Narmer Palette is the first example of Pharaonic art and ideology. Both are carved on both sides. On the Two Dog palette, the art is totally chaotic; there are animals everywhere, fighting each other with no attempt to arrange them in registers. Admittedly most of the animals are in pairs with the two dogs on either side, with their heads forming the handles, and two long necked creatures adorning the front. But they are almost all four legged animals and there are none of the traditional Egyptian animals – the hawks and the ibises.
The Narmer palette however, is definitely ‘Egyptian’. On one side the principal figure is Pharaoh in traditional stance, wearing the white crown of upper Egypt, holding a kneeling captive by his hair, and about to smite him with a weapon in his right hand – the traditional figure of superiority that adorns Egyptian art for the next 3000 years, showing the decidedly bellicose side to Egyptian society. On the other side the figures are neatly arranged in three separate registers. At the centre is the circular depression in which the makeup ingredients would have been ground – the very purpose of the palette. The central register then shows two long necked four legged animals, similar to those on the Two Dog palette, but the upper register again shows the pharaoh this time wearing a different crown – the red crown of Lower Egypt, preceded by men of high and distinctive rank, and on the right rows of decapitated captives, their heads between their legs. A blood thirsty lot these Egyptians compared with the later Minoans!
The scene represents the crucial stage in the evolution of pharaonic Egypt – that is the union of the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt into a single dynasty, achieved by Menes, the first Pharaoh and the First Dynasty. The ruling figure on the Narmer palette is named as Narmer, while the kneeling figure he is about to smite is named as Wash, presumably the ruler of Lower Egypt who has been conquered and the country thus united. But who was Narmer? It is usually considered that he was ruler that preceded Menes and some archaeologists have introduced the concept of Dynasty 0 and suggest that Narmer was the last ruler of Dynasty 0. But the two palettes in Cairo and Oxford encapsulate the whole story of how Egypt passed from prehistory to history.
On to the great burial place – Abydos