The American-Egyptian excavation team made the discoveries in what they described as the largest funerary complex ever found that dates to the elusive five millennia-old Predynastic era, Egypt's Supreme Council of antiquities said on Wednesday.

 

"This is a major discovery and will add greatly to our knowledge of the period when Egypt was first becoming a nation," Zahi Hawas, Egypt's chief archaeologist, said.

 

In the area of Kum al-Ahmar, known in antiquity as Hierakonpolis, about 580km south of Cairo, the team working for five years in the area excavated a complex thought to belong to a ruler of the ancient city who reigned around 3600BCE.

 

The find is significant because little is known about the early phase of Predynastic period. That era predates the unification of upper and lower Egypt that triggered the well-known Dynastic era, when ancient Egypt's pharaohs ruled.

 

Bad shape

 

Little remains from the Predynastic period. Objects that have survived are in bad shape or have been smuggled out of the country.

 

The grave sites at Qum al-Ahmar appear to date to the early Naqada II era, a time when the settlement at Hierakonpolis was at its peak and the city was the largest urban centre on the Nile.

 

Hawas said it was the largest
funerary complex ever found

The complex, which is enclosed in a well-preserved wall of wooden posts, consists of a large rectangular tomb covered with the earliest known superstructure.

 

Against the enclosure wall, in an ash-laden deposit, excavators came across a complete figurine of a cow head carved from flint.

 

Diggers found a flint figure of an ibex in the same tomb, now on display in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

 

Hawas said Egyptian flint figurines are extremely rare. Only 50 have been discovered. He said uncovering two fine examples in one site was a stroke of luck.

 

Excavators also found 46 limestone fragments from Egypt's earliest life-size human statue, along with fragments of two ceramic funerary masks and a collection of fine pots that point to the date of the complex.

 

Severely plundered

 

Although the tomb and its surroundings were severely plundered in antiquity, excavators unearthed four bodies at one end of the tomb.

 

The position of the corpses suggests that they may belong to sacrificed servants or prisoners who were buried at the foot of the grave, a common practice in the first Dynasty, Hawas said.

 

 "This is a major discovery, and will add greatly to our knowledge of the period when Egypt was first becoming
a nation"

Zahi Hawas,
Egypt's Chief Archaeologist

A second tomb housed well-preserved remains of three adults as well as textile and padding used to wrap the corpses before covering them with thick matting.

 

Eight deep post-holes, four on each side, were found at the longest side of the burial chamber, three of which still bear remains of the ancient wooden posts. Six more post-holes to the east, in two rows, suggest the presence of an offering chapel.

 

A deposit of burnt ostrich eggshell found at the site is thought to convey the desire to magically ensure rebirth.

 

Excavations at the site started in 2000 under the leadership of famed Egyptologist Barbara Adams, who died in 2002. The work continues under Renee Friedman, the current head of the American team.