Archaeobotanical Studies from Hierakonpolis: Evidence for Food Processing During the Predynastic Period in Egypt

  • Elshafaey A. E. Attia
  • Elena MarinovaEmail author
  • Ahmed G. Fahmy
  • Masahiro Baba


This paper discusses recently obtained archaeobotanical evidence from locality HK11C of Predynastic Hierakonpolis, Upper Egypt, and in particular, information on plant foods and their processing. The excavations at this locality have revealed industrial food production activities dating to the Naqada II period (c. 3800–3300 BC). From one structure (Operation C) dedicated to the processing of meat and fish, plant remains were extracted through flotation of sediment from burned debris obtained from hearths. A sample from another structure, reused for refuse disposal, was also studied. The finds indicate discarded waste of cereal crop processing, fuel residues (wood and vegetative parts of herbaceous vegetation), herbivore dung and other plant remains deriving from crops (flax, melon) or representatives of the wetland and desert vegetation. The most frequent plant remains recovered from this food processing zone are crop cleaning by-products of emmer and barley, the principal cereal crops of the period (c. 75% of the total frequency of identifiable plant remains). In much smaller frequencies are remains of weeds, found as seeds and/or vegetative parts, which represent the wild growing vegetation from ruderal places, river banks or the desert. Further archaeobotanical evidence from the site HK11C comes from an installation (Operation B) where large ceramic vats were found containing charred residues. Close examination of the charred residue revealed remnants of emmer processed for food. Whole and fragmented grains were distinguishable under low magnification (10–40x). Although no longer recognisable without magnification, the presence of ground grain was demonstrated by numerous cereal pericarp fragments and aleuron cell layers visible under higher magnification (100–400x). Starch grains with perforations observed under Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) suggest that fermentation had taken place. This processing, with subsequent heating, must have resulted in a more or less homogenous mass suggesting that this matter was wet when charred. It may represent dough for bread making or more probably, considering the archeological context, for initial stages of beer production. Other samples found inside the vats and their surroundings also indicate processed emmer probably for beer production.


Archaeobotany Ancient brewing Emmer Plant macroremains Predynastic Upper Egypt 



This archaeobotanical study was possible due to the kind scientific and financial support provided by unit “Quaternary Environments and Humans” of the Royal Belgian Institute for Natural Sciences (Brussels). The excavations at HK11C were undertaken under the auspices of the Hierakonpolis Expedition with funds provided by the Japan Society for Promotion of Science (Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research (C) 16K03167). The authors would like also to thank Andreas Heiss for valuable comments and discussion on earlier versions of the manuscript. We are also grateful to the editor, Catherine D´Andrea, the reviewers Michelle Wollstonecroft, Lara Carretero Gonzalez and an anonymous reviewer who provided useful comments and suggestions to improve the manuscript. The research on the material presented here represents a continuation of the research begun by Ahmed G. Fahmy focussing on the investigation of the food ingredients and processing procedures (including beer production) at the site of Hierakonpolis, aiming to define the parameters involved in food production through systematic archaeobotanical analyses of the industrial facilities, ceramic vats, and burials (comparing e.g. human dental calculus, stomach contents, intestinal contents, and coprolites).


  1. Baba M, Friedman RF (2016) Recent excavations at HK11C, Hierakonpolis. In: Adams MD (ed.), Midant-Reynes B, Ryan, EM, Tristant Y (coll) Egypt at its origins 4. Proceedings of the fourth international conference “Origin of the State. Predynastic and Early Dynastic Egypt”, New York, 26–30th July 30, 2011. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 252. Leuven/Paris/Bristol, CT:179–205Google Scholar
  2. Baba M, Van Neer W, De Cupere B (2017) Industrial food production activities during the Naqada II period at HK11C, Hierakonpolis. In: Midant-Reynes B, Tristant Y (eds) Ryan EM (coll), Egypt at its origins 5. Proceedings of the fifth international conference “Origin of the State. Predynastic and Early Dynastic Egypt”, Cairo, 13–18th Apr 2014. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 260. Leuven/Paris/Bristol, CT:3–34Google Scholar
  3. Boulos L (2002) Flora of Egypt, vol 3. El Hadara Publishing, CairoGoogle Scholar
  4. Fadl M, Fahmy AG, Omran W (2013) Evaluation of cultivated and wild plant macroremains from a predynastic temple in Hierakonpolis–Upper Egypt. Intern J Plant Soil Sci 2:244–262CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Fahmy AG (2005) Missing plant macroremains as indicators of plant exploitation in Predynastic Egypt. Veget Hist Archaeobot 14:287–294CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Fahmy AG (2008) Analysis of mummies´ gut contents from Predynastic Hierakonpolis, Egypt (3750–3300 BC). In: Midant-Reynes B, Tristant, Y (eds) Rowland J, Hendrickx S (coll) Egypt and its origins 2. Proceedings of the international conference “Origin of the State. Predynastic and Early Dynastic Egypt”, Toulouse (France), 5–8th September 2005. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 172. Leuven/Paris/Dudley, MA:419–426Google Scholar
  7. Fahmy AG, Fadl M (2009) Plant macroremains from locality HK29A at Hierakonpolis, Egypt. J Am Res Center Egypt 45:137–152Google Scholar
  8. Fahmy AG, Friedman R, Fadl M (2008a) Archaeobotanical studies at Hierakonpolis locality HK6: The pre and early dynastic elite cemetery. Archéo-Nil 18:169–183Google Scholar
  9. Fahmy AG, Khodary S, Fadl M et al (2008b) Plant macroremains from an elite cemetery at Predynastic Hierakonpolis, upper Egypt. Intern J Bot 4:205–212Google Scholar
  10. Fahmy A, Friedman R, Fadl M (2011) Economy and ecology of Predynastic Hierakonpolis, Egypt: Archaeobotanical evidence from a trash mound at HK11C. In: Fahmy A, Kahlheber S, D`Andrea C (eds) Windows on the African past: Current approaches to African archaeobotany. Proceedings of the 6th international workshop on African archaeobotany, held June 13–15, 2009, at Helwan University, Cairo, Egypt. Reports in African Archaeology vol 3, Africa Magna, Frankfurt, pp 91–118Google Scholar
  11. Friedman RF (2011) Hierakonpolis. In: Teeter E (ed) Before the pyramids. The origins of Egyptian civilization. Oriental Institute Publications 33. Chicago, pp 33–44Google Scholar
  12. Heiss AG (2014) Ceremonial foodstuffs from prehistoric burnt-offering places in the alpine region. In: Chevalier A, Marinova E, Peña-Chocarro L (eds) Plants and people: choices and diversity through time. Early agricultural remnants and technical heritage (EARTH): 8,000 Years of Resilience and Innovation, vol 1. Oxbow Books, Oxford, pp 343–353Google Scholar
  13. Heiss AG, Antolín F, Bleicher N, Harb C, Jacomet S, Kühn M, Marinova E, Stika H, Valamoti S (2017) State of the (t)art. Analytical approaches in the investigation of components and production traits of archaeological bread-like objects, applied to two finds from the Neolithic lakeshore settlement Parkhaus Opéra (Zürich, Switzerland). PLoS ONE 12(8):e0182401CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  14. Kubiak-Martens L, Langer JJ (2008) Predynastic beer brewing as suggested by botanical and physicochemical evidence from Tell el-Farkha, Eastern Delta. In: Midant-Reynes Tristant Y (eds), Egypt at its origins 2. Leuven, Paris & Dudley, MA, pp 427–441Google Scholar
  15. Marinova E, Ryan P, Van Neer W et al (2013) Animal dung from arid environments and archaeobotanical methodologies for its analysis: an example from animal burials of the Predynastic elite cemetery HK6 at Hierakonpolis, Egypt. Environ Archaeol 18:58–71CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Samuel D (2000) Brewing and baking. In: Nicholson PT, Shaw I (eds) Ancient Egyptian materials and technology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 537–576Google Scholar
  17. Stika H-P (1996) Traces of a possible Celtic brewery in Eberdingen-Hochdorf, Kreis Ludwigsburg, southwest Germany. Veg Hist Archaeobot 5:81–88CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Valamoti SM (2017) Brewing beer in wine country? First archaeobotanical indications for beer making in Early and Middle Bronze Age Greece. Veg Hist Archaeobot.
  19. Valamoti S, Samuel D, Bayram M et al (2008) Prehistoric cereal foods from Greece and Bulgaria: investigation of starch microstructure in experimental and archaeological charred remains. Veg Hist Archaebot 17(1):265–276CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Zohary D, Hopf M, Weiss E (2012) Domestication of plants in the Old World, 4th edn. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Elshafaey A. E. Attia
    • 1
  • Elena Marinova
    • 3
    • 2
    Email author
  • Ahmed G. Fahmy
    • 1
  • Masahiro Baba
    • 4
  1. 1.Department of Botany, Faculty of ScienceHelwan UniversityCairoEgypt
  2. 2.Center for Archaeological Sciences, KU LeuvenLeuvenBelgium
  3. 3.Royal Belgian Institute of Natural SciencesBrusselsBelgium
  4. 4.Institute for Advanced Study, Waseda UniversityTokyoJapan

Personalised recommendations