Tomb 100 Heirakponpolis

This Late Chalcolithic building known as the “Painted Tomb” (or Tomb 100) was excavated by Green in 1898-9. It most likely dates to the Gerzean period (Naqada II), but an exact date is elusive as many of the objects excavated in the area were mixed up during transportation to London, and the tomb itself has been lost. It is generally agreed that the building was a tomb (although Brunton suggested it may be a shrine) which housed the burial of a local leader.

Tomb 100; the Painted Tomb Copyright Francesco Raffaele

The tomb contained a flint-formed lance head and a variety of pottery commonly found in other Gerzean graves. However, it is the earliest known example of a painted tomb. There are similarities between the decorations and images found in Gerzean art, particularly on pottery. Yet their placement within a rectangular structure, lined with brick and plastered is unique for that time period, causing Reisner to suggest the tomb should be attributed to the First Dynasty.

Red, black, and white paint was applied to the plastered mudbrick walls of the tomb. It depicts a series of boats travelling on the river accompanied by a number of smaller scenes of women dancing, men fighting, and people interacting with animals.

Despite the apparently chaotic nature of the image, and the lack of the registers and formal structure associated with pharaonic art, there are a number of interesting elements which connect this decoration with what was to become traditional Egyptian art. While the image may look at first glance like prehistoric cave art, we can see that the symbolic imagery which was to become a central feature of royal art was already established at this early period.

Tomb 100 smiting scene
Den smiting on an ivory label copyright Captmondo
Den Smiting, British Museum, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

A particularly interesting scene involves one man using a mace to subdue another three men (above), his arm raised above his head in a pose clearly reminiscent of the smiting pose adopted by the pharaoh in countless art works.

There is also an image of a man restraining two large animals, most likely lions, which echoes the images on the Gebel el Arak knife (below left) and the Narmer Pallette (below right). This is thought to represent the supernatural power of the ruler and his ability to tame the forces of nature which was one of the key elements in legitimizing his right to rule. Other proto-dynastic elements of the decoration include the use of size to indicate status, the presence of priests wearing animal skins, and a rudimentary base-line.

Gebel el Arak Knife
Gebel el Arak Knife ALFGRN, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
"Master of Animals" Tomb 100
Tomb 100

Narmer Palette
Narmer Palette

The figures over the central boat (below) are also rather interesting. They are usually considered to be goddesses. However, Case and Payne suggest that they lack the graceful pose of the clearly feminine figures found on Gerzean pottery in a similar pose and may in fact be male figures wearing kilts.

Tomb 100 central boat
central boat

The differing colours of the boats and their passengers may also be important. The boats heading south are painted red, white, and green, and the crew on those boats have red skin. The boats heading north are black, and have crews with black skin. The red skinned characters are most associated with typically Gerzean poses (subduing lions, the ruler sitting under an awning) leading some (Winkler, Case, and Payne) to suggest the black skinned figures may represent foreign invaders. The duality in colour is also matched by the images of a pair of red and black antelope and red and black lions.

A possible interpretation of the totality of the scenes was proposed by Case and Payne. The decoration charts the progression of relations with an Asiatic peoples. First the Asiatics invade and confront the ruler; the native ruler resists and is victorious adopting a familiar heroic pose; the ruler claims mastery over foreign and native peoples (represented by the red and black lions) and forges a harmonious peace (represented by the red and back antelopes). This is, of course, speculative, but interesting nonetheless.

Huyge raises the interesting possibility that the scenes were not all painted at the same time. The boats seem to have been painted first (probably at Naqada II stage) and later edited (Naqada III). He suggests that the black boat is the most important boat (given its position) and may be the boat of the tomb owner or even a sacred barque. He further suggests that the figures hovering above the boats (female guardians?) and the figure seated under the awning of another boat (likened by many to the king during his Heb sed festival) were not part of the original image, but rather later additions. This would cast doubt on the scene representing any particular historical record and rather make it part of a tradition developing religious and royal iconography.

  • Kemp, Barry J (1991) Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilisation
  • Lloyd, Alan B (2010) A Companion to Ancient Egypt
  • Case, Humphrey and Payne, Joan Crowfoot (1962) Tomb 100: The Decorated Tomb at Hierakonpolis Confirmed in The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology Vol. 48
  • Huyge, Dirk (2014) The Painted Tomb, Rock Art and the recycling of Predynastic Egyptian Imagery
  • Payne, Joan Crowfoot (1973) Tomb 100: The Decorated Tomb at Hierakonpolis in The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology Vol. 59

Copyright J Hill 2016