The Narmer Palette: Politics and Violence in Early Dynastic Egypt

What Egypt's Narmer Palette Tells Us About Dynastic Egypt's Origins

Detail of Narmer Pallette Facsimile in the Royal Ontario Museum
In Lower Egypt Regalia, Narmer Marches Out to See his Slain Enemies (detail of the Narmer Pallette). Keith Schengili-Roberts

The Narmer Palette is the name of an elaborately carved shield-shaped slab of gray schist made during the Old Kingdom of Dynastic Egypt (ca. 2574-2134 BC). It is the earliest monumental representation of any pharaoh: the carvings on the palette depict events in the life of King Narmer , also known as Menes, considered the founding ruler of dynastic Egypt.

Narmer's palette was found in a deposit with 2,000 other votive objects within the ruins of a temple at his capital city of Hierakonpolis south of Luxor.

British archaeologists James E. Quibell and Frederick Green found the main deposit during their 1897-1898 field season at Hierakonpolis.

Palette and Palettes

The Narmer Palette is 64 centimeters (25 inches) long, and its shield shape is the same as that used for the domestic tool called a palette, which was used to hold cosmetics. Plainer, smaller domestic cosmetic palettes had been made by Egyptians for at least a thousand years before the date of the Narmer palette. That's not unusual in Egyptian iconography—the Narmer Palette is one of a series of elaborately carved, portable objects dated to the formative period of Dynastic culture in Egypt, around the turn of the third millennium BC. Many of these objects are ceremonial replicas of long-used domesticate objects.

Other examples of large carved objects depicting the deeds of Old Kingdom pharaohs include the Narmer Macehead, which illustrates the presentation of animals and people to a seated ruler, likely Narmer; a flint knife with an ivory handle showing a scene of combat found at Gebel el-Arak; and a slightly later ivory comb bearing the name of a different king of the First Dynasty.

All of these are oversized, elaborate versions of common artifact types found in the Badarian/Khartoum Neolithic-Naqada I periods, and in this manner, they represent references to what would have been ancient history to the people of the Old Kingdom.

Who Was Narmer?

Narmer, or Menes, ruled about 3050 BC and was considered by the First Dynasty Egyptians as the founder of that Dynasty, the last king of what archaeologists call Dynasty 0, or the Early Bronze Age IB.

Egyptian dynastic civilization began over 5,000 years ago with the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt into a single Upper Egyptian Polity based at Hierankopolis, that unification attributed to Narmer in historical Egyptian records. Numerous later Egyptian writings claim Narmer as the conqueror of all the societies along the length of the Nile River, but some scholarly doubt persists. Narmer's own tomb has been identified at Naqada.

Cosmetic palettes began to be used as prestige objects in Egypt as early as the predynastic Naqada II-III period (3400-3000 BC). A depression on such palettes was used to grind pigments, which were then mixed into a colored paste and applied to the body. The Narmer palette was probably never used for that purpose, but there is a circular depression on it. That depression is what makes this side the "obverse" or front of the palette; despite that fact, the most often reproduced image is that of the back.

Iconography of the Narmer Palette

Carved into the top scrolls on both sides of Narmer's palette are cows with human faces, sometimes interpreted as the goddesses Bat and Hathor. Between the two is a serekh, a rectangular box containing hieroglyphs of the main protagonist, Narmer.

The main central relief of the reverse side of the palette shows King Menes wearing the white crown and dress of Upper Egypt kings and raising his mace to smite a kneeling prisoner. A falcon representing the Egyptian sky god Horus perches on a rebus listing countries defeated by Menes and a human arm coming from the falcon holds a rope securing a prisoner's head.

The Obverse Side

On the front or obverse side, the king, wearing the red crown and costume of Lower Egypt, marches out to view the stacked and dismembered bodies of his slain enemies, preceded by the souls of the kings of Lower Egypt. To the right of his head is a catfish, the schematic representation of his name Narmer (N'mr). Below that and twining around the depression are the long necks of two mythical creatures, serpent-leopards borrowed from Mesopotamian imagery.

Some scholars such as Millet and O'Connor have argued that this scene functions as a year label—the palette represents events that happened during the Year of Smiting the North Land.

At the bottom of obverse side, the figure of a bull (probably representing the king) threatens an enemy. In Egyptian iconography, Narmer and other pharaohs often are illustrated as animals. Narmer is illustrated elsewhere as a bird of prey, a scorpion, a cobra, a lion or a catfish: His Horus name "Narmer" could be translated as "mean catfish," and his name glyph is a stylized catfish.

The Purpose of the Narmer Palette

There are several interpretations of the purpose of the palette. Many perceive it as a historical document—a bit of political braggadocio—specifically of the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt. Others feel it is a reflection of early Dynastic attitudes towards the cosmos.

Some, such as Wengrow, believe the palette illustrates a Mediterranean cattle cult dating back to the Neolithic. Given its recovery from within a temple deposit, the palette may be a dedicatory object for the temple in which it was found, and it was probably used in rituals that took place in the temple and celebrated the king.

Whatever else the Narmer palette might be, the iconography is an early and definitive manifestation of a common image among rulers: the king smiting his enemies. That motif remained an important symbol throughout the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms and into Roman times, and arguably is a worldwide symbol of rulers.

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