The Narmer Palette: Early Period Ancient Egypt

Close-Up of Narmer Pallette Facsimile in the Royal Ontario Museum
In Lower Egypt Regalia, Narmer Marches Out to See his Slain Enemies (close up 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]. The carvings depict events in the life of King Narmer, also known as Menes, the founding ruler of dynastic Egypt. It was discovered by British archaeologist J.E. Quibell during the 1897/1898 field season at Narmer's capital city of Hierakonpolis.

The Narmer Palette is 64 centimeters (25 inches) long, and it is in the shape of a cosmetic palette, a domestic object typically much smaller and plainer. Working cosmetic palettes were made by Egyptians for at least a thousand years before the date of the Narmer palette. 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 them are ceremonial replicas of long-used domesticated 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; 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 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--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. 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.

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.

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 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 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 holds a rope securing a prisoner's head with a human arm.

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. Below that and carved around the grinding depression are twined the long necks of two mythical creatures, serpent-leopards borrowed from Mesopotamian imagery.

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 even a fish: his Horus name "Narmer" could be translated as "mean catfish".

What Was the Narmer Palette For?

There are several interpretations of the purpose of the palette.

Many perceive it as a historical document--a bit of political braggadacio--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 Wengrove, believe the palette illustrates a Mediterranean cattle cult dating back to the Neolithic. Whatever else it 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.

The Narmer palette may not be a representation of the unification battle of 5,000 years ago but its extensive decorations will continue to intrigue historians and archaeologists for years to come.

Sources

Baines J. 1989. Communication and display: the integration of early Egyptian art and writing. Antiquity 63(240):471-482.

Millet NB. 1990. The Narmer Macehead and Related Objects. Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 27:53-59.

Wengrove D. 2001. Rethinking "cattle cults" in early Egypt: towards a prehistoric perspective on the Narmer Palette. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 11(1):91-104.

Wilkinson TAH. 1995. A New King in the Western Desert. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 81:205-210.

Wilkinson TAH. 2000. What a King Is This: Narmer and the Concept of the Ruler. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 86:23-32.

Williams B, Logan TJ, and Murnane WJ. 1987. The Metropolitan Museum Knife Handle and Aspects of Pharaonic Imagery before Narmer. Journal of Near Eastern Studies 46(4):245-285.

Yadin Y. 1955. The Earliest Record of Egypt's Military Penetration into Asia? Some Aspects of the Narmer Palette, the 'Desert Kites' and Mesopotamian Seal Cylinders. Israel Exploration Journal 5(1):1-16.