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Essay on Egyptian Origins.
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The Palette of Narmer

Cairo Museum Caire Museum

The magnificent “Palette of Narmer” is one of the most important artifacts ever found bearing on the unification of the early Egyptian state. The palette is made of greenish slate and is about 26 inches high.It portrays the culture hero Narmer, almost certainly a real person, in the act of subduing his enemies.

On one side he is wearing the crown of Upper Egypt, on the other the crown of Lower Egypt. It is the earliest surviving artifact to show a Pharaoh wearing the crowns of both Upper and Lower Egypt.

Most people interpret the palette as portraying the act of unification itself, although modern specialists are inclined to doubt that this was accomplished in any single battle, so that current opinion tends to see the palette as mythologizing the unification process a bit.


The quick story of this is that Narmer, the king (whatever that means) of Upper Egypt, shown on the reverse of the palette (at left here) wielding a mace, captures and destroys a nameless king of Lower Egypt, the one whose head is about he is shown about to smash. On the obverse (at right here) Narmer is shown again, in procession, with the headless bodies of his Lower Egyptian opponants laid out before him.

But who is Narmer? How do we know he is the figure shown by the palette? Why a palette? What are all those things being carried around on posts? Which side of the palette does the story actually start on?

The details are provided below.


Ashmolean Museum

Palettes were used to grind minerals for use as pigments, much as Chinese artists to the present day grind ink on small palettes as they paint traditional watercolors. In the simplest form, most Egyptian palettes were simply pieces of stone (normally, I believe, slate), sanded smooth at the sides, and sometimes worked into nice shapes, like the ones shown at right from the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford.

However among the earliest palettes that are preserved, a few are in fact quite elaborately carved (or more exactly abraded and polished, since they are made of slate and are difficult to carve). Although the meanings of the motifs and the occasions for their use are unknown, it is unlikely that they are just rich people's versions of humble, more work-a-day palettes, since they would, in fact, be rather clumsy to use merely to grind pigments. The beautiful palette the two sides of which are shown here (now in the Louvre) is an example of such a work. Who are all those dogs? What are the other animals? Why would this have been made, anyway?

Louvre Museum Louvre Museum

So far fragments of at least twelve similarly "over-elaborate" palettes are known from early Egypt, mostly too fragmentary for us to know what they portrayed. We must suppose that they may have been used in a very limited way for military, political, or religious ritual. If it was ritual grinding, we might imagine preparing cosmetics for a temple statue, for example.

But most specialists assume that such a palette was probably a ceremonial object in that shape, never put to use for grinding at all, much as our academic processions are sometimes headed by a university officer carrying a mace, which looks impressive and in theory symbolizes authority, but is never actually used to crack any heads.

(UCSD possesses a fine mace, certainly heavy enough to shatter even the hardest head, that is used in graduation processions. But most graduating students have their mind on other matters and are probably unaware that the object they march behind symbolizes head cracking.)

Some specialists have proposed that the palettes were “votive,” that is, made to serve as offerings, perhaps to be included in foundation deposits of buildings, but they have not been found in original contexts, so there is no way to confirm this.

On the Palette of Narmer, the side containing the grinding surface (and hence designated as the "obverse") confines the grinding surface inside a circle between the intertwined necks of two captive fabulous beasts, sometimes interpreted as “lions.”

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The Obverse Face

Rectangular panel between the human-faced cows (heads of the goddess Hathor?) or bulls (showing the bullish strength of Narmer?) represents the name Narmer in hieroglyphics, placed in a serekh or palace-shaped name frame.
Upper Register.
A barefoot Narmer wearing crown of Lower Egypt and holding a battle mace in his left hand and a ceremonial fly wisp (or flail?) in his right, inspects 2 rows of decapitated enemies with “Semitic” (= northern) hairstyle on the heads between their legs.
Over them is a “foreign” boat with four signs (door + sparrow = “to found’; harpoon + falcon = place glyph? –in later times “Harpoon Falcon” named the Mareotis region of the Delta).
He is preceded by a scribe and four flag bearers each with a nome standard (left to right: animal skin, dog, and two falcons, presumably representing allied or pacified regions). Some argue that he is on his way to witness the execution that is shown at right. Narmer’s name in hieroglyphics floats before his eyes.
His sandal bearer follows him, an unidentified word just before his forehead. The term floating before the scribe’s eyes would later be read chet (also found on Narmer’s mace head). One interpretation says chet is the scribe’s name, another that it means “shaman.”
Ashmolean Museum Middle Register.
Grooms tend two fabulous beasts whose intertwined necks provide the dish in which pigments could be ground. (This pretends to be a palette, after all.)
Some see the intertwined necks as representing the tying together of Lower and Upper Egypt, but similar beasts are represented on the Ashmolean Museum's roughly contemporary "Two Dog Palette" (shown at right) which does not represent battle scenes, but only animals, some hunting, to be sure, but some merely cavorting. (Indeed on the reverse side one is playing a flute while another dances.) So the political interpretation of the Narmer Palette's intertwined long-necked animals may be a bit of an over-interpretation.
Bottom Register.
Narmer as a bull destroys a town wall and tramples a similarly “Semitic” enemy. The unidentified signs within the city walls may be it’s name.

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Reverse Face

Again the king’s name between two human-faced bovines. The name serekh is different rendered on this side of the palette. Although the difference is apparently trivial and did not, as far as can be told, signal any different meaning, it is taken with other small features to indicate that the two sides of the palette were decorated at different times or by different artists.
Upper Right.
A falcon, representing the king (and the Upper Egyptian city of Nekhen) dominating plants and marshes of the human-headed Delta (Lower Egypt) and leading its inhabitants by a cord around the neck (probably not by the nose, as it appears —a small line on the original shows a full neck collar). A papyrus, somewhat differently drawn, was later used as the sign for 1,000, so this could mean 6,000 enemies.
Main Scene.
The barefoot king, wearing the crown of Upper Egypt and a skirt with an animal tail, wields a mace over the head of a “Semitic” (northern) enemy. Behind him is his shaven-headed sandal-bearer (again) under an unintelligible text.
The text behind the head of the enemy may be his name (suggesting he was a person of importance, perhaps a regional leader). The similarity in appearance of the victims in the bottom panel, the main victim here, and the personified marshland suggests they all are Delta people.
Bottom Register.
Two dead enemies associated with place glyphs (?), presumably conquered towns in the Delta


The Palette of Narmer is in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Other palettes shown here are from the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University and from the Musée du Louvre in Paris. Various text sources were consulted in preparing this page and intepreting the palettes. Of them the most important was:

KINNAER, Jacques
1999 The Narmer Palette: a closer look. The AIA Glyph [San Diego] 1(18): 8-9. (Kinnaer’s web site is: http://www.ancient-egypt.org.)

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