Early ancient Egypt: The decorative palettes
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The decorative palettes of the late fourth millennium

    A few tens of palettes have been found in pre-dynastic assemblages. They are made of soft sedimentary stone which can be shaped easily. Their original purpose was probably to serve as surfaces on which substances could be ground. It is generally assumed that these were minerals used in the preparation of cosmetics.
    The more interesting examples of palettes seem to have lost this primary purpose and served commemorative or decorative functions. They were often given animal forms and decorated with animal carvings.
    The depictions of successful hunts or victories in battles on these palettes are sometimes interpreted as the fulfilment of the Egyptian wish for order, maat, but like many interpretations of ancient Egyptian behaviour this too is rather speculative.
    Many of these palettes have been found at Hierakonpolis, the political centre of Upper Egypt during the pre-dynastic period. The subsequent dynastic period witnessed the unification of the country, the shift of power downstream to Memphis and the complete disappearance of the decorative palettes from tomb assemblages.

Mudstone palette

A mudstone palette; Source: The British Museum website
This beautifully simple, heart-shaped palette is decorated with the symbol of the god Min. Of the two birds heads one is broken off. [1]. Similar birds heads appear on a number of palettes of the period [5].
From el Amra, mudstone, 29 cm by 15 cm

The Narmer palette

Narmer Palette, obverse side; Source: The Glory of Egypt by Samivel, 1955Narmer Palette, reverse side; Source: The Glory of Egypt by Samivel, 1955
This big palette has some of the earliest hieroglyphic writing, the serekh of the king's name. It is often assumed that it commemorates the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt by Narmer [2].
From Hierakonpolis, green slate, 65 cm by 40 cm

The Bull Palette

The Bull Palette; Source: The Glory of EgyptThe Bull Palette; Source: The Glory of Egypt
Another palette depicting violent conflict. The bull is assumed to represent the king. There are also the recurring motifs of bondage by rope, standards, the lion and fortifications [3][4].
Schist, 27cm tall

The Battlefield Palette

Battlefield Palette; Source: British Museum websiteBattlefield Palette; Source: British Museum website
In the tradition of the Narmer and Bull Palettes, the Battlefield Palette [10] depicts the aftermath of a battle. The dead of the enemy remain unburied, scavenged upon by birds of prey and animals. Captives were tied and led away, possibly to their death or into slavery. One of the corpses has tied arms, perhaps he was killed after being captured. (cf. the Narmer Palette [9])
From Abydos (?), mudstone, height 38 cm.

The Dogs Palette

La palette des canides; Source: Les merveilles du Louvre, Hachette Dog Palette; Source:
Apart from a number of canines, this palette depicts an ibis, two giraffes (cf. the reverse side of the Battlefield Palette), which used to be indigenous to north Africa, and, on the obverse side, a long necked chimaera, similar to the serpopards of the Narmer Palette.
From Hierakonpolis

The Hunters Palette

Hunters palette; Source: British Museum website
Hunting, both for food and for pleasure was widespread in Egypt throughout its history. Lion hunting was possibly an exclusively royal sport, its dangers more obvious to a modern city dweller than those of the pursuit of wild bulls, but even today more people get killed by grazers than by meat-eating animals. Of the animals depicted on this and other palettes, many do not survive wild in modern day Egypt. [7] [8]
Slate, 30 cm by 14 cm

--[2] The obverse side of the Narmer palette
-The reverse side of the Narmer palette
-[3] The Bull palette
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Offsite links(Opening in a new window)
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-[1] Mudstone cosmetic palette (British Museum website)
-[4] The Bull Palette
-[5] Corpus of Egyptian Late Predynastic Palettes by Francesco Raffaele
-[6] The Four Dogs Palette
-[7] The Hunters Palette
-[8] The Hunters Palette (British Museum website)
-[9] The Battlefield palette (British Museum website)
-[10] Battlefield palette
-Cosmetic palettes, University College London
-The Narmer Palette by Francesca Jourdan
-Palette in the form of a ram or ibex (Brian Yare's website)
-Palette in the form of an elephant (Brian Yare's website)

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© March 2001
March 2014
June 2002