The Naqada III phase, also known as Dynasty 0, was a time when the process of state formation became highly notable in Egypt. This process presumably began as early as Naqada I and proceeded into Naqada III where named kings ruled powerful polities, though they were not part of any dynasty. During the Predynastic Period, ancient Egypt underwent a constant process of political unification that culminated in the establishment of a single monarch by the start of the First Dynasty.
Among the many rulers of the Predynastic, King Narmer was the most prominent one because Egyptians of the First Dynasty considered him as a “founder-figure ? (Wilkinson 23). It is also during the Predynastic Era that Egyptian language was written in the form of hieroglyphs. The Narmer Palette is one of many artifacts dating to Naqada III that is highly rich in hieroglyphic depictions, as well as iconographic representations. Until today, the Narmer Palette is the most important document pertaining to the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt and an icon representing ancient Egypt as a nation.Order now
The Narmer Palette dates to Naqada III, which is roughly around 3,000 B. C. The Palette was unearthed in the “main deposit ? in a temple enclosure at Hierakonpolis, the Predynastic capital of Upper Egypt (southern Egypt). Hierakonpolis was also recognized as the center of worship for the god Horus. The Palette is about 64 centimeters in height and it is carved out of dark green-colored schist in raised relief. It has the shape of a shield and is decorated on both the front and back. There are numerous decorations on both sides that consist of animals, people (both dead and alive), weaponry and different types of hieroglyphs.
Each side is also divided into three horizontal zones with the use of thick and thin register lines. These register lines help organize it’s complex nature and according to Davis, the images are to be “read ? in a specific way. This indicates that the Palette itself serves as a “complex narrative representation ? (20). At first glance, the viewer is able to see all the fine details within the artwork and such precision exudes the amount of skill and time that is needed in making this type of object.
When an art form requires a great level of skill and time, it is usually made for ritualistic purposes, not for mundane use. Therefore, it is possible that the Palette had a “ceremonial ? or “liturgical ? nature (Davis 18). The shape, size, amount of decorations and the fact that it has been well preserved for nearly five millennia suggests that the Palette was “set up for display in a residence, temple, or public place, or stored and used on special ritual occasions ? (18). The Narmer Palette consists of different animalistic iconography on both surfaces.
The top edges of both the front and back are decorated with two forward bovid heads each. These heads have human faces, with each face showing a different expression of the mouth and eyes than the one preceding it and they also differ in the way they fill their bounded space. (Fairservise Jr. 7). For example, the bovid on the top left of the right side palette is slightly bigger than the one on the right side. The massive size and curves of the horns suggest that these animals could be buffalos (7).
They are sometimes recognized as “Hathor, which is the divine mother of the Egyptian Pharaoh, or as the cow-goddess Bat ? (Davis 30). It is possible that these bovids are more likely representing Narmer and stressing his power and strength (Fairservise Jr. 7). Between the two bovids on both palette sides is a figure that is referred to as a serekh. A serekh is an iconographic element typical of the Archaic Period that was used to represent the Horus names of leaders/kings. The serekh on the Narmer Palette looks like a niched palace faA§ade (5).
Within the serekh are two hieroglyphs, the “nar-fish and mer-chisel?, which stand for Narmer’s name. The top edges of both sides are separated from the rest of the zones on the Palette by thin horizontal register lines (Davis 31). The middle zone on the left obverse shows two “serpopards. ? These creatures are mythological because they are a mix between a leopard’s body and a serpent’s neck. They are shown with their serpent necks intertwined in a way where they form a concave circular area known as a “cosmetic saucer ? (Davis 41).
On cosmetic palettes this circular region was where the cosmetics were put for use (Ancient-Egypt). Two men, who are thought to be the king’s followers, are shown tightening a loop around the serpopards’ necks very easily. This tying together of the necks and the taming of these wild creatures has often been translated as the representation for unifying Upper and Lower Egypt under Narmer’s rule (Ancient-Egypt). However, Wilkinson describes the intertwined “serpopards ? as symbolizing the opposing forces in nature that the king had to keep in check (28).
The last section of the Palette shows what looks like a bull possibly breaking into a fortified city. The bull here is represented more physically in comparison to the bovid at the top edges of the Palette. The fact that its head is pointing down shows that it is a powerful charging bull (Fairservise Jr. 17). The animal is shown trampling on a naked, longhaired person, perhaps an enemy who is trying to escape. Fairservise points out that the way the man’s arms and legs are positioned exposes a sense of weakness and maybe even death (17).
It is evident that Narmer is not depicted in this zone in human form, however he is embodied as a dominant fighting bull pursuing and conquering his enemy (Davis 33). The broken fragments to the right of the longhaired person represent the destroyed citadel or maybe even some sort of particular shrine for which the bull, or Narmer, is held accountable (Fairservise Jr. 17). Another animal one can notice on the right side of the Narmer Palette is the falcon or hawk. It is clear that the bird is lifting a head, which most probably is the head of one of Narmer’s enemies.
Fairservise interprets this icon in greater detail by saying that the falcons represented on palettes found in Hierakonpolis represent the relationship between the cult god Horus and the king (10). The symbol of this falcon on the Narmer Palette therefore depicts the concept of Narmer being the living form of the god Horus. The falcon stands atop six papyrus plants, which indicates that it might be in a marshy land referencing the type of land in the Nile Delta (Ancient-Egypt).
However, there have been different interpretations suggesting that the “papyrus plant represents the number 1000 and that the falcon-king subdued 6000 enemies ? (Ancient-Egypt). The hawk is also represented having a human arm. This reinforces the idea that a hawk has the “ability to seize, combined with the ruler’s identical ability to do so ? (Fairservise Jr. 10). Therefore, the human arm on the hawk combined with the rope attached to the human’s nostrils represents the act of seizing not only a person but also a particular region.
A viewer of the Narmer Palette can’t help but notice the large motif that occupies the middle zone on the Palette’s right side. Here, the human form of Narmer is represented at a much greater scale relative to the surrounding images because “the idea of demonstrating dominance by comparative size is often a characteristic of royal superiority in Dynastic Egypt ? (Fairservise Jr. 9). One of the many notable articles of clothing is Narmer’s headdress. He is wearing the White Crown of Upper Egypt, which was worn by all other rulers of that region.
He is holding a mace in one hand and preparing to strike the enemy that he’s holding with his other hand. This is a depiction of Narmer as “determinative ? because he is planning to smite his opponent who is labeled “Harpoon ? (Fairservise Jr. 9). Beneath Narmer’s feet in the very last zone of the right side of the Palette, there are two naked figures that are looking over their shoulders and fleeing from the ruler. Fairservise says that these two figures appear to be “swimming ? and the “swimming ? posture is indicative of people running away from Narmer (11).
The king is also wearing an artificial beard similar to the ones that other figures in the Palette are wearing, and according to Fairservise, artificially bearded individuals are considered “chiefs, ? with Narmer being superior to them (9). When studying his facial features, it is obvious that Narmer’s eyes are very wide; his ears are circular and protruding forward, and his face structure overall is short and square relative to his body size. Narmer wears a plain shoulder piece that is attached to a skirt using a thick clasp suggesting that the skirt is made of a heavy type of fabric (possible leather) (9).
The belt on the skirt has four bull-headed pendants and this is symbolically significant because it is an archetype for later sacred Pharaohnic clothing (Fairservise Jr. 10). Accompanying Narmer is a man who is carrying the king’s sandals on his left wrist. Wilkinson says, ” It is likely that the highest offices of state were reserved for members of the royal family in the Early Dynastic Period ? (30). This statement accounts for the official who is preceding Narmer because it was possible that this bald man was recognized as the king’s oldest son (30).
Other interpretations suggest that the man behind Narmer is a seal bearer as indicated by the rosette symbol (a royal emblem) and the club (Ancient Egypt Online). Narmer is represented in human form on the Palette’s left obverse side in the second zone as well, however his image size is comparatively small than the human form on the right side. In contrast to the obverse side, here he wears the Red Crown of Lower Egypt. He holds a whip in his right hand and a mace in his left (Fairservise Jr. 13). Narmer wears similar clothing as he did on the recto side of the Palette.
The belt is similar to the previously described one but Faiservise says that the skirt is decorated a little differently and that there is no symbolic significance; the purpose of the different decorations is meant to “contrast the two robes of Narmer ”one as an expression of power, the other, of affluence ? (10). This interpretation can be suggestive of the fact that Narmer has already conquered the region of Lower Egypt, hence why he is wearing the Red Crown; therefore, he does not need to show that he has power because that is already evident. Rather he is more interested in showing the wealth that his victory brings to him.
Behind him is the bald man again holding Narmer’s shoes with the same rosette symbol depicted on top of him. In front of Narmer is what appears to be a woman holding two papyrus plants that are bending downwards. Her long hair and bare-shouldered dress indicate that she indeed is a woman. The fact that she holds an active stance in front of Narmer suggests that she is of royalty, perhap’s Narmer’s queen (Fairservise Jr. 14). The four standing different figures in front of the king and woman are thought to be the various types of supporters of Narmer.
There is a sparrow and a door see on the upper right corner and these two symbols together are thought to mean, “found ? (Ancient-Egypt). The single boat seen next to the sparrow could represent one of the warships used during battle (15). Below the boat are ten dead bodies with each of the decapitated heads in-between the legs of the body that they belonged to. The bodies are also tied up around the elbows. The decapitated heads show that these men were wearing the artificial beards that were mentioned earlier. This indicates that these ten people were possibly former chiefs of Lower Egypt who were all defeated by Narmer (16).
The lining-up of these ten executed bodies suggests that this might have been a way that Narmer’s administration performed a headcount of all the people that were killed during battle (Lecture 1/23/14). This entire scene perhaps depicts the founding of a new province in Lower Egypt, whose name is represented by the falcon and harpoon atop the single boat (Ancient Egypt). The Palette’s use of such sophisticated iconic representation suggests that Predynastic Egypt had already developed its hieroglyphic system, as well as its stone-carving mechanisms in an outstanding way prior to King Narmer’s rule.
As Fairservise says, “the palette is a testament to the level of sophistication of both the Archaic iconography and hieroglyphic writing in general ? (20). It reveals the high artistic and symbolic level achieved throughout the Archaic Period. Today, the Palette rests in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Egypt, Cairo. Though the art piece is taken out of its context, the Narmer Palette still offers its viewer a full illustrative textualization of a story pertaining to one of the most influential and well-known victories of not only the Predynastic Era but also the Archaic Period.
Whitney Davis. “Narrativity and the Narmer Palette. Narrative and Event in Ancient Art. Ed. Peter J. Holliday. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. 14-54. Print.
W. A. Fairservis Jr. “A Revised View of the NaÊ¿rmr Palette. Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt Vol. 28. (1991): pp. 1-20. JSTOR. Web. 28 Jan 2014.
Toby A. H. Wilkinson. “What a King Is This: Narmer and the Concept of the Ruler. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology Vol. 86. (2000): pp. 23-32. JSTOR. Web. 28 Jan 2014.
The Narmer Palette. The Ancient Egypt Site. 8 June, 2013. Web. 27 Jan 2014.
Ancient Egypt: Early Dynastic Period-Narmer Palette. Ancient Egypt Online. 2010. Web. 27 Jan 2014. http://ancientegyptonline.co.uk/Narmerpalette.html