Narmer Palette

The Narmer Palette is one of the most famous artefacts of Ancient Egypt. It was found in the “main deposit” of the temple of Nekhen (Hierakonpolis) by Quibell and Green in the 1890s, along with (among other things) the Narmer Macehead and the Scorpion Macehead. Although the Narmer Palette dates to Early Dynastic Period (the end of Dynasty 0 or the beginning of Dynasty 1) it conforms to the artistic formality of later Ancient Egyptian art and shows that both the hieroglyphic language and symbolic art were already well developed at this early stage.

Narmer Palette
Narmer Palette

In the top register of each side of the palette Narmer’s name is inscribed within a serekh (representing the palace wall) flanked by two cows heads with the faces of human females which face forward (contrary to the usual convention of showing faces in profile in two dimensional art). This form was regularly used in depictions of the goddess Hathor (and occasionally Bat) but some have argued that the cows are actually bulls and represent the vigour of the King.

Narmer palette front

There are three scenes on the front of the palette. In the first, Narmer inspects the bodies of his slain enemies. The king wears the Red Crown of Lower Egypt and carries a mace and a flail. He is barefoot, implying that he is involved in a ritual of some kind (Clayton 1994).

The hieroglyphs which form his name are suspended as a caption in the middle of the scene rather than in a serekh. Behind him stands a seal bearer holding the Narmer’s sandals. He is identified by a rosette and a club as the servant of the king. In front of Narmer stands a man with long hair identified as “tjet”. It is possible that this is a priest, but he does not resemble the priests of later Egyptian art, so this is mere speculation. He may also be the Vizier of Narmer (the vizier was later known as “Tjety” but it is not clear whether this title existed at such an early stage).

To the right stand four standard bearers. The standards are often described as representing territories or emblems of Narmer, but may also be referencing the “Followers of Horus”, who are thought to represent the late predynastic rulers of Egypt and who symbolised kingship (Kemp 1991).

Above the dead is inscribed a ship with a harpoon and a falcon on it which could represent the region Mareotis (the seventh nome of Lower Egypt), and possibly represents the site of a battle or the origin of the fallen enemies. To the left of these glyphs are images of a section of a door and a sparrow which cannot be translated with any confidence.

The middle register depicts two men tying together the long necks of two mythological beasts. This is generally considered to symbolise the unification of the two lands, but there is no precedent for this symbol which does not appear again in Egyptian art. In fact, it has been noted that this symbol has more in common with Sumerian art than Ancient Egyptian art and it may suggest that in the early period Egyptian art borrowed from other ancient cultures before becoming formalised with its own unique symbols and emblems.

In the final register a bull, representing the king, tramples a fallen enemy and gores the walls of a city or fortress with its horns. The name of the city or fortress attacked appears as a glyph within the walls and can be read as “styw” (“Asiatics”).

The back of the palette is dominated by a raised relief which shows Narmer ready to strike down a foe whom he grabs by the hair. This “smiting” pose was very common in Ancient Egyptian art. The hieroglyphs above the victim are often translated as his name “wa shu”, but an alternative reading is “first” (or “number one”) “water” (or “lake”) in which case it may refer to the event depicted as the first battle or victory in the water. The king wears the White Crown (associated with Upper Egypt). Behind him stands a sandal bearer who is identified with a rosette (as in the scene on the front of the palette). Above the victim’s head, a falcon (symbolising the pharaoh or Horus) grips a personification of the conquered marshland with a rather uncomfortable looking hook or rope. Beneath the feet of the king lie two fallen enemies probably representing places defeated by the king. Unfortunately, we do not know what towns are referred to.

Narmer may have been the first king of Upper and Lower Egypt and it is often stated as fact that the Narmer Palette commemorates his victory and the unification of Egypt. However, we must be cautious when making assumptions that any piece of Egyptian art depicts an actual historical event, as the Ancient Egyptians themselves did not have such a rigid view of history and art. There is no firm evidence that Egypt was unified following a straightforward battle between Upper and Lower Egypt. The idea of the two lands suited the Egyptians love of balance and may have been more philosophical than real. It is quite possible that the palette depicts the ritual re-enactment of the act of unification.

Dreyer (1998) has proposed that the “smiting” scene is a replica of another found on a ivory label discovered in Abydos (Cemetery B) and that these labels represent the names of years from Narmer’s reign.

  • Clayton, Peter A (1994) Chronicle of the Pharaohs
  • GunterDreyer (1998) Umm El-Qaab I
  • Kemp, Barry J (1991) Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilisation
  • Millett, N. B. (1990) The Narmer Macehead and related objects. Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt XXVII
  • Smith, H.S. (1992) The Making of Egypt
  • Wilkinson, Toby A H (1999) Early Dynastic Egypt
  • Wilkinson, Toby A H (2000) What a King Is This: Narmer and the Concept of the Ruler from The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology
  • Wilson, Hilary (1997) People of the Pharaohs

Copyright J Hill 2016