The Narmer Palette

This significant palette commemorates the victories of King Narmer, who came from the south of Egypt to invade the Delta in about 3200-3000 BC. The palette was found along with the Narmer Macehead, another artifact which shows the completion of the conquest of the Lower Kingdom.

It represents the most important evidence that the first political unification in the history of mankind occurred in Egypt. The two faces of the artifact are topped by the name of Narmer inscribed inside the Serekh, or rectangular frame.

The Narmer Palette. Egyptian Museum, Cairo. JE 32169
The Narmer Palette (recto)

The scene on the front shows the king, followed by his sandals bearer and wearing the white Hedjet crown of Upper Egypt, smiting a helpless foe from the North. The falcon Horus of Upper Egypt stands upon a bunch of papyrus plants holding a northern prisoner.

Ceremonial Palette

The Narmer Palette is a 63-centimetre-tall (2.07 ft), shield-shaped, ceremonial palette, carved from a single piece of flat, soft dark gray-green siltstone. The stone has often been wrongly identified, in the past, as being slate or schist.

Slate is layered and prone to flaking, and schist is a metamorphic rock containing large, randomly distributed mineral grains. Both are unlike the finely grained, hard, flake-resistant siltstone, whose source is from a well-attested quarry that has been used since Predynastic Period of Egypt at Wadi Hammamat.

In hieroglyphic signs, the chisel reads “mr” and the catfish reads “naar.” The Serekh is flanked by two female heads having the ears and horns of a cow, which could be the first representation of the goddess Hathor.

The Narmer Palette. Egyptian Museum, Cairo. JE 32169
The Narmer Palette (verso)

The lower register, or scene, depicts two other northern enemies running away from the king. Inscribed upon their heads are hieroglyphic signs indicating their names or those of their localities.

In the middle section, there are two men holding two felines with extremely long necks representing the people of the North and South under the control of the king and his men. The lower section shows a bull, representing the king attacking the walls of a northern city.

The upper section of the back side shows the king wearing the Red Deshret Crown of Lower Egypt, followed by his sandals bearer and preceded by his vizier and four standard bearers. Next comes a scene depicting the corpses of 10 beheaded men.

Detail (verso)
Detail (verso)

The Significance of the Narmer Palette

The Narmer Palette was discovered at the Hierakonpolis excavation site in 1897-98 by British archaeologist, James Edward Quibell, along with Frederick W. Green. It was discovered at the Temple of Horus in the ancient capital of the Upper Kingdom of Egypt, Nekhen or Hierakonpolis.

Some Egyptologists hold that Menes and Narmer are in fact the same person; some hold that Menes is the same person with Horus Akha (aka. Hor-Aha) and he inherited an already-unified Egypt from Narmer; others hold that Narmer began the process of unification but either did not succeed or succeeded only partially, leaving it to Menes to complete.

Another equally plausible theory is that Narmer was an immediate successor to the king who did manage to unify Egypt (perhaps the King Scorpion whose name was found on a macehead also discovered in Hierakonpolis), and adopted symbols of unification that had already been in use perhaps for a generation.

Detail of the Palette (recto)
Detail of the Palette (recto)

The palette also showcases the development of hieroglyphic writing and the use of artistic conventions that would become characteristic of Egyptian art. It provides valuable insights into the symbolism, iconography, and religious beliefs of the time.

The Narmer Palette is considered one of the earliest examples of historical documentation in ancient Egypt. It offers a glimpse into the political and social structures of the time, as well as the role of the king as a central figure in Egyptian society.

It should be noted that while there is extensive physical evidence of there being a king named Narmer, so far there is no evidence other than Manetho’s list and from legend for a king called Menes. The King Lists recently found in Den‘s and Qa’a’s tombs both list Narmer as the founder of their dynasty.

Late Predynastic – Early Dynastic, around 3000 BC. Now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. JE 32169

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