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The Narmer Palette, also known as the Great Hierakonpolis Palette or the Palette of Narmer, is a significant Egyptianmarker archeological find, dating from about the 31st century BC, containing some of the earliest hieroglyph inscriptions ever found. It is thought by some to depict the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under the king Narmer. On one side the king is depicted with the White crown of Upper (southern) Egypt and the other side depicts the king wearing the Red Crown of Lower (northern) Egypt. Along with the Scorpion Macehead and the Narmer Maceheads, also found together in the "Main Deposit" at Hierakonpolismarker, the Narmer palette provides one of the earliest known depictions of an Egyptian king, who is shown using many of the classic conventions of Egyptian art that must already have been formalized by the time of the palette's creation.Wilkinson, Toby A.H. Early Dynastic Egypt. p.6 Routledge, London. 1999. ISBN 0-203-20421-2 The Egyptologist Bob Brier has referred to the Narmer Palette as "the first historical document in the world".

The palette, which has survived five millennia in almost perfect condition, was discovered by Britishmarker archeologists James E. Quibell and Frederick W. Green in what they called the main deposit in the temple of Horus at Hierakonpolis during the dig season of 1897–1898. Also found at this dig were the Narmer Macehead and the Scorpion Macehead. The exact place and circumstances of these finds were not recorded very clearly by Quibell and Green. In fact, Green's report placed the palette in a different layer one or two yards away from the deposit, which is considered to be more accurate on the basis of the original excavation notes. It has been suggested that these objects were royal donations made to the temple. Hierakonpolis was the ancient capital of Upper Egypt during the pre-dynastic Naqada III phase of Egyptian history.

Palettes were typically used for grinding cosmetics, but this palette is too large and heavy (and elaborate) to have been created for personal use, and was likely a ritual or votive object, specifically made for donation to, or use in, a temple. One theory put forward was that it was used to grind cosmetics to adorn the statues of the gods.

The Narmer Palette is part of the permanent collection of the Egyptian Museummarker in Cairomarker.


It is a large (63 cm), shield-shaped, ceremonial palette, carved from a single piece of flat, soft 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 pre-dynastic times at Wadi Hammamat. This material was used extensively during the pre-dynastic period for creating such palettes, and also was used as a source for Old Kingdom statuary. A statue of the 2nd dynasty pharaoh Khasekhemwy, found in the same complex as the Narmer Palette at Hierakonopolis, also was made of this material.

Both sides of the palette are decorated, carved in raised relief. At the top of both sides of the palette are the central serekhs bearing the rebus symbols n'r (catfish) and mr (chisel) inside, being the phonetic representation of Narmer's name. The serekh on each side are flanked by a pair of bovine heads with highly curved horns, thought to represent the cow goddess Bat, who was the patron deity of the seventh nome of Upper Egypt, and was also the deification of the cosmos and the Milky Way within Egyptian mythology during the pre-dynastic and Old Kingdom periods of Ancient Egyptian history.

Obverse side

Obverse of a Narmer Palette facsimile
Below the bovine heads thought to represent the cow goddess Bat, who was the patron deity of the seventh nome of Upper Egypt, flanking the serekh of Narmer.Shaw, Ian. Ancient Egypt: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. p.126 2004. ISBN 0-19-285419-4 Below that is what appears to be a procession, with Narmer depicted at almost the full height of the register (a traditional artistic representation emphasizing his importance) shown wearing the Red Crown of Lower Egypt whose symbol was the papyrus. He holds a mace and a flail, two traditional symbols of kingship. To his right are the hieroglyphic symbols for his name, though not contained within a serekh. Behind him is his sandal bearer, whose name may be represented by the rosette appearing adjacent to his head, and a second rectangular symbol that has no clear interpretation but which has been suggested may represent a town or citadel. Immediately in front of the pharaoh is a long-haired man, accompanied by a pair of hieroglyphs that have been interpreted as his name: Tshet (this assumes that these symbols had the same phonetic value used in later hieroglyphic writing). Before this man are four standard bearers, holding aloft an animal skin, a dog, and two falcons. At the far-right of this scene are ten decapitated corpses, possibly the victims of Narmer's conquest. Above them are the symbols for a ship, a falcon, and a harpoon, which has been interpreted as representing the names of the towns that were conquered.

Below the procession, two men are holding ropes tied to the outstretched, intertwining necks of two serpopards confronting each other, mythical felines with bodies of leopards—or more likely lionesses, given that there are no spots indicated—and snakelike necks. The circle formed by their exaggeratedly curving necks is the central part of the palette, which is where the cosmetics would be ground. These animals have been considered an additional symbol for the unification of Egypt, but it is a unique image in Egyptian art and there is nothing to suggest that either animal represents an identifiable part of Egypt, although each had lioness war goddesses as protectors and the intertwined necks may represent the unification of the state. Similar images of such mythical animals are known from other contemporaneous cultures, and there are other examples of late-predynastic objects (including other palettes and knife handles) which borrow similar elements from Mesopotamian iconography.Wilkinson, Toby A.H. Early Dynastic Egypt. p.6 Routledge, London. 1999. ISBN 0-203-20421-2

At the bottom of the palette a bovine image is seen knocking down the walls of a city while trampling on a fallen foe. Because of the lowered head in the image, this is interpreted as a presentation of the king vanquishing his foes, "Bull of his Mother" being a common epithet given to Egyptian kings as the son of the patron cow goddess. This posture of a bovine has the meaning of "force" in later hieroglyphics.

Reverse side

Reverse of a Narmer Palette facsimile
Repeating the format from the other side, two human-faced bovine heads, thought to represent the patron cow goddess Bat, flank the serekhs, uncharacteristically shown in full frontal view. This frontal display of the cows is atypical in ancient Egyptian art except for representations of this goddess and Hathor (who often appears in this view also). Some authors suggest that the images represent the vigor of the king as pair of bulls.

A large picture in the center of the palette depicts Narmer wearing the White Crown of Upper Egypt whose symbol was the flowering lotus, and wielding a mace. To his left is a man bearing the king's sandals, again flanked by a rosette symbol. To the right of the king is a kneeling prisoner, who is about to be struck by the king. A pair of symbols appear next to his head, perhaps indicating his name, or indicating the region where he was from. Above the prisoner is a falcon, representing Horus, perched above a set of papyrus flowers, the symbol of Lower Egypt. In his talons he holds a rope-like object which appears to be attached to the nose of a man's head that also emerges from the papyrus flowers, perhaps indicating that he is drawing life from the head. The papyrus has often been interpreted as referring to the marshes of the Nile Delta region in Lower Egypt, or that the battle happened in a marshy area, or even that each papyrus flower represents the number 1,000, indicating that 6,000 enemies were subdued in the battle.

Below the king's feet is a third section, depicting two naked, bearded men. They are either running, or are meant to be seen as sprawling dead upon the ground. Appearing to the left of the head of each man is a hieroglyphic sign, the first a walled town, the second a type of knot, likely indicating the name of a defeated town.

Scholarly debate on the palette

The palette has raised considerable scholarly debate over the years. In general the arguments fall into one of two camps: scholars who believe that the palette is a record of actual events, and other academics who argue that it is an object designed to establish the mythology of united rule over Upper and Lower Egypt by the king.It had been thought that the palette either depicted the unification of Lower Egypt by the king of Upper Egypt, or recorded a recent military success over the Libyans,Shaw, Ian and Nicholson, Paul. The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. p.197 Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1995. ISBN 0-8109-9096-2 or the last stronghold of a Lower Egyptian dynasty based in Butomarker.Wilkinson, Toby A.H. Early Dynastic Egypt. p.40 Routledge, London. 1999. ISBN 0-203-20421-2. More recently scholars such as Nicholas Millet have argued that the palette does not represent a historical event (such as the unification of Egypt), but instead represents the events of the year in which the object was dedicated to the temple. Whitney Davis has suggested that the iconography on this and other pre-dynastic palettes has more to do with establishing the king as a visual metaphor of the conquering hunter, caught in the moment of delivering a mortal blow to his enemies. John Baines has suggested that the events portrayed are "tokens of royal achievement" from the past, and that "the chief purpose of the piece is not to record an event but to assert that the king dominates the ordered world in the name of the gods and has defeated internal, and especially external, forces of disorder.

Palette location-Egyptian Museum, Cairo

The Narmer Palette resides in the Egyptian Museummarker in Cairomarker, and is one of the initial exhibits that visitors see when entering the museum. It has the Journal d'Entree number JE32169 and the Catalogue Génèral number CG14716.

See also


  • Brier, Bob., The First Nation in History. History of Ancient Egypt (Audio). The Teaching Company. 2001.
  • Kinnaer, Jacques. What is Really Known About the Narmer Palette?, KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt, Spring 2004.
  1. Brier, Bob. Daily Life of the Ancient Egyptians, A. Hoyt Hobbs 1999, p.202
  2. The Ancient Egypt Site - The Narmer Palette, accessed September 19, 2007
  3. Shaw, Ian. Exploring Ancient Egypt. p.33 Oxford University Press, 2003.
  4. Bard, Kathryn A. The Emergence of the Egyptian State, in The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Ed. Ian Shaw, p.61. Oxford University Press, 2000
  5. Shaw, Ian. Ancient Egypt: A Very Short Introduction. p.4. Oxford Press, 2004.
  6. Shaw, Ian. Ancient Egypt: A Very Short Introduction. pp44-45. Oxford University Press, 2004.
  7. Shaw, Ian. Ancient Egypt: A Very Short Introduction. p44. Oxford University Press, 2004.
  8. Wengrow, David, The Archaeology of Ancient Egypt Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0521835862 p.207 [1]
  9. Wilkinson, Richard H. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, p.172 Thames & Hudson. 2003. ISBN 0-500-05120-8
  10. Janson, Horst Woldemar; Anthony F. Janson History of Art: A Survey of the Major Visual Arts from the Dawn of History to the Present Day Prentice Hall 1986 ISBN 9780133893212 p.56
  11. Breasted, , James Henry. Ancient Records of Egypt, Chicago 1906, part Two, §§ 143, 659, 853; part Three §§ 117, 144, 147, 285 etc
  12. Shaw, Ian. & Nicholson, Paul. The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, pp196-197. The British Museum Press, 1995.
  13. Baines, John "Communication and display: the integration of early Egyptian art and writing" Antiquity Vol 63:240, 1989 pp 471-482

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