In Predynastic cultures, maces were a popular type of weapon; later they were a symbol of authority. As the preserved examples show, the shafts were made variously of horn, bone, ivory, and wood. Two types of heads were known: the conical, probably originating in the Khartoum Neolithic and soon characteristic for Naqada I; and the pear-shaped, originating from southwestern Asia and characteristic for Naqada II. During Naqada III, the pear-shaped type became a symbol of power held by local chiefs and early rulers. Toward the end of the Predynastic period, ceremonial mace heads were decorated with elaborate scenes. Five specimens were preserved in the Main Deposit of the Hierakonpolis temple: four large ones of limestone (20–30 centimeters/10–15 inches in height and diameter), and a small one of ivory. In addition, numerous examples (often huge) of undecorated conical and pear-shaped mace heads have been found there, which may have been given as votive offerings to the god Horus or put on display in the courtyard as a symbol of the donor's power.

The partially preserved King “Scorpion” mace head is probably the oldest. In its upper register are five standards (the ḫʒst, sign of foreign countries; Seth's animal, Min's emblem, Seth's animal again, and the jackal of Wepwawet), and under each is a suspended lapwing (rḫyt, symbol of Lower Egypt). On a separate fragment appear three standards, one with a falcon on a half-moon, with suspended bows (a symbol of Nubia). In the center register is the king, wearing the White Crown and a tunic with a bull's tail, holding a hoe. Before his face are a rosette and a scorpion. In front of the ruler is a man with a basket; behind him is the fragment of a figure holding a plant, and above him, two standard-bearers. Behind the pharaoh are two fan-bearers. Farther on, the scene is divided into three registers; the figures are turned to the left. In the upper register appear two clumps of plants, a man with a staff, and figures in palanquins; in the second, three clumps of plants and four women dancing were above boats and the remains of a heb-sed kiosk. The lowest register is separated by a band depicting water, and a similar one divides the frieze into two: on the left appear fragments of a pr-nw shrine and a man; on the right are two men and behind them are a palm inside a fence and part of a boat. This mace head has aroused considerable controversy. It has been speculated that the ruler is depicted during work involving irrigation and the opening of a canal, or at the foundation of a temple in Hierakonpolis or Buto, or at the foundation of Memphis, or during the ritual tilling of the fields. The whole has been read variously as a reference to taking possession of Lower Egypt, to the conquest of Nubia, or to domination by the ruler and the celebration of his sed-festival (the heb-sed).

On the Narmer mace head, the bearded pharaoh, wearing the Red Crown and a cloak (and holding nhʒhʒ) is

Ceremonial Mace Heads

Ceremonial Mace Heads. Reconstruction of the King “Scorpion” mace head. (Courtesy Krzystof M. Cialowicz)

sitting in a kiosk set on a dais composed of nine steps. Above him is a predatory bird with outspread wings, and below the throne are fan-bearers. Royal officials in two lower registers (priest/vizier/scribe; sandal-bearer), identical to those on the Narmer Palette, are followed by servants who may be carrying a palanquin. Before the pharaoh are three registers. In the upper are two horned animals in a frame and four standard-bearers. The center register is opened by a figure in a palanquin, followed by three men between signs made of three vertical half-moons, known from scenes depicting the heb-sed race. Below and behind is a large hieroglyph of a captive, with numerals for 120,000. The third register depicts a bull and a goat, with the numbers 400,000 and 1,422,000. The rest of the representation is separated off by vertical lines. In the upper part is a sanctuary, or pr-nw shrine, with a long-legged bird on the roof and a low fence with a forked rod and a vessel on a stand inside. Below, in an obvious depression, are three dead horned animals. The figures have been variously interpreted. The bird above the ruler has been seen as the Horus falcon, or the Nekhbet vulture. The animals in the frame may be a cow and a calf, a pair familiar from later funerary rituals, or the oldest known depiction of Apis. The figure in the palanquin has been identified variously as the Lower Egyptian princess Neithhotep, a partner for the holy wedding, the chief of the defeated people, the oldest representation of rpw.t, or the figure of a god. The men may be dancing slaves, participants in a ritual race, or prisoners brought to the ruler by the person in the palanquin. The bird on the roof of the shrine has been said to be an ibis, and the sanctuary to be one devoted to Thoth; or a heron, and the location Buto. The scenes as a whole were generally associated with the heb-sed, sometimes with the ritual “Appearance of the King of Lower Egypt,” or with the subjugation of hostile areas of the Nile Delta.

The King's mace head has a badly damaged relief; the pharaoh, wearing a robe and the Red Crown, is sitting in a kiosk. Before him, a falcon is held in a human hand, as on the Narmer Palette, a rope leading to the fragmentary figure of a prisoner. Some have argued that this artifact is connected with those discussed above, and that all come from the Narmer period; others, though without foundation, have reconstructed the illegible signs in front of the ruler's face as the rosette and scorpion and postulate that it belongs to a ruler of that name.

The Bearer mace head contains two partially preserved friezes with the fragments of three figures. The first, in the upper register, wears a short kilt and carries an animal skin. The next two persons have garments reaching to mid-calf. In the lower frieze can be seen men with pigtails, wearing short kilts and holding vessels and a skin.

The last example is a fragment of an ivory mace head. It is decorated with three bands showing bearded slaves, bound by the neck, with their arms tied behind their backs.

The subject matter of ceremonial mace heads is concerned with triumph and the heb-sed rite. On the King “Scorpion” and King's mace heads, both kinds of scenes occur. Other artifacts are monothematic: on the Narmer mace head the heb-sed is dominant, and on the ivory head there is only a triumph. The large stone heads may have been put on display on high poles in the temple courtyard in Hierakonpolis (according to representations); therefore, the themes used to decorate them may have emphasized the power of the ruler and its perseverance, constantly reinforced during the heb-sed.

Most symbols known from the mace heads (throne, cloak, standards, boats, prisoners, dancing women) also occur on the oldest preserved scenes—the Turin linen and Hierakonpolis painting. Others (pr-nw shrine, falcon with human arm leading prisoner) appear on slightly earlier or contemporary objects (palettes, knife-handles, or burners), which proves the early introduction of important symbols known in pharaonic art.


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Krzysztof M. Ciałowicz