Objects characteristic of early Nile cultures, palettes also appear in the Near East as imports or local imitations. Traces of dyes indicate that they were used to grind and mix mineral pigments. Ocher, malachite, galena, pyrolusite, and hematite were ground and then mixed with resins, oils, and fats. The mixtures were used as body paints and cosmetics; powdered ocher was used to tint ceramic vessels, and in a funeral context it was sprinkled in grave pits or used to paint certain containers for human remains.

Typologically, the origin of palettes is in Late Paleolithic grinders. In the Early Khartoum period (7400–4900 BCE), flat gneiss plates were also used for grinding ocher. In the Early Khartoum Neolithic (4900–3800 BCE), round, oval, and nearly rectangular palettes of sandstone, diorite, and porphyry appear in elite burials and in settlements. Similar objects have been found in sites of the Late Khartoum Neolithic (3800–2700 BCE). Farther to the north, sandstone palettes stained with ocher appear in Epipaleolithic cultures (e.g., Abkan, Elkabien).

Palettes reached their zenith of popularity in the Egyptian Predynastic period; they are especially common in the South, though the oldest examples come from the North. In Faiyum A, several shapeless or roughly oval limestone and diorite palettes have been found. A shield-shaped palette and several fragments in siltstone, basalt, and granite come from Merimde. El-Omari has provided two examples of calcite palettes, one tetragonal and one oval. Several Upper Egyptian rhomboid or rectangular palettes of siltstone—one ornamented with a schematic drawing that may be a dog—are known from Maadi; tetragonal or unshaped local palettes of limestone are infrequent; some have schematic representations of unidentifiable animals or geometric patterns.

Most Upper Egyptian palettes were found in men's, women's, and children's graves, frequently near the face of the deceased. In Southern cultures, the five oldest examples come from Tasa (limestone or calcite [Egyptian alabaster], in geometric shapes). During the Badari culture, siltstone (earlier labeled as schist) becomes the dominant material, and two types of palettes occur: one is rectangular, with the long sides straight or slightly convex, and the short sides concave or with triangular indentation; the other is oval-pointed, sometimes with incisions on the points.

Palettes are common in the Nubian A-Group and above all in the Naqada culture. Typological and chronological development is similar in both. The Naqada I phase is characterized by rhomboid palettes. Some are decorated on the top with stylized birds or horns; others are ornamented with schematically outlined, engraved animal figures (e.g., a crocodile or an elephant), or with signs (harpoon, horns) reminiscent of the later so-called nome standards. The most beautiful is the Stockholm Palette, decorated with a representation of a hippopotamus hunt: a man in a small boat, and before him a hippopotamus, joined to the hunter by a broken line, symbolizing the harpoon rope; behind appear other animals (hippopotamus, two herbivores). Toward the end of Naqada I (Phase Ic) there appear zoomorphic palettes: fish, tortoises, and the “pelta-shaped”—in fact, a stylized representation of a boat, with the ends sometimes modeled into schematic bird heads.

During the Naqada II phase, the rhomboid palettes decrease, though examples still occur. Shield-shaped palettes are popular. Pelta-shaped and zoomorphic (fish, tortoise, elephant, hippopotamus, ram, horned animals) continue to occur. A particular subgroup comprises waterfowl. Birds or bird heads often decorate the tops of palettes, especially those that are shield-shaped. On these, there also occur signs (“Min's emblem” on the el-Amra Palette), figures (a stylized cow's head and five stars on the el-Gerzeh Palette), and scenes. One of the oldest (Phase IIc) decorated with a relief is the Manchester Palette, depicting a man stalking a flock of ostriches. The identical shapes of the man's and the birds' heads may indicate that a masked hunter is depicted, and that the palette is associated with hunting magic.

The period of Naqada III is marked by geometrization of palettes (square, rectangular, and round). The edges are frequently decorated with a simple geometric design forming a sort of frame. Other shapes are rare. Characteristic is the change in function of certain types: the geometrical palettes are utilitarian; the shield-shaped form are ceremonial palettes, and their decoration is connected with certain ideas. The latter were probably used in rites and rituals involving chiefs and rulers. The group of ceremonial palettes is comprised of two basic types: one type is decorated with zoomorphic and anthropomorphic scenes; the other is adorned only with so-called heraldic and coronation animals, sculpted in full relief. There are presently about twenty-five such palettes and fragments known, the majority of uncertain provenance, dated primarily to Naqada III. Some of them have round dishes in the center, invoking the primeval function of the palettes, but not related to the sun cult, as has been claimed.

The most significant in the first group is the Oxford Palette, found at the Hierakonpolis Main Deposit. It is shield-shaped; from the midpoints of the sides, sculpted in high relief, extend the figures of two wild dogs (Lycaon pictus), with their heads in full sculpture. On the obverse appear two scenes. The upper, occupying two-thirds of the surface, shows two fantastic animals—serpopards—whose long necks surround the dish. These creatures are licking a dead antelope, above which is a long-necked bird (ostrich?). Behind the serpopards' necks and below the dish there are three wild dogs. In the lower scene, three domesticated dogs in collars are attacking a herd of herbivores, symbolized by four animals. On the reverse, the proportions are reversed: in the upper scene (one-third of the surface), two lions attack animals identical to the dead antelope on the obverse. The lower portion is again a hunt: predators (a panther and a wild dog) and fantastic animals (a serpopard and a griffin) attack a herd of herbivores. At the bottom there is a man playing a flute (?), wearing an animal mask and a tail on his belt, with a giraffe next to him.

The Oxford Palette is the only known example to contain such elaborate zoomorphic scenes. This group also includes objects (e.g., the Louvre Palette) decorated with a few figures, which are probably an abbreviation (legible to the ancients) of the more detailed scenes described. The animals seen on these palettes include wild dogs, serpopards, lions, birds, oryx, and ibex. Not all the figures are unambiguously legible to us, which results in differences in interpretation and numerous controversies regarding the symbolism and meaning of this group.

The scenes and figures described above have been interpreted as chaotic and symbolizing “power,” or as symbols associated with life and death, peace and struggle; the heraldic animals have been read as images of the divinities to whom the palette is dedicated, and the scenes themselves have been thought to be connected with the divine myth. Others interpret the palettes with zoomorphic decoration as the first manifestation of the cult of the Divine Eye (the sun), and the animals as symbolizing particular mythological figures. A more likely explanation of the symbolism in this group of palettes is that they are connected with hunting magic. The hunting theme occurs very generally in predynastic art, initially in the same pictures as other subjects (cf. the Hierakonpolis painting). Later, perhaps because of the limited space for decoration, the subjects were separated. Still, the early chiefs and rulers were still the “first hunters” for their subjects, and so magical operations were needed to aid them in performing this function and to ensure success in the hunt—a success also enjoyed by other members of society through the mediation of the king. This is also indicated by palettes that depict domestic dogs sucking the teats of heraldic wild dogs (Metropolitan Museum Palette, Munagat fragment). The magical intention was probably for the dogs to acquire the characteristics of wild nature. To the same categories of hunting magic we may also assign artifacts in which the function of the heraldic animals is served by herbivorous hunt victims (e.g., the White Oryx Palette).

One of the more controversial motifs found on several palettes is a palm flanked by two giraffes. Its relatively frequent occurrence indicates that it is not coincidental. It has been regarded as a Near Eastern motif of adoration for the holy tree; as the symbol of long years of peace (the palm), observed by two “seers” (the giraffes); as the seat of the sun (the palm), and the props of heaven (the giraffes); or as a substitute for the pharaoh, similar to the srḫ. Since the motifs in question also occur on other Predynastic artifacts, though often separately, none of these theories would seem fully correct. Although the palm may be a symbol associated with the state and authority, it is not a substitute for the pharaoh, but rather for the state, in both the territorial and ideological senses; the giraffes may incarnate primeval forces friendly to man, symbolizing at the same time a certain part of the country.

The decoration of the Hunters' Palette (Phase IIIa/b?) stands on the borderline between zoomorphic and anthropomorphic decoration. Its center is occupied by a representation of hunting. On both sides appear two rows of hunters dressed in kilts, with animal tails fastened to their belts and feathers in their long hair. Armed with bows, lances, maces, and knives, they are hunting lions and herbivorous animals. There is a striking lack of heraldic or fantastic animals; yet nome standards appear in the hands of some hunters, as well as obvious hieroglyphic signs—the pr-nw shrine and the double protoma of a bull. This artifact, too, has been the subject of much controversy, serving for example as the foundation for a theory on dualism in Egyptian thought—an interpretation that should be subjected to criticism. Probably its subject matter is hunting with beaters, interrupted by the sudden appearance of lions, while in the hieroglyphic characters we may discern the symbol for the king or the kingdom.

The obverse of the Battlefield Palette (Phase IIIb?) is yet another on which animals have the dominant role. In contrast to the preceding example, however, the animals here are either an express incarnation of the ruler (the lion), or they benefit from his victory: predatory birds and a canine predator on the Lucerne fragment. People are depicted here as defeated naked prisoners, or as corpses lying on the battlefield. Only one human figure, dressed in a long cloak (preserved fragmentarily), clearly belongs to the victors. An important role is played here by the nome standards (ibis, falcon), holding the captives with human hands. Standards serve a similar function on the fragmentary Bull Palette, perhaps the artistic masterpiece of this genre, which shows the figure of the victor-ruler in the shape of a bull. The reverse of the Battlefield Palette is decorated with the palm-and-giraffes motif. The fragment of the Libyan Palette is decorated on one side with registers containing rows of bulls, asses, rams, and trees. Next to the last is the hieroglyph Ṯḥ. On the other side, seven fortresses are being destroyed or built by animals holding hoes in their hands.

The most famous is the Narmer Palette, found near the Main Deposit of the Hierakonpolis temple. On the side without a dish, under the symbols of Bat or Hathor and the royal srḫ, are two scenes. In the first, the king, wearing the White Crown and accompanied by a sandal-bearer, is about to smite a kneeling enemy with a mace; beside him is a pair of hieroglyphs (his name?). Facing the king is an emblematic group: a falcon with one human arm, leading a personified land sign by a rope, and perching on six papyrus stems that sprout from the sign. The second scene shows two naked dead enemies and the hieroglyphic markings of fortresses. On the other side are three registers. First, the pharaoh in the Red Crown inspects ten beheaded prisoners; before him are four standards and a high official (vizer, scribe, or priest); after him, a sandal-bearer. Above the corpses is something that is most likely the caption of a door leaf with a falcon behind it, and a boat with a falcon on a harpoon hovering above. Second, serpopards are held in bonds by two men; the dish is framed by the entwined necks of the animals. Third, a bull, symbolizing the pharaoh, is destroying a fortress and trampling an enemy.

The Narmer Palette has been the object of much speculation and various, sometimes fantastic, theories. Among the most important are those that treat it as evidence of the victory of King Narmer over the following: the Delta and the unification of the country; the Northern rebellion, the last Lower Egyptian dynasty; or the Canaanites. Others treat it as a year-names tablet. The theory most nearly in accordance with the present state of research is that the palette constitutes the ritual confirmation of expansion, was used in magical rites preceding further expeditions or in rituals involving the ruler during his coronation or during holidays commemorating that event (the Appearance of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt), or for a sed jubilee.

All the palettes under discussion may have some links with the cult and rituals surrounding the rulers of the day. We should probably agree with John Baines (1995) in asserting that “although the reliefs look like propaganda, correlates in the everyday world would have had to be in living ceremonial, in what was proclaimed about the king, and in the architecture of palaces. The reliefs, however, must be interpreted on their own terms, as objects with a very small audience who were deeply involved with their meaning and creation,” and not as part of a lost repertoire.

In later periods, the function of the palette was limited to the utilitarian. Examples from the dynastic periods are rare, and are typically rectangular with a trapezoidal cross section.



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Krzysztof M. Ciałowicz