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Narmer Palette

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The subject of discussion in this essay is the Narmer Palette, an inquisitive and interesting artifact found in Egypt.

The art as an extension of the practical is the logical concept to use when studying the art object. Erwin Panofsky suggests that there is a clear borderline between practical application the object has and an artistic. A lot depends on the intention, contemporary for the object predominant taste and demand of the society and the individual’s experiences and attitudes. It is from these perspectives that we will look at the Narmer Palette.

Erwin Panofsky in his work “The History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline” states that most historical artifacts’ “intentions” are “incapable of being defined with scientific precision.” (Panofsky, 191) So it is with the controversial and much debated over Narmer Palette.

The Narmer Palette is an important and interesting Egyptian archeological artifact which is dated from approximately the thirty-first century BC.

Historical sources point out that at that time Egypt was divided into two parts – Lower and Upper Egypt. Menez was the first king who united these two into one. Some identify king Menez’ son Aha with Narmer. Therefore, the Narmer Palette is considered to be the most essential document certifying the unification of the two Egyptian lands.

The Palette which is currently one of the various exhibits of the Cairo Egyptian museum was discovered by British archeologist James E. Quibell in 1898 in what is purportedly the Main Deposit of the Temple of Horus in the Upper Egyptian city of Nekhen, perceived to be the pre-dynastic central city of Upper Egypt. The archeologist was excavating the royal living quarters of several early Egyptian kings at Hierakonpolis in Upper Egypt when he came across the sizable ceremonial Palette of king Narmer and well as various other objects.

The Palette is in the form of a shield and is adorned on both sides. It was once put up for display in the temple of Horus in Nekhen (today’s Herakonpolis). The Narmer Palette was made out of a single piece of dark green colored siltstone, a rock that during that time period was widely used for creating such palettes. It is roughly 23 inches in height and dates to closely 3200 BC. It has survived five millennia unimpaired. The Narmer Palette was a tribute offering by king Narmer to his “father”, who according to legends was the god Amun Ra. It not only holds some of the specimens of ancient hieroglyphic work; its greatly-preserved decoration reveals a chapter of ancient Egyptian history.

The first perspective to look at the Pallet is from the art-versus-functional “intention” of the Palette.

Thesaurus defines “Art” as “the quality, production, expression, according to aesthetic principles of what is beautiful, appealing or of more than ordinary significance”. The Narmer Palette, as any other form of art such as dance, sculpture, music, etc. is a form of expression. Therefore, it may be defined as a work of art.

On the other hand, from the functional point of view the Palette was an offering-gift to the Pharaoh’s patron – Amun Ra. And finally, the Palette was an invaluable historical document. Therefore, it also carries an informational function.

Experts in art usually focus on the design and style of the Palette. Supposedly, the Palette symbolizes breakthrough in ancient art. The intricate design of the Palette pictures a historic personage who is easily identified. There is a great difference between the Palette and earlier works of art such as cave paintings, particularly in the layout of the characters and major details on the Palette. As Rene Huyghe put it, the Palette demonstrates that: “…artists were already produced works consciously designed with a framework and dividing the surface by means of verticals, horizontals and symmetrical axes”. (Huyghe, 1962) It is these types of axes that provide the observer with the opportunity to see and understand the events shown in it. Without these events the figures would be placed so tightly together that one scene would be completely inseparable from the next. Hieroglyphics act as identifiable markers for each of the scenes, permitting the observer to comprehend the further events. Presumably, this is how Narmer was identified altogether. Overall, the Palette highlights the art style that is unique for Egypt.

While in some manner it is acknowledged that the Egyptian style is new and one-of-a-kind, the most impressive about the Palette are the delicate details of the carving design. The miniscule lines and designs are carved even throughout the smallest of figures and everything is ideally symmetrical. It is complicated to imagine that this Palette was handmade, more so when one considers the tools accessible at that time. The anonymous craftsman had great skill and experience. And this is where the aspect of the palette carrying a more of an artistic-over-practical function declares itself.

In history, the terms “art” and “function” often coincide and so is the case with this artifact. For instance, one of the main functions of the Narmer Palette was to be used as an offering. It had clearly defined technical and functional purposes. However, at the same time offerings were a part of the Egyptian culture and art in all its forms is the key component of a nation’s culture. Therefore art and function in history are strongly connected and many times, as in this case, walk hand in hand.

In the Egyptian culture an offering made to a God, and more so by a Pharaoh, was considered to be a demonstration of respect. It is evidenced in the Egyptian culture that Pharaoh was a God and that Amun Ra was his father. So the offering or tribute could be referred to as an “offering of respect” to the “father”. The Palette was a piece of art created with skill, agility and knowledge of hieroglyphics, which in that time was hard to acquire. So this act was more than just an offering or even “offering of respect”. It was a tribute offering expressing respect in the finest, most pure form existing at that time.

The Egyptian civilization was the greatest civilization of its time, the most advanced civilization ever to exist. Papyrus was first invented by this nation, but even before papyri scrolls were invented information was transcribed onto stone and clay tablets. Most information about the Egyptian culture known to us now is obtained from pottery dated thirtieth and thirty-first century BC. Papyrus has a tendency to rot, but stone and clay can stay intact for millennia and that is where most information we have about Egypt of that era came from.

The signs, pictures and hieroglyphs give us valuable information about life, culture, society and history of its time period. The first inscriptions picture Narmer, whose image takes up most part of the obverse sign of the Palette. He holds a mace and a flail, which were the two traditional syymbols of the ruling sovereign of the time. His name is also inscribed in hieroglyphic symbols to his right. An interesting detail is the king’s sandal-bearer, likewise pictured on the Palette, whose name may be represented by the rosette next to his head. Another curious detail is a second rectangular symbol, which has no definite explanation, but could symbolize a town or citadel.

Various estimates have been made towards the meaning of the engraving on the far right side of Palette that depicts ten decapitated corpses with their heads lying next to their feet. Most scholars agree that this disturbing element of the Palette may symbolize the casualties of Narmers conquest. Above them are signs of a falcon, a harpoon and a ship, which could be deciphered as the names of the conquered cities. 

Under the ceremony, two men are holding ropes tied to the intertwisted, outstretched necks of two serpopards opposing each other, mythical female creatures with leopard or, considering the fact that there are no spots on them, lion-like bodies, which also have snakelike necks. The hole or circle that is created by their abnormally long necks is the center of the Palette. These animals have been referred to as a co-existing symbol for the Egyptian unification. But it is a unique image in Egyptian art expression. None of these creatures can be identified as to which side of Egypt they represent, but it is clear that the war goddess lionesses depict the union of Upper and Lower Egypt in about 3100 BC.

The artifact has become the spark of many scholarly debates for number of years. There are two major arguments presented. First one implies that the Palette is really an account of historical events. Other scholars dispute that it is an item, created to portray the mythical, as was then considered, unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under one crown, or documented a recent armed victory over some of the Libyan tribes or the last fortification of a dynasty from Lower Egypt based in Buto.

In summary, the Narmer Palette is an artifact representing culture, history, mythology craftsman skill, religion, art and more of the Egyptian lifestyle. It is the main document certifying the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, it is a piece of fine Egyptian art and craftsmanship, it was a token and tribute of respect to the “father” of Pharaoh Amun Ra. For us it is a significant artifact portraying the ancient history of Egypt. There have been, are and will be many opinions as to what was the main purpose of the Palette. But we must keep in mind that depending on what time period people make their judgments from, they will be looking through a kind allegorical set of “pink glasses” and will tend to project modern circumstances and compare it to the past. We as humans like to judge situations by today’s standards, boundaries and needs. So looking from this perspective, today we see the Narmer Palette as an important artifact which depicts ancient Egyptian history gives us information about their past, art and culture. So it is considered a piece of art and additional insight into their everyday life.

But five millennia back it was looked upon merely as an important way to show respect to their supernaturals, the “higher powers”, the gods. It took more of a functional role in the life and culture of ancient Egyptian citizens.

Even though it is impossible to certify precisely if it was an artifact of art or an artifact that was a practical part of life, it can be safely said that it was as important to humans back in Ancient Egypt as it is now.

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