Reflections of the Natural World – Predynastic Palettes

Egyptian ‘cosmetic’ palettes are found during the Predynastic period, they are made of flat pieces of stone – often described as ‘slate’, but in actuality siltstone – on which pigmented material could be ground up and made into cosmetics. The palette is a curious piece of material culture in Egyptian history; they are found throughout both Egypt and Nubia, and take on various distinct forms and evolutions throughout the Predynastic Period. Despite their ubiquity in the burial context, palettes quickly vanish from the archaeological record during the Pharaonic Period, disappearing not only from the material culture of Pharaonic Egyptian burials from the 1st Dynasty onwards but also from later material culture found in Nubian C-group burials.

Animal Forms

Palettes come in a variety of forms. In the Badarian to early Naqada I Period, they were primarily simplistic rectangular pieces of siltstone, clearly a form more suited to functionality than aesthetic value. In the later Naqada I, II & III periods, however, palette forms change to become predominantly shaped into forms reminiscent of animals. Of these zoomorphic palettes, the most common representations include fish, birds and turtles, though there are also more unusual examples such as hippopotami and gazelles.

E.5308 (a) (2)

Predynastic oblong palette from the Hierakonpolis Fort Cemetery (E.5308a).

 

The Nubian A-Group also had their own distinctive cosmetic palettes, though there is evidence of importation of Egyptian palettes as well. These palettes were usually made from quartz, rather than siltstone, with most Egyptian siltstone palettes being found in the northern regions, closer to the First Cataract. Nubian palettes have similar feature to their Egyptian neighbours, though often of simpler geometric shapes rather than zoomorphic forms; there is evidence of use from observable malachite residue on many palettes, and they were usually deposited in burial contexts.

The Importance of Iconography

Animal iconography is used across all mediums of Predynastic art, including ceramic vessels, taking the recognisable forms of turtles, birds, fish, hippopotami and other animals found represented in cosmetic palettes. Perhaps the most obvious form of animal representation in Predynastic vessels are theriomorphic stone and ceramic vessels, such as those found in Cemetery T at Naqada and in the Main Deposit at Hierakonpolis. Similar zoomorphic material is found on a range of objects of beautification and personal adornment, including ivory bangles and combs with carved tops in the form of bull horns or birds, as well as on prehistoric graffiti across the breadth of Egypt.

E5318

Predynastic fish-shaped palette (E. 5318).

 

The use of animal iconography across Predynastic material culture illustrates the importance of these animals to the Egyptian people at this time. These recurring motifs indicate that the fauna of the Nile Valley was of great importance to Predynastic Egyptians, and while any symbolic or religious associations can only be conjectured about, the actual animals themselves played a key part in the visual landscape that prehistoric Egyptians inhabited. As well as illustrating the Preydnastic fascination with the native fauna, palettes also indicate the importance of cosmetics and beautification in Predynastic society, as well as providing evidence for trade between regions in Upper Egypt and A-Group sites in the Sudan.

Christopher Bebbington.

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