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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Ancient Egypt in Focus: The photographic Archives of John Garstang

John Garstang was one the early pioneers in the use of photography as a method of recording archaeological excavations, artefacts and surveys. The museum’s photographic archive contains almost twenty collections of glass-plate negatives relating to Garstang’s archaeological research in Egypt, Sudan and the Near East. These photographs give an insight not only into how excavations were carried out during the early part of the twentieth century but also record now lost artefacts and sites, as well as showing us a little of what life was like for Garstang and his teams.

The Pilgrim Trust funded ‘Ancient Egypt in Focus’ project aims to catalogue and digitise a portion of the photographic collections held by the Garstang Museum, specifically, those relating to John Garstang’s excavations in Egypt and Sudan at the sites of Meroë, Abydos, and Beni Hasan. This process will ensure the preservation of these images, they will also be published online on the Archives Hub so that others may also view these images.

Image of the excavated portico discovered during excavations of Sakçagözü, Turkey, 1908, Reference: SG-044

Image of the excavated portico discovered during excavations of Sakçagözü, Turkey, 1908, Reference: SG-044

In 2011, the Hertitage Lottery Funded ‘The Lost Gallery: John Garstang and the discovery of the Hittite World’ project processed the Museum’s photographic collections relating to Garstang’s work in the Near East, including the excavation of Sakçagözü, Turkey. The negatives were digitized using a digital camera suspended above an adjustable platform from which the negatives could be illuminated by a light box below.  The equipment was fully adjustable to cater for different size and formats of negatives. In six months the project processed nearly 900 images. For the digitisation of the Egyptian and Sudanese negatives, the project will last for fifteen months, allowing for an even greater number of negatives to be processed, indeed, the new project hopes to process over 2000 images!

Interns using the digitization equipment during the Hittite project

Interns using the digitization equipment during the Hittite project

It is early days in the project but we will be making frequent updates about our progress here on the blog and on our facebook page

For more information about the project please contact the project archivist, Katie Waring ( kdw@liverpool.ac.uk)

Links

Archives Hub     http://www.archiveshub.ac.uk/

‘The Lost Gallery: John Garstang and the discovery of the Hittite World’ project     http://sace.liv.ac.uk/lostgallery/