Archaeology Odyssey 7:5, September/October 2004

Narmer’s Enigmatic Palette

What Does It Tell Us About Egypt’s First Kings?

By David O’Connor

Rarely do I come across works of art that make my blood run almost cold with excitement. One such image, carved on a stone cosmetic palette some 5,000 years ago, has fascinated Egyptologists as the first fully articulated example of Egyptian royal representation—so that it seems to stand as a symbol of dynastic Egypt itself.

The palette shows a king named Narmer about to smite a foe who is paralyzed with fear. Over the millennia, this scene was repeated thousands of times in relief carvings and paintings. Smiting images virtually identical to that on the Narmer Palette are depicted on Egyptian temple pylons as late as the Roman period. Moreover, its visual power was such that the image was also adopted by other peoples who were heavily or partially Egytianized, such as the Phoenicians (first millennium B.C.) and the Meroitic people of the Sudan (c. 250 B.C.-350 A.D.).

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