Prof. Landvatter and his students examine the Narmer Palette in Ancient Egyptian History and Civilization, cross-listed as Classics 375 and History 395.

Prof. Landvatter and his students examine the Narmer Palette in Ancient Egyptian History and Civilization, cross-listed as Classics 375 and History 395.

Arts & Humanities

Pharaoh Triumphant

Object of Study– What we’re looking at in class

By Prof. Thomas Landvatter [classics] | November 14, 2017

The Narmer Palette, dating ca. 3000 BCE, is one of the masterpieces of early Egyptian art. The palette was ostensibly meant for cosmetics—the other side includes a depression for the grinding of makeup—but it was never used for that; rather it was a votive offering to the gods.  

The palette depicts a military campaign by King Narmer, who hailed from the Nile valley, against the peoples of the delta. The central figure is Narmer himself, wearing the white crown of Upper Egypt. In his hand he holds a mace, poised to smite an enemy, whom he grasps by the hair. Before Narmer, the god Horus uses a hook to subdue a representation of the delta with a human head. Behind him stands his sandal-bearer. Beneath him lie the bodies of the defeated.

Egyptian art is remarkable in its consistency over time, and this object employs motifs that persisted for more than three millennia. This scene, of pharaoh triumphant poised to smash the heads of his enemies, is repeated over and over until the very end of ancient Egyptian culture, long after maces were no longer used in combat. Even in the palette we do not see a specific historical event but a stock scene representing the victory of the state over its enemies, of order (ma’at) over chaos (isfet). Pharaoh is shown defeating the enemies of Egypt because that is simply what pharaohs must do, whatever the reality of the situation.

Tags: Object of Study, Professors