The Narmer Palette, also known as the Great Hierakonpolis Palette or the Palette of Narmer, is a significant Egyptian archeological find, dating from about the 31st century BC, containing some of the earliest hieroglyphic inscriptions ever found. It is thought by some to depict the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under the king Narmer. On one side the king is depicted with the crown of one area and on the other side the king wears the crown of the other. Egyptologist Bob Brier has referred to the Narmer Palette as "the first historical document in the world".
The palette, which has survived five millennia in almost perfect preservation, was discovered by British archeologists James E. Quibell and Frederick W. Green in what they called the main deposit in the temple of Horus at Hierakonpolis during the dig season of 1897/1898. Also found at this dig were the Narmer Macehead and the Scorpion Macehead. Unfortunately the exact place and circumstances of these finds were not recorded very clearly by Quibell and Green. In fact, Green's report placed the palette in a different layer one or two yards away from the deposit, which is considered to be more accurate on the basis of the original excavation notes. It has been suggested that these objects were royal donations made to the temple. Hierakonpolis was the ancient capital of Upper Egypt during the pre-dynastic Naqada III phase of Egyptian history.
Palettes were typically used for grinding cosmetics, but this palette was too large and heavy to have been for personal use, and was likely a temple object. One theory put forward was that it was used to grind cosmetics to adorn the statues of the gods.
Both sides of the palette are decorated, carved in raised relief. At the top of both sides of the palette are the central serekhs bearing the rebus symbols n'r (catfish) and mr (chisel) inside, being the phonetic representation of Narmer's name.
Below the bovine heads thought to represent the cow goddess Bat, who was a patron deity, flanking the serekh of Narmer. Below that is what appears to be a procession, with Narmer shown wearing the Red Crown of Lower Egypt whose symbol was the papyrus. He holds a mace and a flail, two traditional symbols of kingship. To his right are the hieroglyphic symbols for his name, though not contained within a serekh. Behind him is his sandal bearer, whose name may be represented by the rosette appearing adjacent to his head, and a second rectangular symbol that has no clear interpretation, though it could also represent the name of a town. Immediately in front of the king is a long-haired man, a pair of hieroglyphs appearing in front of him, which has been interpreted as being his name: Tshet. This is assuming that these symbols had the same phonetic value used in later hieroglyphic writing. In front of this man are four standard bearers, holding aloft an animal skin, a dog, and two falcons. At the far-right of this scene are ten decapitated corpses, likely the victims of Narmer's conquest. Above them are the symbols for a ship, a falcon, and a harpoon, again perhaps indicating the name of the town that was conquered.
Below the procession, two men are holding ropes tied to the outstretched, intertwining necks of two serpopards confronting each other, mythical felines with bodies of leopards—or more likely—lionesses given that there are no spots indicated, and snakelike necks. The circle formed by their exaggeratedly curving necks is the central part of the palette, which is where the cosmetics would be ground. These animals have been considered an additional symbol for the unification of Egypt, but it is a unique image in Egyptian art and there is nothing to suggest that either animal represents an identifiable part of Egypt, although each had lioness war goddesses as protectors and it may indicate the unification with the intertwining.
At the bottom of the palette a bovine image is seen knocking down the walls of a city while trampling on a fallen foe. Because of the lowered head in the image, this is interpreted as a presentation of the king vanquishing his foes, "Bull of his Mother" being a common epithet given to Egyptian kings as the son of the patron cow goddess. This posture of a bovine has the meaning of "force" in later hieroglyphics.
Repeating the format from the other side, two human-faced bovine heads, thought to represent the patron cow goddess Bat, flank the serekhs, uncharacteristically shown in full frontal view. This frontal display of the cows is atypical in ancient Egyptian art except for representations of this goddess and Hathor (who often appears in this view also). Some authors suggest that the images represent the vigor of the king as pair of bulls.
A large picture in the center of the palette depicts Narmer wearing the White Crown of Upper Egypt whose symbol was the flowering lotus, and wielding a mace. To his left is a man bearing the king's sandals, again flanked by a rosette symbol. To the right of the king is a kneeling prisoner, who is about to be struck by the king. A pair of symbols appear next to his head, perhaps indicating his name, or indicating the region where he was from. Above the prisoner is a falcon, representing Horus, perched above a set of papyrus flowers, the symbol of Lower Egypt. In his talons he holds a rope-like object which appears to be attached to the nose of a man's head that also emerges from the papyrus flowers, perhaps indicating that he is drawing life from the head. The papyrus has often been interpreted as referring to the marshes of the Nile Delta region in Lower Egypt, or that the battle happened in a marshy area, or even that each papyrus flower represents the number 1,000, indicating that 6,000 enemies were subdued in the battle.
Below the king's feet is a third section, depicting two naked, bearded men. They are either running, or are meant to be seen as sprawling dead upon the ground. Appearing to the left of the head of each man is a hieroglyphic sign, the first a walled town, the second a type of knot, likely indicating the name of a defeated town.
The Narmer Palette resides in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and is one of the initial exhibits that visitors see when entering the museum. It has the Journal d'Entree number JE32169 and the Catalogue Génèral number CG14716.