The evolution and adaptations of palettes continue to help historians in uncovering the history, political drama and society of Ancient Egypt, especially from the late Predynastic Period. By examining various palettes, displayed in the British Museum and Petrie Museum, I will discuss the functionality and purpose of cosmetic and votive palettes and how Ancient Egyptians progressed into explaining the political and religious ideologies as forms of art, propaganda and communication.
Cosmetic palettes were used to grind paints and minerals with a pebble. Pebbles, bones, spoons and combs are thought to be the original palettes, all objects that were found with rock and mineral residue, clueing at other uses. Then, Egyptians used mudstone, fossilized compressed mud, and ceramic to create more advanced palettes. The two most popular cosmetics used were “malachite (a green ore of copper) and galena (a dark grey ore of lead, the former being the earlier of the two, but being ultimately largely replaced by the latter, which became the principal eye-paint of the country.” (Lucas 1930) Lucas also notes that both minerals were most often found in graves in fragments.
The earliest cosmetic palettes date back to 5000 BC and were simple in shape. Many palettes take shape of an animal for reasons of protection or religion. In the case of religion, the palettes each have a particular symbol to represent a specific god, which then suggests why the palette has a certain animal (figure 1). Figure one is a mudstone palette featuring two bird heads at the top, except one has been broken off. There is also the god symbol for Min, who represented the male human form. The symbol is horizontal, and a double-headed arrow with a hook rising from the middle. Due to the ‘human’ factor of the palette, it was most likely owned by someone of middle class range, as many people of the upper and royalty class would believe that they would go on as gods, and therefore not be human exactly. Often in other Egyptian art, Min wore a crown with feathers (see figure 2), which may explain the heads of bird on the palette. Although the palettes looked rather basic in the beginning, the designs soon became more advanced and symbolic.
The shape, style and presentation of cosmetic palettes created an art-like form for everyday use. Like figure 1, some palettes had small parts of animals shaped with the palette to connect with another function of art. However, other palettes represent a full animal, and tend to be very simple like figure 3. The fish may be to memorialize Hatmehyt, the fish-goddess or to ask for her help in catching fish. The palette is made out of metasiltstone and was used in the Predynastic period of Naqada I.
Small palettes could be used as amulets, especially when they have symbols of gods and goddesses to protect them. Larger palettes were sometimes used as reliefs or could be stored for historical and religious reasons. Many palettes symbolized...