The Narmer palette is a finely decorated plate of schist of about 64 cm high. It was found in a deposit in Hierakonpolis, a Predynastic capital located in the South of Egypt, during the excavation season of 1897/98. Its size, weight and the fact that it was decorated on both sides show that it was a ceremonial, commemorative rather than an actual cosmetic palette intended for daily use. It is a key piece in the identification of Menes, the almost legendary first king to have ruled over the whole of Egypt.
The deposit where it was found also contained other artefacts stemming from the early beginnings of Ancient Egypt's recorded history: fragments of a ceremonial mace head belonging to Narmer and other mace head fragments inscribed with the name of king Scorpion, one of Narmer's alleged predecessors. The exact finding circumstances of these artefact have, however, not been noted in the survey report.
The top of the palette is decorated in a similar manner on both sides: the name of the king is inscribed in a so-called serekh between two bovine heads. The animals' heads are drawn from the front, which is rather uncharacteristic of later Egyptian art. In most publications, these heads have been described as cows' heads, which is usually interpreted as an early reference to the cow-goddess, Bat or perhaps Hathor. It is, however, equally possible that the animals are bulls and that they refer to the bull-like vigour of the king, a symbolism that occurs in the scene at the bottom of the palette front as well.
Most of the palette's back side is decorated with a scene showing the king about to strike down a foe, whom he grabs by the hair. This is the oldest known example of a type of scene that would continue to be used until the end of the pharaonic culture, even by kings who do not seem to have waged any wars at all. As such, the historical value of this type of scene can be doubted.
The king wears a short skirt decorated with bovine heads and an animal's tail. He also wears the White Crown which is usually associated with Upper Egypt. It is, however, not certain whether in Narmer's time, this crown already had its traditional geographical significance, or whether it was associated more with a specific part of the king's overall responsibilities.
Narmer's victim is shown kneeling in front of him, the upper part of his arms close to his body, as if to indicate that he was bound. Apart from a girdle, he is represented naked. The contrast between the naked victim and the clad king perhaps denotes that the victim was considered as barbaric.
The signs of a harpoon and a lake behind his head have sometimes been interpreted as the name of the victim: Washi. This interpretation is, however, very doubtful, as it was unusual for official documents to actually provide the name of an enemy. Comparing the Narmer Palette to the Label of Den, which shows a similar scene, makes it more likely that the harpoon is to be read as the 'number one' and the lake as 'water', indicating that this was Narmer's first victory in a watery area such as a lake or a marshland.
The images above the victim's head may seem to support the latter interpretation: a falcon, without a doubt a symbol of the king, is perched on top of some papyrus plants that sprout from a marshland. The left side of this marshland is decorated with a man's head that is quite similar to that of the fallen foe. The hook with which the falcon appears to be pulling at the personified marshland's nose, symbolises the breath of life that it takes out of the fallen land.
The mention of a marshland on the palette has very often been seen as a reference to the marshy lands of the Nile Delta, Lower Egypt. Indeed, in traditional times, Lower Egypt would be symbolised by a hieroglyph that represents a marshland. It is however equally likely that the marshland on the palette represents just that: a marshland, which could have been part of the Nile Delta, but it could also have been the Fayum oasis, for instance, or just an area that happened to be flooded at the time.
Behind the king an apparently bald person holds a pair of sandals in his left hand and a basket in his right. Of the two hieroglyphic signs that are written behind the man's head, the lower one can be read as 'servant'. The top sign, the asterisk or floral element, also appears on the Scorpion Macehead, right before the sign of the scorpion that identifies the king. It may thus perhaps have been a sign to write the word 'king' and if this is the case, then the bald man following Narmer on his palette, was a 'servant of the king'.
The fact that the king is represented as barefooted and followed by a sandal-bearer perhaps suggests a ritual nature for the scene depicted on the palette.
Below this central scene, underneath the king's feet, lie two overthrown, naked enemies. One of their arms is raised up, the other is drawn behind their backs. Their legs are sprawling and their entire posture indicates that they are fallen enemies. To the left of each victim, a hieroglyphic sign is drawn, the left-most representing a wall and the other some sort of knot. Both signs are usually interpreted as names of places that have been captured by Narmer. Their reading is unknown so even if they do denote names of places, we do not know which places they are.
In the top scene of the palette's front, the second figure from the left, identified by the two signs in front of him as Narmer, is represented wearing the Red Crown, that is usually associated with Lower Egypt. As is the case with the White Crow, it is not certain whether in Narmer's time, the Red Crown already had its traditional geographical significance, or whether it was associated more with a specific part of the king's overall responsibilities.
The king holds a mace in his left hand, while his right arm is bent over his chest, holding some kind of flail. He is followed by the same bald figure that holds sandals in his left hand and some kind of basket in his right. A rectangle above this sandal-bearer's head contains a sign of uncertain meaning.
Narmer is preceded by a long-haired person who holds an emblem in his hands. The signs accompanying this figure could be read as Tshet yet their meaning is unknown. A person similarly designed and with the same hieroglyphs, can also be found on the ceremonial maceheads of both Narmer and 'Scorpion'. His role is normally interpreted as that of a 'shaman' and is not paralleled in later sources.
Four standard bearers are represented in front of the Tshet person. The left-most standard represents some kind of animal skin, the second a dog and the next two a falcon. These standards might be the emblems of the royal house of Narmer, or of the regions that already belonged to his kingdom.
The object of this procession is made clear on the right hand side of the scene: 10 decapitated corpses are shown lying on the ground, their heads thrown between their legs. Above the victims, a ship with a harpoon and a falcon in it, are drawn. These signs are often interpreted as the name of the conquered region. If this name has remained the same throughout the history of Ancient Egypt, then the region conquered by Narmer was the Mareotis region, the 7th Lower-Egyptian province.
The two signs in front of the probable name of the region, the wing of a door and a sparrow are thought to mean 'create' or 'found'. The entire group could thus be interpreted that on the occasion of the conquest of the Mareotis region, Narmer founded a new province, whose name was written by the ship, the harpoon and the falcon.
The central scene on the palette's front represents two men tying together the stretched necks of two fabulous animals. Between the animal's necks, a circular area is a bit deeper than the palette's surface. This lower circular area indicates the place where a cosmetic would be put if this were not a ceremonial palette.
The tying together of the necks of the two animals has often been interpreted as a symbol for the tying together of Upper and Lower Egypt. Nothing, however, indicates that the animals are to be seen as the symbols of Upper or Lower Egypt. This is a unique image and no later parallels are known. It is not impossible that they have just been used to create a circular area in the centre of the palette. In addition, ceremonial palettes often represent the theme of taming wild animals, one of the traditional tasks of the king.
The scene at the bottom of the palette's front face continues the imagery of conquest and victory. A bull, almost certainly a symbol of the king's vigour and strength, tramples a fallen foe and attacks the walls of a city or fortress with its horns. The name of the city or fortress attacked by the bull is written within the walls, but its reading is unknown.
The overall military symbolism on the palette is clear. Using different types of imagery, the king is shown again and again as victorious over his enemies. He is shown striking down a kneeling enemy, whilst stepping on the bodies of some other foes on the palette's back. On the front of the palette, he is represented overlooking the decapitated corpses of his foes or as a bull vigorously trampling an enemy and breaking down the walls of a city or a fortress.
The fact that Narmer is shown wearing the White Crown on one side and the Red Crown on the other, has often been forwarded as proof that it was he who united Upper and Lower Egypt. This was based on the assumption that both crowns have always had their traditional geographical significance, but even if this were correct, the palette doesn't prove that Narmer didn't already wear the Red Crown before.
Some Egyptologists have doubted the historicity of the events portrayed on the palette, forwarding the hypothesis that it served a ritual purpose rather than recording a historical event. Indeed, several instances of the scene where a king strikes down his foes do not seem to have been based on actual fact but were part of the royal propaganda that portrays the kings as the protector of the country. This type of scene is also very common on entrances to temples, where they were intended to ward off any evil that might want to enter the temple.
Against this, it must be pointed out that the palette does mention three names of cities or fortresses that were overthrown. The palette also refers to the founding of a region indicated by the signs ship-harpoon-falcon, a group of signs that at least in later times would be used to denote the 7th Lower Egyptian province located in the eastern Nile Delta.
In addition, a label found in 1998 during excavations in Abydos, does seem to confirm the historicity of the palette. On this label, a catfish strikes down a fallen enemy. The enemy's headgear consists of 3 papyrus plants, a reference to a marshland that is very similar to the personified marshland on the Narmer Palette. It is not unlikely that both sources actually do refer to the same event: a battle in a marshland, probably located in the eastern Nile Delta, which resulted in a victory for Narmer and the probable founding of the 7th Lower Egyptian province.