Simple palettes such as these with incised borders are commonly found in graves dating from the late Naqada II period until the Early First Dynasty (Needler 1984, 263). They are made from greywacke (a term that encompasses siltstones and mudstones). Wear traces on them show they were used for grinding small amounts of minerals for cosmetics. Pebbles were used as grinding stones. Ochre as well as malachite seems to have been ground on such palettes (Stevenson 2009, 2) as body or eye paint.
Palettes occur as early as 4500 BC in Egypt in graves as well as on settlements. Petrie stated that Naqada ‘slate palettes are the most frequent object in prehistoric graves after pottery, usually accompanied by a pebble of jasper for grinding’ (1920: 36f).
It is often said that palettes such as these were used for eye-make, which we know was worn in Dynastic Egypt. However, they could have been used for body paint. While both men and women used eye make-up in Dynastic Egypt, it seems that cosmetic palettes such as this were more commonly placed in men’s rather than women’s graves (e.g. Ellis 1992; Hassan and Smith 2002).
AB79, left, has a hole near one edge. This is not uncommon in such palettes as was probably for suspension.
W727 is a siltstone palette in the shape of a debased bird.
Other Predynastic items in the Egypt Centre
Adams, B., 1988. Predynastic Egypt. Oxford: Shire Publications.
Ellis, C. 1992. A statistical analysis of the protodynastic burials in the “Valley” Cemetery of Kafr Tarkhan. In E.C.M. van den Brink (ed.) The Nile Delta in Transition: 4th-3rd Millennium BC. Tel Aviv: Israel Exploration Society 241-258.
Hassan, F.A. and Smith, S.J. 2002. Soul birds and heavenly cows: Transforming gender in Predynastic Egypt. In S.M. Nelson and M. Rosen-Ayalan (eds.) In Pursuit of Gender. Worldwide Archaeological Approaches. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press, 43-65.
Kroeper, K., 1996. ‘Minshat Abu Omar – Burials with Palettes’. In Spencer, J. eds. Aspects of Early Egypt. London: British Museum Press, 70-92.
Needler, W., 1984. Predynastic and Archaic Egypt in The Brooklyn Museum. Brooklyn: The Brooklyn Museum, 319-326.
Petrie, W.M.F., 1920. Prehistoric Egypt. London: British School of Archaeology in Egypt.
Stevenson, A. 2007. ‘The Material Significance of Predynastic and Early Dynastic Palettes‘. In Mairs, R. and Stevenson, A. eds. Current Research in Egyptology 2005. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Symposium, 148-162.
Stevenson, A. 2009. ‘Palettes’. In Wendrich, W. ed., UCLA Encyclopaedia of Egyptology. Los Angeles. http://escholarship.org/uc/item/7dh0x2n0