Cosmetic palette

Accession Number

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A rectangular stone palette, featuring a decoration of incised lines around the edge of one side and a drilled hole in the centre of one of the short edges (presumably for suspension, either in the dwelling, on one’s person, or possibly as part of ritualistic use). It is manufactured from fine-grained greywacke sandstone found in the Wadi Hammamat in Egypt’s Eastern Desert. The rectangular palettes are typical of the Naqada III Period, superseding the animal-shaped (zoomorphic) palettes of the Naqada II Period, as the Egyptian state began to form and started to restrict control of the raw material and crafts people to work it. Predynastic palettes have long been associated with pigment processing, particularly malachite and ochre. However, a 2020 study of almost 1200 extant palettes by Matt Szafran has shown that only 4.7% feature any pigment staining—this is therefore a less common example, as it has possible ochre traces on one side. Ochre seems to be more common in finds from a settlement context, with malachite being more common in finds from burials, making this palette slightly unusual. Different scholars have differing ideas on what exactly the use of this pigment application could be. Some have suggested a strictly utilitarian use, with application around the eyes acting as a defence against the sun, for medicinal benefit, or even to ward off flies. Others suggest much more ritualistic uses, with the application of pigments having a tegumentary use and essentially acting as a form of mask. Palettes were not a common item and were likely only owned by the elite members of society, something that would support a more ritualistic use over a purely utilitarian one. This palette features light surface pitting in the centre of its recto. Surface pitting is a relatively common feature on palettes, with a 2020 study showing that 31.2% of almost 1200 extant palettes demonstrate surface pitting. It has been suggested that this is an example of use-wear caused by striking the surface of the palette, perhaps to produce a sound as component of ritual use. It is from grave 1348 at Tarkhan, which was excavated by the British School of Archaeology in Egypt (BSAE) during their 1912–13 season. This grave belonged to a female, with the palette located directly behind her head. The object was gifted to the University of Wales, Aberystwyth by John Bancroft Willans, a subscriber of the British School of Archaeology in Egypt, who received the object in 1913 and was subsequently gifted to the Egypt Centre in 1997.


Ellis, Chris 1992. A statistical analysis of the protodynastic burials in the "valley" cemetery of Kafr Tarkhan. In Brink, Edwin C. M. van den (ed.), The Nile Delta in transition: 4th–3rd millennium BC. Proceedings of the seminar held in Cairo, 21–24 October 1990, at the Netherlands Institute of Archaeology and Arabic Studies, 241–258. Tel Aviv: E. C. M. van den Brink. Grajetzki, Wolfram 2004. Tarkhan: a cemetery at the time of Egyptian state formation. London: Golden House. Hassan, Fekri A. and Shelley J. Smith 2002. Soul birds and heavenly cows: transforming gender in Predynastic Egypt. In Nelson, Sarah Milledge and Myriam Rosen-Ayalon (eds), In pursuit of gender: worldwide archaeological approaches, 43–65. Lanham, MD; Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield. Needler, Winifred 1984. Predynastic and archaic Egypt in the Brooklyn Museum: with a reexamination of Henri de Morgan's excavations based on the material in the Brooklyn Museum initially studied by Walter Federn and a special zoological contribution on the ivory-handled knife from Abu Zaidan by C. S. Churcher. Wilbour Monographs 9. Brooklyn: The Brooklyn Museum. [p.319–326 for further information and references] Petrie, W. M. Flinders 1914. Tarkhan II. British School of Archaeology in Egypt and Egyptian Research Account [26] (19th year). London: School of Archaeology in Egypt; Bernard Quaritch. Petrie, W. M. Flinders 1921. Corpus of prehistoric pottery and palettes. British School of Archaeology in Egypt and Egyptian Research Account [32] (23rd year). London: British School of Archaeology in Egypt; Constable & Co.; Bernard Quaritch. Regner, Christina 1996. Schminkpaletten. Bonner Sammlung von Aegyptiaca 2. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

Last modified: 04 Feb 2021

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