Looking Great for Eternity: Egypt's Predynastic Cosmetic Palettes | Rawi: Egypt's Heritage Review

The Narmer Palette -
an example of a "commemorative palette"
Walk into any museum with an Egyptian collection, and as you explore, you're likely to find your surroundings quite familiar. After all, ancient Egyptian art is very recognizable. In paintings, people are shown with their heads, arms and legs in profile, but with their torso's twisted towards the viewer. With the action neatly separated into clear registers, there is no danger of confusion, and because a person's size shows his importance, it's always easy to spot the key players. Egyptian statues too can easily be identified: to reduce the chance of breakage, the arms and legs are typically kept close to the body, locked in stone; hieroglyphs decorate the base and back; and, despite the wide variety of wigs, kilts and tunics carved, they all scream "Egypt!", even to those with little knowledge of Egyptian art. Egyptian statues can also easily be spotted thanks to their use of "frontality", a fancy way of saying that they're meant to be viewed from the front. Through it all, whether in statuary or 2D art, order - the concept of maat to the ancient Egyptians - dominates.

But certain objects in the museum don't fit - they have a freeness of style quite unlike most objects surrounding you. Almost certainly, these non-conformist pieces will date to the Predynastic Period, a time before Egypt's unification in around 3050 BC, and before the "rules" of Egyptian art were (quite literally) set in stone. Vessels from this time are often decorated with abstract patterns - geometric shapes, great swirls, large circles and semi-circles painted in red. You'll also find smile-shaped boats, their unseen rowers dangling oars vertically from their sides, cabins at their centre, their hulls floating among pyramidal hills and beside stylized goats and ostriches. Graceful figurines, wide-hipped and fingerless, also float into view, their tapering arms raised above their heads like ballerinas, their oval, blank faces expectant of your thoughts.

This article first appeared in print in Rawi: Egypt's Heritage Review, issue 7 (2015). To read the full article, follow the link: Looking Great for Eternity: Egypt's Predynastic Cosmetic Palettes.