Object biography # 26: A fragment of a fish-shaped palette (acc. no. 7556)

In a special guest post for our Object Biographies series, palettologist Matt Szafran describes an unassuming fragment from both a typological and an experimental archaeological perspective. 


Figure 1 – Digital reconstruction of Manchester Museum No. 7556.

In 2018 I was privileged to visit the Manchester Museum’s Egyptology collection, as a part of my on-going study into the manufacture and use of Predynastic palettes. The visit was primarily to collect data on flint tools, but I did also have the opportunity handle a variety of different palettes from the collection.

The palettes I chose to handle were mostly broken pieces, and one very unusual piece which will feature in its own paper once research trips are allowed again and I can undertake an advanced imaging study. Unlike a complete object, a broken one allows you to inspect the inside. I had several palettological research questions which were not possible to answer from looking at an intact palette, but which could be easily answered by studying broken palettes.

It can be very easy to overlook a broken object in favour of intact examples, but sometimes they can be the key to research and can have their own interesting stories every bit as intriguing their complete counterparts – if not more so!

Object number 7556 is one such piece. It was rediscovered in a rubbish deposit at the settlement of Hemamieh in a British School of Archaeology excavation led by Gertrude Caton-Thompson and Guy Brunton between 1922 and 1924. On cursory viewing it is simply a small (92×48 mm) section of greywacke stone (Figure 2), probably from a Predynastic palette. However, to a trained eye there are certain features which give clues to its original form. The biggest of which are the presence of small indentations and the drilled perforation on the top edge of the palette. These are a clear indication that this was originally a fish-shaped palette – or at least they’re clear when you have studied and catalogued almost 1200 palettes, and over 200 of those are fish-shaped!


Figure 2 – Predynastic palette fragment Manchester Museum No. 7556.

Whilst some other styles of palette do feature a perforation, a palette fragment of the size and shape of 7556 is unlikely to be anything other than an animal-shaped (zoomorphic) palette and the indentations are likely to be the fin details of a fish-shaped palette. Whilst the true use of the drilled hole is not known with certainty, the most prevailing theory is that it was for suspension – most likely threaded with cord. There is continued scholarly debate about whether this was for storage, for wearing, or even as part of the use of the palette.

Using these remaining features, and the compassion of them to the corpus of intact palettes, it is possible to approximate how 7556 may have originally looked. Many fish-shaped palettes feature symmetrical shapes, which means we can use the surviving perimeter edge of 7556, assuming the suspension hole was central, to extrapolate its original size and shape. This approximation, as seen in Figure 3, indicates that as a complete object 7556 would have been approximately 170×95 mm – which is a comparative size to many of the surviving intact fish-shaped palettes.


Figure 3 – Manchester Museum 7556 with geometrical guidelines suggesting its original size and shape.

This guiding geometry can then be filled in digitally using features and textures from intact artefacts, and the results of which can be seen in Figure 4. As with all reconstructions, there is an amount of speculation and the use of ‘most common’ and ‘average’ data to estimate the most likely original condition. This reconstruction is based on fish-shaped palettes with both horizontal and vertical lines of symmetry; however, it should be mentioned that not all fish-shaped palettes are symmetrical. There is speculation that this variation in shape and design is indicative of the representation of different genera of fish, commonly the Tilapia, but also Mormyrus and Tetraodon genera. Additionally, not all fish-shaped palettes contain the same number of and shape of their fins and, equally, some palettes have simple drilled eyes with others having shell or bone inlays. Aside from 7556, there are no surviving (or at least attributed) fragments of the palette’s perimeter and so it is impossible to accurately reproduce the exact position and number of detailed features. Therefore, the details such as fin shape and location, and the type and location of the eye of this reconstruction, are speculative and based on common features seen in the extant corpus of intact fish-shaped palettes.


Figure 4 – Digital approximation of the original form of Manchester Museum 7556.

Unfortunately, whilst the reconstruction can give us an idea of how an intact 7556 may have looked, it doesn’t give us any insight into its use. Scholars continue to debate the use of palettes. My personal view is that their use, meaning, and symbolism evolved over the thousands of years of their use; with different tribal groups having differing views to each other, and ultimately there is no simple answer. There seems to be a human compulsion to categorise everything, especially in archaeology and Egyptology, but trying to retrofit classifications and categories to ancient cultures (especially those with no written records) can ignore subtle nuance and lead to reductive descriptions – palettes were certainly much more than a make-up device for beatification or sun defense, as has been claimed in the past. It is clear from pigment traces on extant palettes that many of them definitely played a role in pigment processing and use. However, not all palettes have these traces, and we also see that palettes rediscovered in settlement contexts display different pigment traces to those found in burials. This distinction adds credence to the theory that palettes may have held a different use in daily life than in the funerary ritual.

With 7556 specifically, it is interesting to note that it is a broken fragment which was found within a rubbish deposit of a settlement. This may indicate that it was broken during use, broken accidentally (for example dropped on a hard surface and shattered), but it may also indicate that it was broken during manufacture and the craftsperson discarded the broken pieces. The fragment does not show any trace of attempted reworking, even though its size would be sufficient for recurving into one of the so called ‘amulet’ palettes. This implies that, when broken, the raw material was sufficiently abundant meaning reuse was not necessary. This is an interesting point, as the prevalence of palettes diminishes as the Egyptian state begins to grow and restrict both resources and craftspeople to work them. The lack of reuse of 7556 implies that when it was broken this restriction had not taken place and greywacke was not as rare a commodity as it would ultimately become.

As the fragment itself unfortunately does not show any examples of use wear, either pigment traces or the presence of any tool marks, it is not possible to say whether it was ever used or not. With it being discovered in a settlement’s communal rubbish deposit we do not know if it had an owner or if it was spoil from a craftsperson’s workshop. However by studying what appears to be a small broken stone we have been able to uncover an interesting story, and perhaps future excavation (or museum collection study) will yield new fragments of the original palettes and help, literally, piece together more of the story of the original palette and what it may have been used for.

Further Reading

Baduel, N. (2008). ‘Tegumentary paint and cosmetic palettes in Predynastic Egypt: Impact of those artefacts on the birth of the monarchy’, in B. Midant-Reynes, and Y. Tristant (eds.) Egypt at its origins 2: Proceedings of the international conference “Origin of the State, Predynastic and Early Dynastic Egypt,” Toulouse (France), 5th – 8th September 2005. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta, pp. 1057-1090.

 Brunton, G. and Caton-Thompson, G. (1928). The Badarian Civilisation and Predynastic Remains near Badari. London: British School of Archaeology in Egypt.

Ciałowicz, K. (1991). Les Palettes Égyptiennes Aux Motifs Zoomorphes et Sans Décoration. Kraków: Uniw. Jagielloński.

Stevenson, A. (2007). ‘The Material Significance of Predynastic and Early Dynastic Palettes’, in R. Mairs and A. Stevenson (eds.) Current Research in Egyptology 2005. Proceedings of the Sixth Annual Symposium. Oxbow Books Ltd, pp. 148–162. 16

Stevenson, A. 2009. ‘Palettes’, in W. Wendrich (ed.), UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, Los Angeles. http://digital2.library.ucla.edu/viewItem.do?ark=21198/zz001nf6c0 [Accessed 17 Sep. 2019].

Szafran, M. 2020. ‘Object Biography: Manchester Museum 7556’. Birmingham Egyptology Journal 7: 70-86.

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