A guest post from palettologist and independent researcher Matt Szafran on an intriguing item that may not be all it at first appears…
Predynastic Egyptian palettes were rediscovered in late 19th and early 20th century excavations. Archaeologists in the 19th century initially attributed their use as being for the processing of green malachite pigment for use in eye makeup (hence why palettes are sometimes referred to as ‘cosmetic palettes’), however more recent research points to the use of palettes being more nuanced and forming a part of the ritual landscape of the Predynastic cultures.
Whist palettes are one of the most frequent objects found in Predynastic burials, palettes would have been exclusively owned by the rulers and elites of society. The Predynastic Palette Database (PPDB) project has catalogued over 1257 palettes in 44 different collections, spread across the almost 1500 years of which palettes were used between 4000 BCE and 3150. Manchester Museum number 5474 (Fig. 1) represents one of the more unusual palettes which has been catalogued in the PPDB.
The Manchester Museum’s Egyptology collection holds the 2nd biggest collection (Fig. 2) of palettes in the PPDB, housing 116 (9.2%) palettes. This collection is built from excavation finds, such as those obtained through the Egypt Exploration Fund’s partage scheme, and also from donations – particularly those from textile magnate Jesse Haworth. One such donated piece the ‘lizard’ shaped palette, accessioned as museum number 5474. This object was purchased by British Egyptologist James Quibell in 1900 (Fig. 3), on the behest of Haworth. In a letter to Haworth, Quibell commented that the ‘carved green slates’ (palettes) were extremely rare and described Manchester 5474 as being of importance and stated it would be a fine piece for any museum’s collection (Fig. 3). It should be noted that Quibell was extremely familiar with Predynastic palettes at the time he wrote this letter, as he studied under Flinders Petrie and excavated at multiple Predynastic sites, including rediscovering the Narmer Palette in 1898 at Hierakonpolis, and began working as chief inspector of antiquities in the Delta and Middle Egypt in 1899.
However, whilst Quibell was convinced of the authenticity of this object, in more recent years it has been looked at with much more scepticism, and the current Manchester Museum object catalogue lists 5474 as a possible 19th century forgery. These suspicions are mostly based upon the shape of the palette. Whilst lizard/crocodile shapes do exist in other Predynastic visual culture, such as on decorated pottery vessels, there is only one other comparable palette. The Petrie Museum collection holds a lizard/crocodile shaped palette, accessioned as UC15773, however this palette is also suspicious as it has red glass eyes – so at best it’s been modified in more recent time and at worst it is a complete forgery.
In an effort to determine whether or not Manchester 54474 is an authentic Predynastic palette or a modern forgery, it has been studied using microscopy and also Reflective Transformation Imaging (RTI). The RTI capture process uses multiple lighting angles of the subject which are combined in software to create a texture map which can then be manipulated with a virtual light source, this helps to highlight surface textures and can show manufacturing tool marks.
These investigative techniques were used to study certain features of Manchester 5474, and compare those to provenanced palettes which are known to have not been altered.
Most of the animal-shaped (zoomorphic) palettes have a so called ‘suspension hole’ on their top edge. The use of this one continues to be explored in scholarly debate, with suggestions of it being threaded for storage in the home or on the person, or even for suspending the palette to strike it to produce sounds as a part of ritual use.
Experimental archaeology has shown that these holes were likely drilled with flint drills, which create conical holes with spiral striations – and this can be seen in provenanced palettes such as Manchester 1373 (Fig. 4), which was rediscovered in grave B46 at the site of el-Amrah in Upper Egypt as a part of an Egypt Exploration Fund excavation.
In contrast to this, 5474 has a very different profile (Fig. 5) much more like a modern twist drill. Twist drills were invented in the late 19th century, with Stephen Morse first patenting the design in 1863. The diameter of the hole in Manchester 5474 is 3.77 mm, which is close to 1/8th of an inch (3.18 mm) – a very standard and common size for a drill bit.
The silhouette of the palette appears to fit very closely into a rhomboid shape (Fig. 6). It is also interesting that the cuts which removed the material to produce the neck describe an almost perfect semi-circle (Fig. 6). This would be extremely difficult to produce with the stone tools available to the Predynastic craftspeople, but extremely easy to produce with modern tools – for example a half-round file or cylindrical grinding wheel.
The legs of Manchester 5474 have been formed in a way which is extremely consistent with provenanced turtle-shaped palettes. So, if this palette is a modern modification, then it was undoubtably created by someone with a familiarity for animal-shaped palettes and their intricacies – perhaps why it was judged as authentic by Quibell.
Rhomboid shaped palettes are the 3rd most common shape of the palettes catalogued in the PPDB (Fig. 7). The significance of this is twofold; firstly it would provide an excess of palettes available for reworking, and secondly it would mean that they would be deemed less valuable on the art and antiquities market due to their relative simplicity and prevalence.
The eyes of the palette are unusual when compared with other animal-shaped palettes, where typically the eyes fall into four main categories:
- Pierced (i.e. drilled through the palette)
- Round indentations drilled into the surface
- Round indentations with round eggshell or bone inlays
In contrast the eyes of 5474 are almond-shaped and have been gouged, not drilled, out of the surface of the palette (Fig. 8). There has also been an attempt to create an outline to the eye by removing material to leave a raised ring around the eye (Fig. 8). The curved nature of the eyes would have been extremely difficult and time consuming to produce for the Predynastic craftspeople using stone abraders and flint chisels – there is no evidence of any drilling used to form the eyes.
The ‘suspension hole’ does not have the profile of having been made with flint drills, instead it appears to have been made using a commonly sized 1/8th inch modern twist drill. It is possible that the suspension hole was drilled into the palette in modern times and no other changes were made, but this seems highly unlikely.
The shape and the style of 5474 are both suspicious, however this is a very difficult quality to objectively quantify, and this alone cannot disprove the palette’s authenticity. The shape of the eyes is unlike other zoomorphic palettes, but it is still possible that this was the style chosen by a Predynastic craftsperson for this specific palette. We cannot say for certain that the palette was re-carved, but we can say it is incredibly unusual and its outer shape does conform to having once been a rhomboid which has been re-carved. Comparing it to the other shapes of the palettes in the PPDB it is certainly an outlier, and this combined with the modern tool marks all point to this being modified in the late 19th century.
Why would someone do this? As this was purchased from the art and antiquities market, the most likely answer is that the palette was re-carved in order to make it more desirable and more expensive. This was apparently so well executed that it fooled the serving chief inspector of antiquities and future keeper at the Egyptian Museum, Cairo.