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The Authenticity of a Lizard-Shaped Predynastic Palette (Acc. No. 5474)

A guest post from palettologist and independent researcher Matt Szafran on an intriguing item that may not be all it at first appears…

Figure 1 – Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) specular enhancement of lizard-shaped Predynastic palette, Manchester 5474.

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.

Figure 2 – Collections catalogued in the Predynastic Palette Database.

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.

Figure 3 – Copy of original letter between James Quibell and Jesse Haworth confirming the purchase of lizard-shaped palette Manchester 5474.

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.

Suspension Hole

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.

Figure 4 – Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) specular enhancement of ‘suspension hole’ in fish-shaped Predynastic palette, Manchester 1737.

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.

Figure 5 – Suspension hole in Manchester 5474, viewed at 40x through a Dino-Lite AM4113T, with measurements taken in DinoXcope.

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. 

Shape

Figure 6 – Manchester 5474 with hypothetical guidelines indicating a possible original rhomboid shape.

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.

Figure 7 – Morphologies catalogued in the Predynastic Palette Database

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.

Object biography of Manchester Museum lizard palette accession number 5474
Figure 8 – Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) specular enhancement of lizard-shaped Predynastic palette, Manchester 5474

The eyes of the palette are unusual when compared with other animal-shaped palettes, where typically the eyes fall into four main categories:

  1. None
  2. Pierced (i.e. drilled through the palette)
  3. Round indentations drilled into the surface
  4. 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.

Conclusion

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.

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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. 

Figure1

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!

Figure2

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.

Figure3

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.

Figure4

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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