OBJECT ZERO: Art History and the Written Record


The discipline of art history comprises two components. art and history, and its objects of study are visual constructions that can be construed in aesthetic (atemporal) or historical (temporal) senses. To put it another way, the exemplary subject of art historical analysis is a 2- or 3-dimensional image (the aesthetic) to which written, historical documentation concerning that particular object attests. Objects like ancient Chinese ritual bronzes or the Venus of Willendorf precede writing altogether and, lacking written documentation of any kind, can be aestheticized, but not historicized, thus placing them outside the purview of the discipline, while meeting the requirements of others, such as anthropology and archæology.

The oldest surviving object for which a historical reference to that particular object exists is an ancient Egyptian carved, schist slab, referred to as the Palette of Narmer. It was found during the excavations of the temple foundations at Heirakonpolis in 1898. The palette was used as cosmetics trays (the circular recess on the reverse of the Narmer palette held crushed pigments which would be applied to the royal visage), although the elaborate, documentary imagery of the Narmer palette suggests that it had a commemorative, as well as ritual, function.

The written documentation that pertains to the Narmer palettet is (conveniently) found on the object itself, taking the form of hieroglyphics, interspersed among the images, that serve as identifying labels. The hieroglyph, showing a fish and a chisel at the top of both sides of the palette gives the name of the largest figure as Narmer (the ancient Egyptian word for fish is nar, and for chisel is mer). From other sources we learn that Narmer reigned in the Old Kingdom (or early dynastic period) around 3000 BC, and that he united Upper and Lower Egypt under one rule for the first time.

On the palette’s obverse, Narmer stands with his right arm raised, mace in hand, ready to strike a figure on his knees, whose hair he holds with his left hand. Both figures are identified by naming heiroglyphs. Behind Narmer stands a smaller figure holding Narmer’s sandals, which were removed whenever the king stood on sacred ground. The sandal-bearer is not an anecdotal detail—he too is a hieroglyph, signifying the King’s piety and respect for the Gods. To the right of the captive is another hieroglyph showing the Horus falcon, standing above 6 papyrus blossoms and holding a rope around the neck of a captive. To parse its meaning, one needs to know that a) Horus, the name of the falcon-headed deity, was used as an honorific title for the king; b) papyrus blossoms were associated with Lower Egypt where they grew; in Egyptian numeric notation, a papyrus blossom denotes the amount one thousand. Taken as a whole, the heiroglyph reads “The Horus (King) conquered 6,000 in Lower Egypt.”

In a separate register beneath Narmer are two figures, similar in appearance to Narmer’s captives, above. They appear to be running, but read according to the Egyptian way of representing the body with face in profile, frontal torso, and straight legs seen from the side, they are clearly dead.

Narmer wears the crown of Upper Egypt and the wooden ceremonial beard, and the Apis bull’s tail, the latter a reference to the divine strength of the king. None of this symbolic gear would have been worn in combat. Furthermore, he is not show in the act of smiting his opponent, but about to strike. This scene on the palette, therefore, alludes to an event, the conquest of Lower Egypt, but at the same time makes a broader, symbolic statement about the power of the king, which is of divine derivation and which, is always, as we are reminded by the raised mace, poised to strike.

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The Palette of Narmer is earliest known object with a written, historical record;

The Palette of Narmer is the earliest known written, historical record;

The Palette of Narmer is both object and subject of the same, written, historical record.

Further reading:

Whitney Davis, Masking the Blow: The Scene of Representation in Late Prehistoric Egyptian Art (UCPress, 1992).

Béatrix Midant-Reynes, Préhistoire de l’Égypte: Des premiers hommes aux premiers pharaons (Arman Colin, 1992).


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