The ancient Egyptians adorned themselves with eye-makeup from at least 4400 BC, and used stone palettes, carved in elaborate shapes, to grind the pigments. These cosmetic palettes were so cherished that they were hung in the home and even taken to the grave.

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 torsos 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 2-D art, order – the concept of maat to the ancient Egyptians – dominates.

Palette depicting a pair of mud turtles. Pre-dynastic, early Naqada II. ca. 3650–3500 BC.


But certain objects in the museum don’t fit – they have a freedom of style quite unlike most objects surrounding you. Almost certainly, these non-conformist pieces will date to the Pre-dynastic Period, a time before Egypt’s unification in ca. 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.

Cosmetic palette with antelope heads and a turtle. Pre-dynastic, Naqada II, ca. 3650–3500 BC.


Amongst the Pre-dynastic objects, you will also find cosmetic palettes. From the start of the Badarian Period (ca. 4400 BC), the Egyptians carved pieces of stone – most often mudstone – into a manageable size to use as a surface for grinding pigment. The ground malachite, red ochre or galena was then mixed with resins, oils or fats to form a paste that could be applied to the face as eye-makeup. The process of grinding also left circular indentations in the stone, which today can often retain traces of ancient pigment.

As eye-makeup was fashionable among both sexes throughout Egyptian history, cosmetic palettes are the most commonly found class of object in Pre-dynastic burials after beads and pottery, highlighting their importance to their owners in both life and death. Indeed, many palettes were pierced at their upper edge, allowing them to be hung in the home, probably to keep them safe, but also for display; other, tinier palettes – too small to be functional – were probably regarded as amulets, and either hung from the belt or worn on a necklace. So, as well as being appreciated for their aesthetic qualities,it is possible that the palettes had a religious significance, though we are unaware of their meaning.  

Although Egypt’s earliest cosmetic palettes were chunky, rectangular slabs of stone, embellished only by notches carved at either long end, over the course of 1,400 years, they developed into a range of shapes and sizes. The first palettes after the Badarian phase were typically rhomboidal (diamond shaped, sometimes long and sleek, sometimes squat), and vary in size from just a few centimetres in length to almost a metre. As time passed, Egypt’s stone workers became more experimental; from the end of the Naqada I phase of Egypt’s Pre-dynastic Period (ca. 3550 BC), a vast array of shapes appear in the artist’s repertoire, including ‘pelta’-shaped palettes.
Appearing like small anchors, these are, in fact, representations of boats in profile, often with birds’ heads carved at the prow and stern, and with a small cabin at the centre. This form of cosmetic palette vanishes from history around 3400 BC.

At the same time that pelta palettes made their appearance, shield-like palettes (scutiform) and animal (zoomorphic) shapes also came into use. Shield-shaped palettes became especially popular around 3400 BC and continued to be made until the end of the Pre-dynastic Period, around 400 years later. At the top of the shield, the stone workers often carved stylized birds’ heads in profile, their faces turned away from each other and their eyes embellished with ostrich shell. The most endearing of Egypt’s cosmetic palettes, however, are those carved fully as animals. Of the many animal shapes known, turtles (which appear as if flattened by some ancient steamroller), birds and fish dominate, each carved as if in silhouette and plain except for the odd incised detail or eye. Indeed, many palettes only resemble their subject in a very rudimentary way; some fish, for example, were carved as basic ovals with only the slightest hint of a tail fin. Some are so rudimentary that you wonder if Egyptologists are right in identifying them as a fish at all. The squashed-turtle type (a non-academically recognized category) are particularly appealing because of their (unintentional?) cuteness: carved as fat ovals with tiny flippers, their bodies are topped by squat  heads with bulbous eyes. Other animal palettes, and especially those representing birds, were also carved to appear plump, allowing their owners ample space on which to grind their pigment.

In Naqada III (3150–3000 BC), the forms of palette the Egyptians produced became more artistically restricted and their appearance progressively simpler. Gone were the endearing animal shapes and pelta palettes, replaced by stern rectangular slabs, often with incised lines running around their outer edges as their only decoration; this type of palette continues to be found into the First Dynasty (ca. 3050 BC), when it too vanishes from history. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that Naqada III was devoid of artistic experimentation. At this time, large, elaborately carved shield-shaped palettes were produced as prestige items for the elite. The simultaneous decline in decorative palettes among Egypt’s less privileged population could indicate the elite’s appropriation of palettes as a medium for the display of wealth and status; effectively, palettes as items of beauty were now for the rich alone. Indeed, only around 25 of these elite palettes are known, highlighting their restricted use.

The Battlefield Palette. Pre-dynastic, mudstone. Perhaps too large for practical use, this palette is a perfect example of those decorated to commemorate events. It shows a lion and a vulture preying on a number of dead bodies. It is assumed that these are enemies fallen in battle, and some have speculated that the lion represents a ruler or king and the palette records a royal victory.


 Though carved, as usual, with a central circular space for grinding pigment, these shield-shaped  palettes were never used for this purpose; rather, as surfaces for display, seemingly placed in temples, they were carved with images representative of the elite’s ruling ideology, and may also have been used to commemorate important events, leading scholars to refer to them as commemorative or ceremonial palettes. Perhaps the most famous example of this type, the Narmer Palette, found at Hierakonpolis and now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, shows the king smiting an enemy on one side, and the intertwined heads of serpopards – a Mesopotamian motif – on the reverse, signifying the unification of Egypt. At the same time, the palette represents the triumph of order over chaos, something emphasized by its orderly composition. Another example, the Battlefield Palette, in the British Museum, depicts a lion, perhaps symbolizing the king, biting into an enemy,while vultures pick at other fallen foes. It is thought that this  scene may commemorate an Egyptian victory. The Libyan Palette, now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, may also commemorate a victory and the subsequent booty taken, as well as attacks on various fortified cities. In all cases, however, such imagery may be entirely symbolic, unrelated to true historical events.

Kohl jar ( Serpentinite) with a linen stopper wad. Second Intermediate Period, early New Kingdom.


During the First Dynasty, the use of commemorative palettes died out, as did the use of mudstone cosmetic palettes. For the rest of Pharaonic history, the surfaces used for grinding pigments are plain, and generally take the form of simple, rectangular blocks of stone of varying types. Indeed, during the Dynastic Period, it seems that the Egyptians preferred to focus their artistic creativity on the vessels that contained their eye-makeup. In the Old Kingdom, kohl was stored in small jars, which, by the Middle Kingdom, had taken on a standard appearance, being flat-bottomed with a wide and flat rim. In the New Kingdom, styles became more elegant; vessels from this time are typically much slimmer and longer than in earlier periods, and could taper at both ends. They were also made from a variety of materials, though calcite, faience and glass examples were most popular. The most elaborate containers take the shape of figures carrying pots used to store the kohl, or imitate bundles of hollow reeds.

It is a common misconception that Egyptian art remained static for thousands of years; that this is a fallacy can easily be seen in the surviving objects from the Pre-dynastic Period, and especially in the evolution and disappearance of mudstone cosmetic palettes. It is true, however, that appearance was important to the ancient Egyptians throughout the Pharaonic Period. As far back as 4400 BC, they took their beloved cosmetic equipment to the grave, and even adorned the faces of the dead with eye-makeup. Thousands of years before mummification practices were refined, the ancient Egyptians already hoped to look as good in death as they had in life.

This article was first published in print in RAWI's ISSUE 7, 2015