Art of Ancient Egypt: Predynastic (4210 BCE–2680 BCE) and Old Kingdom (2680 BCE–2258 BCE) periods – Part I

Since ancient times Egypt has been considered as the venerable grandfather of all civilizations on Earth. Egypt was “re-discovered” by the French expedition led by Bonaparte during the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries (1798-1801). The first consul was accompanied by the most eminent scientists of France whose research is now considered one of the primordial steps for the modern knowledge of Ancient Egypt. The result of the Comission’s expeditions was the publication of the colossal volumes of the famous work Description de l’Egypte published between 1809 and 1829. Another important step in the then incipient science of Egyptology was the discovery in Rosetta (in the Nile Delta) in 1799 by a soldier of Napoleon of a stone with a trilingual inscription in Greek, demotic*, and hieroglyphic writing. Carefully studying and comparing these three writings, Jean -François Champollion could finally interpret the Egyptian hieroglyphs which greatly pull forward the advancement in the knowledge of the history and culture of Ancient Egypt.

The Ancient Egypt was a huge oasis stretching along the Nile River over a distance of two thousand kilometers. The ancient Egyptians called their country by the name of Kemi (Black Earth) because of the dark color of the silt deposited during the annual flooding of the Nile in order to differentiate it from the surrounding deserts which they called Khaset (Red Earth). The Hebrews called Egypt Mizraim and the Greeks since the times of Homer called it Aigyptos, hence the name we now give to it.

Between four and five thousand years BCE, Ancient Egypt was divided in two regions clearly defined by its physical geography: Lower Egypt that includes the Nile Delta which is a fertile triangle crossed by the many branches of the river in its mouth, and Upper Egypt that includes the long, narrow strip of land between the deserts. They were respectively the domains of the “Cane” kings, whose totem was the cobra which later was placed in the pharaohs’ crowns, and the “Bee” kings whose totem was the vulture.

Pottery vessel from pre-dynastic times (Louvre). Over the geometric decoration occupying the lower half is a boat with many oars, the boat is occupied by the stylized figures of a shepherd and a dancer.

The early inhabitants of the Nile valley lived naked, tattooed, and painted as most of the European Neolithic tribes did. This habit was kept for long time in the lower classes as well as the custom of accentuating the eyebrows and eyelids with the scented kohl* (an ancient eye cosmetic, traditionally made by grinding lead sulfide and other ingredients). We can still appreciate this practice in the frescoes of the pharaonic temples. The prehistoric paintings and engravings of Upper Egypt and the Nubian dolmens are just like their European counterparts. The pre-pharaonic ceramic showed only two colors: red on the background, and dark purple of the additional decor. On this ceramic the Ancient Egyptians painted people, birds, boats, gazelles, and -among wavy lines- the Nile river. These ceramics reveal many details of the life of the primitive inhabitants of Egypt. In the ancient Egyptian predynastic culture women were represented naked. For their funerary practices, the women used long ivory combs which were probably used to keep the veil during the burial ceremonies. These combs were also profusely decorated with animal figures.

Another artifact that also provides historic, not to say, legendary information from Egyptian predynastic times are the slate plates known collectively as “cosmetic palettes*”. This “palettes” bore a circular repository in the center which is thought to serve as a small deposit to dilute the kohl and other cosmetics used by pharaohs and magnates. It is for this reason that we have given them the name of “Cosmetic palettes”. Many of the scenes represented in the reliefs of these “palettes” are undoubtedly epic episodes concerning conquests. Notable cosmetic palettes are:

  • The Narmer Palette, thought by some to depict the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under the pharaoh Narmer, (Egyptian Museum, Cairo)
  • Front and back of the palette of King Nar-Mer (Egyptian Museum, Cairo). In the front side, the Pharaoh bears the tiara of Upper Egypt and his name is inscribed on the top, in a square flanked by two heads of the goddess Hathor with cow ears and horns. The Pharaoh is followed by his “sandal bearer” and in front of him there is a falcon counting 6 pins, ie. 6000 defeated. In the back side, the Pharaoh appears with the crown of Lower Egypt and preceded by his Standard bearer.
  • Libyan Palette, (Egyptian Museum, Cairo)
  • The Dogs Palette, displaying canines, giraffes, and other quadrupeds, (Louvre)
  • The palette called the Jackals Palette or the Dogs Palette (Louvre). Several jackals and a giraffe surround the center circle, which served to dilute cosmetics or sacred ointments.
  • The Battlefield Palette, (British Museum and Ashmolean Museum)
  • The Winner Lion’s Palette or the Battlefield Palette (British Museum, London) from pre-dynastic times. It is the oldest of the known big Egyptian palettes decorated with reliefs.
  • The Bulls Palette, showing a bull, representing the king, goring his enemies
  • The Bulls Palette (Louvre). It represents the triumph over a subjected enemy between the horns of the “Bull of Great Power”, a title adopted by the pharaohs. Note at the bottom the walled city with its hieroglyphic sign, which begins the Egyptian inventory of the conquered peoples.
  • The Hunters Palette, (British Museum and Louvre)
  • The Hunters Palette or the Lion Hunting Palette (Louvre and British Museum). The lion is attacked by the king (right), who is followed by his warriors wearing jackal tales. It depicts a military coalition of the peoples of the Ibex, Ostrich, Goat, Deer and Jackal, whose totemic symbols parade between two rows of soldiers.

The primitive Egyptians were initially separated in small independent clans which later came to be known –until the appearance of pharaonic times- as nomos or provinces along the Nile.  These small States were gradually absorbed into two big principalities: those of Upper and of Lower Egypt, respectively characterized by the high tiara or white crown of the ancient “Cane” kings and the red crown of the “Bee” kings. A first pharaoh called Menes (Narmer) joined both principalities towards the 3,200 BCE and was crowned with the white and red double crown thus inaugurating the First Dynasty of Egypt.


Cosmetic Palette: Archaeological artifacts, originally used in predynastic Egypt to grind and apply ingredients for facial or body cosmetics. The decorative palettes of the late 4th millennium BCE appear to have lost this function and became commemorative, ornamental, and possibly ceremonial. They were made almost exclusively out of siltstone with a few exceptions. Many of the palettes were found at Hierakonpolis, a centre of power in pre-dynastic Upper Egypt. After the unification of the country, the palettes ceased to be included in tomb assemblages.

Demotic: (from Ancient Greek meaning “popular”). The ancient Egyptian script derived from northern forms of hieratic used in the Nile Delta, and the stage of the Egyptian language written in this script, following Late Egyptian and preceding Coptic. The term was first used by the Greek historian Herodotus to distinguish it from hieratic and hieroglyphic scripts.

Kohl: An ancient eye cosmetic, traditionally made by grinding stibnite for similar purposes to charcoal used in mascara. It is widely used in the Middle East, North Africa, the Mediterranean, Eastern Europe, Latin America, South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Horn of Africa, and parts of West Africa as eyeliner to contour and/or darken the eyelids and as mascara for the eyelashes. It is worn mostly by women, but also by some men and children. Kohl has also been used in India as a cosmetic for a long time. In addition, mothers would apply kohl to their infants’ eyes soon after birth. Some did this to “strengthen the child’s eyes”, and others believed it could prevent the child from being cursed by the evil eye.