A 3,000-Year-Old Painter’s Palette from Ancient Egypt, with Traces of the Original Colors Still In It

It’s a good bet your first box of crayons or water­col­ors was a sim­ple affair of six or so col­ors… just like the palette belong­ing to Amen­emopet, vizier to Pharaoh Amen­hotep III (c.1391 — c.1354 BC), a plea­sure-lov­ing patron of the arts whose rule coin­cid­ed with a peri­od of great pros­per­i­ty.

Amenemopet’s well-used artist’s palette, above, now resides in the Egypt­ian wing of New York City’s Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art.

Over 3000 years old and carved from a sin­gle piece of ivory, the palette is marked “beloved of Re,” a roy­al ref­er­ence to the sun god dear to both Amen­hotep III and Akhen­aton, his son and suc­ces­sor, whose wor­ship of Re resem­bled monothe­ism.

As cura­tor Catharine H. Roehrig notes in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan’s pub­li­ca­tion, Life along the Nile: Three Egyp­tians of Ancient Thebes, the palette “con­tains the six basic col­ors of the Egypt­ian palette, plus two extras: red­dish brown, a mix­ture of red ocher and car­bon; and orange, a mix­ture of orpi­ment (yel­low) and red ocher. The painter could also vary his col­ors by apply­ing a thick­er or thin­ner lay­er of paint or by adding white or black to achieve a lighter or dark­er shade.”

(Care­ful when mix­ing that orpi­ment into your red ocher, kids. It’s a form of arsenic.)

Oth­er min­er­als that would have been ground and com­bined with a nat­ur­al bind­ing agent include gyp­sum, car­bon, iron oxides, blue and green azu­rite and mala­chite.

The col­ors them­selves would have had strong sym­bol­ism for Amen­hotep and his peo­ple, and the artist would have made very delib­er­atereg­u­lat­ed, evenchoic­es as to which pig­ment to load onto his palm fiber brush when dec­o­rat­ing tombs, tem­ples, pub­lic build­ings, and pot­tery.

As Jen­ny Hill writes in Ancient Egypt Onlineiwn—col­orcan also be trans­lat­ed as “dis­po­si­tion,” “char­ac­ter,” “com­plex­ion” or “nature.” She delves into the specifics of each of the six basic col­ors:

Wadj (green) also means “to flour­ish” or “to be healthy.” The hiero­glyph rep­re­sent­ed the papyrus plant as well as the green stone mala­chite (wadj). The col­or green rep­re­sent­ed veg­e­ta­tion, new life and fer­til­i­ty. In an inter­est­ing par­al­lel with mod­ern ter­mi­nol­o­gy, actions which pre­served the fer­til­i­ty of the land or pro­mot­ed life were described as “green.”

Dshr (red) was a pow­er­ful col­or because of its asso­ci­a­tion with blood, in par­tic­u­lar the pro­tec­tive pow­er of the blood of Isis…red could also rep­re­sent anger, chaos and fire and was close­ly asso­ci­at­ed with Set, the unpre­dictable god of storms. Set had red hair, and peo­ple with red hair were thought to be con­nect­ed to him. As a result, the Egyp­tians described a per­son in a fit of rage as hav­ing a “red heart” or as being “red upon” the thing that made them angry. A per­son was described as hav­ing “red eyes” if they were angry or vio­lent. “To red­den” was to die and “mak­ing red” was a euphemism for killing.

Irtyu (blue) was the col­or of the heav­ens and hence rep­re­sent­ed the uni­verse. Many tem­ples, sar­copha­gi and bur­ial vaults have a deep blue roof speck­led with tiny yel­low stars. Blue is also the col­or of the Nile and the primeval waters of chaos (known as Nun).

Khenet (yel­low) rep­re­sent­ed that which was eter­nal and inde­struc­tible, and was close­ly asso­ci­at­ed with gold (nebu or nebw) and the sun. Gold was thought to be the sub­stance which formed the skin of the gods.

Hdj (white) rep­re­sent­ed puri­ty and omnipo­tence. Many sacred ani­mals (hip­po, oxen and cows) were white. White cloth­ing was worn dur­ing reli­gious rit­u­als and to “wear white san­dals” was to be a priest…White was also seen as the oppo­site of red, because of the latter’s asso­ci­a­tion with rage and chaos, and so the two were often paired to rep­re­sent com­plete­ness.

Kem (black) rep­re­sent­ed death and the after­life to the ancient Egyp­tians. Osiris was giv­en the epi­thet “the black one” because he was the king of the nether­world, and both he and Anu­bis (the god of embalm­ing) were por­trayed with black faces. The Egyp­tians also asso­ci­at­ed black with fer­til­i­ty and res­ur­rec­tion because much of their agri­cul­ture was depen­dent on the rich dark silt deposit­ed on the riv­er banks by the Nile dur­ing the inun­da­tion. When used to rep­re­sent res­ur­rec­tion, black and green were inter­change­able.

via My Mod­ern Met

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Won­ders of Ancient Egypt: A Free Online Course from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia

Harvard’s Dig­i­tal Giza Project Lets You Access the Largest Online Archive on the Egypt­ian Pyra­mids (Includ­ing a 3D Giza Tour)

Pyra­mids of Giza: Ancient Egypt­ian Art and Archaeology–a Free Online Course from Har­vard

The Met Dig­i­tal­ly Restores the Col­ors of an Ancient Egypt­ian Tem­ple, Using Pro­jec­tion Map­ping Tech­nol­o­gy

Take a 3D Tour Through Ancient Giza, Includ­ing the Great Pyra­mids, the Sphinx & More

What Ancient Egypt­ian Sound­ed Like & How We Know It

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. She most recent­ly appeared as a French Cana­di­an bear who trav­els to New York City in search of food and mean­ing in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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Comments (3)
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  • Justine says:

    Actu­al­ly the palette you show in the pho­to with the prenomen of Amen­hotep III is a dif­fer­ent palette than the one belong­ing to the vizier Amen­emopet.

    The palette you have pic­tured is acces­sion 26.7.1294 and was part of the Met’s pur­chase of the Carnar­von col­lec­tion.

    The palette of Amen­emopet the vizier shown in fig 61 in Catharine H. Roehrig Life along the Nile: Three Egyp­tians of Ancient Thebes is a dif­fer­ent object — acces­sion 48.72
    Link: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/547707

  • Brian says:

    Akhen­at­en did ‑NOT- wor­ship Re/Ra, i.e., the anthro­po­mor­phic god of the sun. In fact, Akhen­at­en was known for the rad­i­cal stance of explic­it­ly reject­ing the idea of reject­ing the idea of any anthro­po­mor­phic gods and instead insist­ing on wor­ship only of the Aten (it’s right there in his cho­sen roy­al name), that is to say the inef­fa­ble solar disc itself.

    Besides nom­i­nal monothe­ism, the ani­con­ism of Akhen­aten’s reli­gion is the oth­er oft-over­looked con­nec­tion schol­ars draw between it and lat­er Near East­ern monothe­is­tic reli­gions such as Judaism, Islam, and icon­o­clas­tic Chris­tian­i­ty.

  • Peter Flynn says:

    The palette illus­trat­ed holds six colours, not eight as implied.

    But more impor­tant­ly, it looks as if the paint was in spe­cial­ly shaped replace­able blocks, just like today’s palettes, which implies the exis­tence of an artist’s colours sup­pli­er that the painter would go to for fresh blocks. A whole indus­try?

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