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“New Light on the Narmer Palette with Advanced Digital Imaging” Kathryn E. Piquette (EEG Meeting Talk)

On Sunday Kathryn Piquette came to the Essex Egyptology Group to talk to us about the work she’s been doing using Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) to examine the Narmer Palette (and some other ancient Egyptian objects). She started her talk by giving us context for the Narmer Palette, and then explained the imaging technique she is using. She then showed us several examples of objects she’s studied before returning to the Narmer Palette to tell us about her findings so far.

The Narmer Palette was discovered in 1898 by Quibell & Green at Hierakonopolis, near the “Main Deposit”. This was a cache of sacred objects that had been buried around the time of the 5th Dynasty when they were no longer being used. The palette dates to around 3100BC, and is a larger version of the type of palette that was used by the ancient Egyptians to grind eye makeup powders. The normal ones are quite small, and plain, but this ceremonial one is bigger (around 65cm by 40cm) and richly decorated. It’s made from mudstone, and Piquette said it’s surprisingly heavy so she thinks of it as a semi-portable object. The art on it depicts the first Pharaoh of a unified Egypt, Narmer, in a selection of scenes that depict his power & his kingship. This includes a smiting scene of the same type as those you see on temple pylons in Egypt right up to the end of the Ptolemaic era. Most previous research on the palette hasn’t been interested in the object as an actual physical artifact. In part this is because it’s hard (for bureaucratic reasons) to get access to it to actually study it in the flesh (so’s to speak), even tho it’s on display in the Cairo Museum it’s behind somewhat grubby glass and it can be difficult to closely inspect it. And so people study old photographs of it or line drawings of the art that have been made. This only serves to enhance the general tendency in Egyptology to study the art and the texts in isolation from the physical objects they’re on. So the previous studies have concentrated on things like what the art tells us about the history of the period, how the iconography has changed or not changed over the millennia after it was made, and so on. Piquette is more interested in how the physical object was made – what it tells us about craftsmanship at the time. As well as having a much closer look at the details of the artwork.

She is using a technique called Reflectance Transformation Imaging to do this examination. This involves building up a composite image from several different photographs, each taken with the light source in a different place. This lets you use imaging software on a computer to play around with different lighting angles, and to use a variety of enhancement algorithms in conjunction with this. Piquette said it’s like if you’re looking at an old coin and trying to see the writing/picture on it – you tip it back & forth trying to get it to the point where the shadows make the inscription clearer. I also thought it’s like how guidebooks for Egyptian sites often say things like “visit in the early morning as the angle of the light makes the inscriptions clearer”. Obviously the beauty of RTI is that once you’ve done the hard work of taking all the carefully lined up photos you can then revisit the image over & over looking at what you can see with different light angles and different enhancements.

Piquette next showed us several examples of objects she’s used RTI to examine. This was really interesting to see, as she showed us the actual images and was moving the light source around to show what showed up under different conditions. It’s a little harder to write about without the pictures tho – I’ll just try & give a flavour of the sorts of things she pointed out to us. One of the objects was a 1st Dynasty stela where she showed us the tool marks that showed how it was made. On a Roman Mummy Portrait she showed how the technique could be used to distinguish the original pigment from some much later repair work – which is important information for the conservators working on the object. Another object was a Greek magical text written on a sheet of lead and placed in a water cistern around 400BC – as you can imagine it was pretty corroded. At first when she showed us the image of it, it looked like there was nothing readable at all. But by turning on one of the enchancement algorithms and altering the light angle suddenly the text popped out and was visible.

While we had our coffee & cake break I’d been wondering if the technique was capable of being used on large outdoor structures – I’d been thinking about Vulture Rock earlier in the week for the blog post I published on Wednesday and it’d be awesome to see these sorts of images for that. And the first object she showed us after the break wasn’t from Vulture Rock but was a similar sort of thing – a large rock in a wadi near Aswan which has rock art on it. She talked a bit about the difficulties of using RTI outdoors at this point (and it came up again in the questions at the end). Stability is one of the key requirements for RTI as all the photos must be identical except for the light source – so if the only place to set up the tripod is on sand, or if the wind picks up and blows the sand around, then that can cause problems. Amount of ambient light can also be an issue, and the normal technique is to use a flash gun that’s significantly brighter than the ambient light. Which isn’t that easy to achieve if you’re outside under the Egyptian sun.

The last example she showed us before returning to the Narmer Palette was an inscription on a gneiss bowl. She used this to illustrate again how the tendency to divorce the art/text from the physical object can remove information. The original publication of this inscription doesn’t actually look much like what’s on the bowl – the hieroglyphs are tidied up into standard forms, and the orientation of the text is reversed to better fit with Western conventions. So that tells you what it says but you’ve lost all the information about what the inscription is like. When she examined it using RTI she could see that in contrast to the beautifully made bowl the inscription is actually pretty crudely done. Each line of the hieroglyphs has taken several strokes of the carver’s tools to make – and they all seem to’ve slipped across the surface past the line where they should’ve been. In one place the chisel looks like it skidded a long way round the rim. Piquette also said that she thinks it should be possible to figure out if the carver was right or left handed by the directions the tools seem to’ve slipped the most.

Piquette now returned to talking about the Narmer Palette. It had taken her several years to negotiate permission to photograph it, and then a couple of days before she was due to start work it suddenly seemed as if the permission had been granted without understanding what she needed to do! In the end she was able to persuade them that it would be safe and a good idea for her to take these photos with the palette out of the display case, and she was able to take some photographs. She only had 2 hours to work on it, in a slightly too cramped space, so she wasn’t able to do as many detailed images as she’d hoped. What she succeeded in capturing were two overview images, one each of the front and back, and two detailed (i.e. zoomed in) images of the top left and top right quadrants of the Smiting Scene side of the palette. She hopes to have a chance to go back and take more detailed images of the rest of the palette and also examine the thick edges of it. But that requires renegotiating access with the new director at the museum.

One of the things she can see using RTI are the tool marks where chisels have slipped, or where the design was blocked out before the detailed carving started. There are places where the design seems to’ve been changed – so it wasn’t entirely agreed upon before the carver(s) started work. Repeating elements within the design are also not standardised. For instance there are four large cow heads at the top of the palette (two on each side) and they aren’t identical. One of them has a mouth that looks just like the eyes (so it looks like an open mouth). The other one on that side has a line across the mouth (like the lips are closed), but there are traces if you look closely that indicate the mouth may once’ve been open. The two on the other side both have closed mouths. Did the carver start with the open mouthed one and then decide it looked better the other way but never went back to alter the first one? Or did someone else do that one who had a different style?

RTI also lets Piquette see details in the carving that haven’t been noticed before. For instance the figure of the Pharaoh wearing the Red Crown seems to have a chin strap holding the crown on. Which maybe shows something new about how the crown was actually worn (perhaps throughout history, perhaps only at this time). There is also potential information to be had about how the Egyptians displayed dead enemies at this time. On one side of the palette are nine corpses of slain enemies with their heads removed & placed between their legs. Closer inspection shows that all but one of them have also said their penises removed and placed on top of their heads. That had been speculated about before from inspection of a cast of the palette but Piquette has been able to show that it looks like that’s the case on the real thing too. There are also indications that some of the enemies are laid out on their bellies and some on their backs. The one who has been less mutilated than the others is on his back and Piquette wonders if the different positions have to do with different statuses of the enemies. Was the man in charge laid out in a more respectful way than his troops?

This was a fascinating talk, much more so than I think my writeup makes it seem because we actually got to see the images. As Piquette’s results are still preliminary data there were more questions than answers in what she was telling us about the Narmer Palette. And that’s quite exciting for an object that’s been known of for over a 100 years – the idea that there’s still a lot more we could learn from it even after all that time.