The Narmer macehead (right) at time of discovery

The Narmer Macehead and Related Objects

The Narmer Macehead was found in the temple area of Nekhen (Hierakonpolis) in 1898. It is dates to the Early Dynastic Period reign of King Narmer

(Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt XXVII, 1990: 53-59)
Reproduced with permission.

Few Egyptian artifacts have been more closely studied, or more variously interpreted, than the carved stone maceheads discovered at Hieraconpolis by Quibell and Green in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Together with the great Palette of Narmer, they have been seen as somehow documenting the founding event of Egyptian history, the uniting of the two lands; and efforts to interpret the scenes carved upon them have generally had the elucidation of that event as their primary goal.

Of the three maceheads, the best preserved, and therefore presumably the most susceptible of explication, is that of King Narmer. The wide range of interpretations that have been put upon it has, however, simply served to underline our real ignorance of the dim period in human history during which it was made. Vandier, in his Manuel d’archeologie egyptienne, regarded the scenes as commemorating a Sed-festival celebrated by the king, while Schott, in a thoughtful study in his Hieroglyphen, saw them as referring to a celebration by Narmer of his conquest of the north. Perhaps the most extravagant explanation of the representations was that of Petrie, who suggested that they commemorate the symbolic wedding of the king to the heiress of the crown of Lower Egypt and the legitimization by marriage of his military conquest. [1] This last explanation has had its latter-day advocates as well. [2]

It will be the thesis of this brief note that the scenes of the Narmer macehead and its congeners are in fact not primarily commemorative in llie strict sense, but that they are simply pictorial versions of year-names of the sort made familiar by the Palermo Stone and the tablets of the kings of Dynasties I and II. Thus, it will be suggested, the scenes’ main purpose is to signalize the date of the objects’ manufacture and presentation to the temple rather than to extol the intrinsic importance of the events mentioned. As we know from the Palermo Stone itself, years were named not only after victorious campaigns and other great events, but also (and more usually) after festivals and other relatively commonplace occurrences.

The custom of dating royal gifts to the temple is well established by the group of stone vases, also from Hieraconpolis, inscribed with the name of King Khasekhem of Dyn. II and bearing the text, rnpt sm3-t3wy; ch3 hwt mhtyw, “Year of Uniting the Two Lands; Fighting and Smiting the Northerners.” It would seem that during the king’s accession year a rebellion broke out in the Delta, the successful suppression of which was commemorated in the name of the year. [3]

Early in the nineteen seventies Mr. P. R. S. Moorey, Keeper of the Department of Antiquities at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, kindly allowed the writer to study the Narmer macehead and that of the Scorpion King. This examination has enabled some small corrections to be made to the existing published drawings, which are embodied in figs. 1 and 2 (drawn by Barbara Ibronyi). Schott had already realized that the existing drawing of the Narmer macehead [4] showed the scene in the wrong relationship to the whole composition, inasmuch as it placed the section showing the temple building and its associated landscape at the right end of the scene instead of on the left, behind the figure of the king. Corrections have now been made to the shape of the shrine, whose door can be clearly seen, and to the wavy line indicating lire desert surface beside the building, as well as to some minor details.

The focus of the scene is without doubt the figure of the king. He sits enthroned under a canopy erected on a high dais, wearing the Red Crown and holding the so-called flail, his body swathed in a long cloak. The royal personage is attended by the minor figures of fan-bearers, bodyguards with long quarterstaves, and the skin-clad official who has been thought to be either the vizier or the heir-apparent. Before Narmer three bearded men [5] run a race toward him between the usual lunate markers, while in a higher register a cloaked and beardless figure faces him from a litter. Over this personage is a simple enclosure within which stand a cow and calf. Above the runners stands a rank of four variously-clad men carrying standards, also facing the throne.

This group of figures would seem to be in some sense a single compositional unit, representing a public appearance of the king and accompanying activities. The orientation of the scene with the building suggests, as Schott clearly saw, that it belongs “behind” the king and is intended to indicate the locality where the main event look place. That scholar was also certainly correct when he identified the shrine as the temple at Dbcwt, the old name for the town of Buto, from the figure of the heron on the roof of the shrine; although the present writer could see no sign of the usual narrow crest- feathers on the bird’s head, the pose of head and neck is certainly that characteristic of Egyptian representations of the heron. The scene below, of bubalis antelopes (hariebeest) disporting them-selves in a desert landscape beside a watercourse, is an unexpected addition to a depiction obviously intended to localize the events at Buto. It might possibly be explained by the fact that Buto lay in the nome of the “Desert Bull” (H3sww).

Schott was also undoubtedly on the right track when he identified the figure in the litter as a “child of the king,” although he went on to suggest that a male personage is involved. It is far more likely that the figure is a female “child of the king” since such figures appear so often as witnesses or participants in pharaonic ceremonies. They would appear to represent in a general way the female relatives of tlie king, perhaps both in his own female children and those of his predecessors slill living in the palace.

The question which next arises is the identity of the ceremony or event that is here shown as having taken place at Buto. At this juncture it must be pointed out that the representations on this class of monument must surely be regarded as inscriptions rather than as simple pictorial renderings of events; that is to say, we are really dealing here with words rather than with pictures. It follows that the artist intended as precise a statement as was possible. If indeed he had meant to depict the Sed-festival, as Vandier and many others have asserted, he would surely have made it perfectly explicit by representing the Sed-platform with its double stairs and thrones, or made some other reference to the dual nature of the monarchy and of the ceremony.

The answer would seem to be that he did not intend the Heb-sed at all, but rather another festival known from many occurrences in the Palermo Stone, the ceremony of hct-bity, the “Appearance of the King of Lower Egypt”. In the Palermo Stone this festival occurs first in the third line, sometime in Dynasty I; it must surely be imagined to be much older, however, since the complementary festival, that of the appearance of the king of Upper Egypt, is found already in the second line. In the same source we find another ceremony entitled “Appearances of the King of Upper Egypt and the King of Lower Egypt,” which may or may not be the same two celebrated as one. This last falls in one case in the accession year and in another is linked with the Sed-festival, but is apparently not identical with either event. It is presumably the festival referred to on a tablet of King Den, [7] where the king, wearing the Double Crown, sits on the single dais. On the ground line he is shown again, running a race between lunate markers, again wearing the Double Crown, and carrying the so-called flail and some other attribute. It is instructive to compare the form of the single dais in tins tablet with that of the quite distinctive double Heb-sed platform in another tablet of Den certainly dating from one of his Jubilee years. [8]

All of these festivals, according to the Palermo Stone, were celebrated well into Dyn. IV. Indeed, it was during the festival of the “Appearance of the King of Lower Egypt” that the famous mishap occurred to Rewer, who was acting as sm-priest before King Neferirkare of Dyn. V on that occasion “on thie day of taking the bow-line of the god’s boat.” [9] We are not told where the festival was held, but no mention is made of Buto, and thie festival by this time may have been held in Memphis.

The relationship of these festivals – the “appearance” of the king as ruler of Lower Egypt or as ruler of Upper Egypt, and the “appearance” of the two kings together – to each other and to the Sed-festival is of course open to question: but it is more than likely that some at least of the rites and ceremonial events of the first two were common to the others. In the fragmentary reliefs from the sun-temple of Newoserre, which certainly have to do with a Heb-sed, the double pavilion is often shown, but single pavilions are frequently represented in rites which are somehow peculiar to either north or south. [10] In the preserved portions of the Osorkon II Sed-festival reliefs from the Festival Gate at Bubastis [11] the double pavilion oddly does not appear at all, even on the front of the door-posts, where, and where only, the king is shown in the Double Crown.

In the representations that covered the northern side-wall of the gate and the inner door face adjoining is shown a series of rites peculiar to Lower Egypt. Everywhere the king wears the northern crown, and the single dais appears throughout. On the door-face itself are fragmentary scenes that are compellingly reminiscent of that on the macehead of Narmer. [12] Osorkon sits on a dais under a canopy, clad in a long robe, wearing the Red Crown and holding a flail. Before him three men run in line, while below him are female figures labelled as “children of the king.” In the register below, the king marches preceded by five standard bearers, four of them carrying the same emblems as those shown on the macehead; the fifth carries an ibis-standard. From the fragments of a similar scene from the Abu Gurab sun-temple [13] we know that the four standards represent “the followers of Horus, the gods, the souls Pe,” that is to say, the ancestral kings of Lower Egypt; [14] the addition of a fifth is presumably a later development. Just below the standards in the Newoserre relief are seen three female figures in the characteristic vaulted litters of the msw nswt.

Although in neither the Old Kingdom nor the Dyn. XXII representations is there any specific text identifying this part of the Heb-sed ceremony as a version, perhaps abbreviated, of the “Appearance of the King of Lower Egypt,” it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the two ceremonies would have had some features in common. Since there is on the macehead absolutely no identifiable specific reference to the Heb-sed, it is only logical to explain the occasion commemorated there as the festival of hct-bity.

It then becomes necessary to explain the rest of the design on the macehead, the numbers of animals and men. Behind and beneath the running men are figures for “cattle, 400,000; goats (?), 1,422,000.” To the right, and separated by a vertical line from the foregoing, are the bound squatting figure of a bearded man and the number 120,000. Previous explanations of the scene have understood these to refer to the booty acquired either by military action or by the “conquest by marriage.” But if we are dealing with a simple recurrem royal festival, as suggested in this article, and not with a conquest by war or marriage, these figures require some other interpretation. If the whole text (as we are certainly entitled to call it) is in fact simply part of a year-name, the numbers have a ready explanation as the pictorial equivalent of the word tnwt, “counting” or “census,” used in the Palermo Stone as one of the events after which a year might be named, in the familiar formula sp X (n) tnwt. Although first encountered in the portion of the Stone recording the years of King Nynetjer of Dyn. II, where it is already mentioned every other year, it seems not unlikely that it was already an established and in some sense regular event in earlier limes. Later, in the Old Kingdom, the tnwt is of course qualified as “the count of cattle and all small stock” (tnwt ihw cwt nbt), just as it must be read here.

The reference to human beings remains to be explained. No mention is ever made in connection with the tnwt of a census of the human population of Egypt, but it seems highly improbable that the Egyptians did not carry out such. If the figure of 120,000 is in fact a census result, it is of course much too low to be accepted at face value. The most informed estimate of the population of Egypt at the beginning of dynastic limes is that of Karl W. Butzer, [15] who sets it at 870,000. If, however, the figure given on the macehead is that of adult males only – those subject to the corvee and military service – a likelier figure for the total population might in theory be reached by the use of a demographically suitable factor.

At one time the present writer had high hopes of extracting from some such operation a rough census Figure for Egypt at the beginning of the First Dynasty. Unfortunately the other figures given – those for cattle and smaller animals, presumably sheep as well as goats – make it plain that such an exercise would be perfectly futile. In particular the number given for sheep and goals (1,422,000) so exceeds the bounds of possibility for a sedentary farming population [16] of any size that can reasonably be postulated for Narmer’s Egypt that one is obliged to conclude that all the figures given on the macehead are the purest fantasy. This will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the treatment of numbers in Egyptian royal texts. No doubt the presence of numbers on the macehead, as a writing of the word tnwt, was more important than any consideration of accountant’s exactness or even rough accuracy; it is also possible, of course, that the actual figures resulting from a tnwt were simply not within the sphere of common knowledge.

To sum up, it is suggested, despite these difficulties, that the scenes on the Narmer macehead are actually the pictorial equivalent of what would have been (and probably was) rendered on the Palermo Stone as “Year of the Festival of Appearance of the King of Lower Egypt; (First Occasion of) Counting.”

It will hardly have escaped the reader’s notice that this interpretation of the Narmer macehead scene postulates a situation in which many features of the pharaonic system – ceremonial “appearances” of the king, the symbolism of the “souls of Re,” and the institution of the census among them – already existed at a very early date, and implies that much of the ideology and trappings of the pharaonic monarchy had already become well established by Narmer’s time.

A corrected drawing of the second macehead from Hieraconpolis, that of the Scorpion King, is shown in fig. 2. Apart from the row of standards with captive birds or bows that forms the upper register, two scenes seem also to have existed originally: the representation of the king working with a hoe in the presence of the figures facing him, and another of him performing some act in the presence of the ladies ot the royal household (the msw nswt) and women dancers in a marsh setting with papyrus. Of the king’s own figure in this second scene nothing remains save the tiny fragment with the rosette sign forming part of his name and title, and we are left to speculate about the event that was represented. The marshland selling has suggested to the present writer that the subject may conceivably have been the ritual harpooning of the hippopotamus studied so definitively by Save-Soderbergh. [17] Of the details of this rite little is actually known, but in its extended mythic version at Edtu it involves among other things a welcoming choir of female musicians, referred to there as “the children of the king, women of Pe and Dep.” [18] This ritual hunt is, as it happens, coupled in one year-name in the Palermo Stone with the opening of a lake (Swt-ntrw; stt h3B). Might the year named on the Scorpion macehead itself also have been a “Year of Opening the Lake of. . . ; Harpooning the Hippopotamus”? [19]

It should be pointed out in passing that there are traces to be seen on the Scorpion macehead that do not appear in the older drawing. Below the registers with dancing women and the msw nswt there are faint traces of a design that cannot be made out, but that is vaguely suggestive of the sm3-t3wy pattern. There are also traces behind tlie left-hand fan-bearer of what may be a building. The Min-standard from which a rekhyt-bird hangs is shown with an ostrich-feather, overlooked in the older rendering.

The third macehead from the Hieraconpolis find, the one on which Arkell thought to read the name of the Scorpion King, is too fragmentary to do much with, although one might suggest that an “Appearance of the King of Lower Egypt” is commemorated there too, since the single dais and Red Crown at least seem to be certain.

It may be further suggested that the Narmer palette itself is the same kind of dated temple gift. One might interpret the famous scene of the triumphant king as something like “Year of Smiting the Northland (rnpt skr t3-mhw)”; but the main representation on tine other side is not easily to be matched by any of the kinds of events used to form year-names on the Palermo Stone or the Archaic tablets. Here the king, dressed in the regalia of Lower Egypt, marches out to view the slain, preceded by the “souls of the kings of Lower Egypt,” This scene on the reverse of the palette can probably only be explained as a continuation and elaboration of the theme or event depicted on the front (as, of course, other writers have taken it to lie) and not as a second statement. One would have to assume that this year-name had only one essential element, like the year of skr iwntyw, “smiting the Iuntyu,” in line 3,2 of the Palermo Stone, and the less war-like “Year of Fashioning the Sd-standard,” line 3,11. There are others as well.

It is of course possible that the two small scenes occupying the bottom fields of the palette’s two sides may name events that were part of the designation of the year. In the scene of the bull battering down a fortress we may be meant to see the pictorial expression of the words “Opening up (by force, that is: breaching) the Fortress Such-and-such,” as in the tablets of Den studied by Heick; the destroyed wall of the “Festung Schones Tor” to which those texts refer suggests strongly that wp is there being used in a hostile sense, and the horns of the bull shown on the palette may provide the word-sign. [20]

The suggestion is, then, that the primary purpose of the scenes on these monuments was not to celebrate historical or other events in themselves but simply to name the year in which the gift was made and offered to the god, presumably at the New Year’s Festival. This is not a distinction without a difference; the point is that one should be wary of interpreting the events shown on these minor monuments as in themselves necessarily important and “historical.” Indeed, if another such object were to come to light unambiguously referring somehow to the Union of the Two Lands, the most one could conclude would be that the artifact was to be dated to a king’s accession year.

For the Narmer palette, the conclusion outlined here means, of course, a final demotion from its once proud position as a unique historical document recording and celebrating the pivotal event in Egyptian history to that of a mere dated royal gift, given to the temple in a year named (as it happens) after a successful campaign in the north. In the case of his macehead, we have lost the historical drama of the “conquest by marriage” of Lower Egypt, as postulated by Petrie and others, and have only a humdrum year-name mentioning a routine pharaonic festival and including an imaginary set of census figures. In recompense it can however be said that we may have arrived at a clearer perspeciive on the significance of a group of early records that has long been the subject of much speculation.

Royal Ontario Museum

[1] The Making of Egypt (London, 1939)
[2] Notably Emery in his Archaic Egypt (Harmondsworth, 1961), and more recently Michael Hoffman in Egypt Before the Pharaohs (New York, 1979)
[3] Another is known from the Step Pyramid galleries, see Lauer in ASAE 36 (1936), pl. H. Helck (Untersuchungen zur Thinitenzeit [AA 45, Wiesbaden, 1987], 165) seems to have omitted this year-name in his survey of Dyn. II material. The reading and significance of the enigmatic bs within the sn-sign in this text remains debatable.
[4] Based on the plate in Heirakonpolis I (London, 1900)
[5] close examination of the original does not support Helck’s description (in his Untersuchungen zur Thinitenzeit) of the running figures as fettered; they seem to be simply pressing the backs of their fists together.
[6] Notably Hornung and Staehelin, AH 1 (Basel-Genf).
[7] Petrie, Royal Tombs of Abydos I pl. xv, 16. Helck in his recent Untersuchungen zur Thinitenzeit (p. 159) wrongly takes it to be a reference to the Sed-festival.
[8] Petrie, op. cit, pl. xiv, 12.
[9] Selim Hassan, Excavations at Giza I (Oxford, 1929).
[10] Borchardt and v. Bissing, das Rec-heiligtum des Konigs Ne-woser-rec II (Leipzig, 1923).
[11] Naville, The Festival Hall of Osorkon II in the Great Temple at Bubastis (London, 1892).
[12] Naville, op. cit., pl. xxxi, F.
[13] Borchardt and von Bissing, op. cit., II, Bl. 21.
[14] See however Helck, Untersuchungen zur Thinitenzeit, 7.
[15] Early Hydraulic Civilization in Egypt (Chicago, 1976), 82ff.
[16] Modern figures make this abundantly clear, even if common sense did not suggest such a conclusion. According to The Middle East and North Africa: 197-1-75 (London, 1974), Iraq, a largely farming nation with a population in 1973 of 10.1 million, was in 1971 supporting a sheep-and-goat population of 6.3 million, that is, 1.65 persons for every goat or sheep in the country. Such a proportion would generate for Narmer’s Egypt (based on the macehead figure) a human population of 2,346,300. Libya, unlike ancient Egypt a mainly pastoral country, had, according to the same source, a human population of 2.26 million as opposed to an ovicaprid population of 3.4 million. It is, one supposes, possible that pigs and donkeys were also enumerated among the “small stock,” but the number still seems to be impossibly high.
[17] On Egyptian Representations of Hippopotamus Hunting as a Religious Motif (Horae Soederblomianae III, Uppsala, 1953).
[18] Vandier, Le texte dramatique d’Edfou, Suppl. 11 to ASAE, 120.
[19] Cf. the Palermo Stone, line 3, x+8; the name of the building with which the lake was connected would have to have been on the missing portion of the macehead.
[20] Helck, op. cit., 158-59