Narmer Macehead

A nicely preserved macehead bearing the name of Horus Narmer was found in a deposit during the 1897/98 archaeological survey at Hierakonpolis, along with the Narmer Palette and a fragmentary macehead with the name of king 'Scorpion'. Its decoration has lead to several hypotheses, some seeing it as a record of Narmer's supposed conquest of Lower Egypt, while others see it as a purely ritual object. 
The macehead is now on display at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. 

Macehead of Horus Narmer.

In the central scene, which takes up the entire height of the macehead, a king, identified as Horus Narmer, wearing a tight fitting robe and the Red Crown, is seated on a raised platform underneath a canopy. A bird, most likely representing the Upper Egyptian patron goddess Nekhbet, holds out its wings above the canopy in a protective gesture.The way the king is depicted is very reminiscent of later representations of the Heb Sed, a royal jubilee that was first celebrated in the 30th year of a king's reign and then every 3 years after that. This has led some researchers to propose that the macehead commemorates Narmer's Heb Sed. Against this hypothesis, it has been argued that traditional Heb Sed scenes show the king in the same setting twice -once wearing the Red Crown, as on the macehead, and once wearing the White Crown. This argument is, however, based on the assumption that the Red and White Crowns already had their geographical significance in Narmer’s time and that the Sed festival already centred around the concept of the dual kingship.

Drawing of the images on the Narmer Macehead. The king is seated on a throne on a raised dais.
Based on: Adams-Cialowicz, Protodynastic Egypt, p. 15

The area in front of the king is divided into three registers. In the middle register, facing the king, a fully cloaked figure sits in a dais. Early researchers have interpreted this figure as a princess being presented to the king to be his bride. As the Upper Egyptian Narmer may have conquered at least parts of Lower Egypt, it has been proposed that this princess was of Lower Egyptian origin and that her marriage to Narmer sealed the union between the two parts of the country. The hypothesis that this alleged princess is to be identified as Neithhotep is too farfetched to have much credibility and is contradicted by the fact that Neithhotep was buried in the Upper Egyptian graveyard of Naqada.

More recently, a comparison with the few other sources where this figure is depicted, may suggest that it represents a deity rather than a person, but here too, it is not clear which deity was intended and what its role in the scenes on the Narmer Macehead was.

The figure facing the king is followed by a sequence of 3 semi-circles, 3 men and 3 semi-circles. The 3 men are shown with spread legs, as if they were running, and their arms crossed against their chests. Their crossed arms against their chests may suggest that they were bound and thus captive enemies, but the fact that they seem to be running contradicts this.
The semi-circular elements between which the runners are depicted, also evoke the imagery of the Sed festival, be it that in those cases, it is the king himself who is shown running.

Above the figure in a dais, in the top register, there is an enclosure housing what appear to be a cow and a calf. 
Four standard bearers, very similar to the one's depicted in the top register of the Narmer Palette's front, are facing the king. The image of these standard bearers would continue to be used until the end of the Pharaonic civilisation, for instance in the temple scenes showing the king coming out of the palace on his way to the temple. 

The bottom register records a count of 400.000 cattle, 1.422.000 sheep and 120.000 men, the latter being represented as bound captives. This has led to the suggestion that Narmer is being presented the spoils of a war, or, more concretely, the spoils of his conquest of Lower Egypt. It must, however, be pointed out that except for the possibility that the runners in the middle register might be prisoners, nothing in the macehead's decoration points to a military context.
It has also been suggested that the numbers shown are the result of a census, but it would then be amazing that the population is represented as captive men.

The area immediately behind the king and his podium, is divided into two registers. In the bottom register, the same sandal bearing man as the one on the Narmer Palette, is followed by a man holding a long stick over his shoulder.
Above them, the wigged Tshet figure, also known from the Narmer Palette, and possibly some sort of shaman, 
is followed by two more men holding a stick over their shoulders.

The final set of drawings represents some animals in an enclosure in the bottom register. Above this enclosure, a low rectangular structure, having a vase on a pedestal in the front, a pole, perhaps part of a flag pole in the middle, and a bird perched upon a higher structure in the back is depicted. The perching bird upon a shrine-like structure is often used to symbolise the Lower Egyptian city of Buto and may thus allow us to place the events depicted on the macehead in this ancient city. Excavations in the late 1980s at the site of Buto have indeed revealed mudbrick buildings dated to the Early Dynastic Period, and some even to the reign of Narmer.

Although many hypotheses have been offered to explain the drawings on the Narmer Macehead, none are fully satisfactory. What does seem to be clear, however, is that is appears to commemorate a festival or a ceremony held by Narmer at Buto, but whether this festival is linked to an important historic event, such as the conquest of the city, or whether it is just a festival attended by the king, is not clear at all.


© Jacques Kinnaer 1997 - 2017