Egyptian tradition holds that the state was created by a king known as Menes, who unified the Two Lands under his rule and founded a new capital, Memphis, at the border between them. Testing this tradition became one of the key goals of archaeologists studying the Predynastic period ever since William Flinders Petrie opened up the field with his Predynastic discoveries.
It is in this spirit that the discovery of the Narmer Palette at Hieraconpolis made such an impression upon the scientific community. Here was an object from the dawn of classic Egyptian civilization that seemed to record the very process of the unification of Egypt: the conquest of the north by a king of the south.
These conclusions, however, are products of their time, an age when all transmissions of culture or movements of peoples in the distant past were assumed to have the character of a military invasion, and several of their assumptions do not hold up under modern scrutiny.
Firstly and most importantly, the unification of Egypt may not have been the result of a single act or campaign, but seems instead to be a process developing over several generations, and this process may not be solely or even primarily military in character. The study of the Predynastic period has taken great strides in the last few decades, especially since the work of the late Michael Hoffman, and it now seems that the gathering of various population centers into confederations was as much the result of commercial pressures and diplomatic arrangements as it was of outright warfare. It is also noteworthy that one of the better-attested rivalries of the Predynastic period, that of the Hieraconpolis-Abydos faction against Naqada, played itself out entirely within the heart of Upper Egypt roughly two generations before the age of Narmer, and never had a north-south dimension.
Nor was the process of unification necessarily complete during the lifetime of Narmer. Modern thinking tends to consider Narmer’s successor, Aha, as a better candidate for the first king of the First Dynasty of unified Egypt, relegating Narmer, along with the king known only as “Scorpion,” to a new “0 Dynasty.” Even then, the process of cementing the Two Lands may not have been complete. There is evidence of unrest during the Second Dynasty, possibly culminating in a cultural compromise between northern and southern traditions under the reign of Khasekhemwy, with true stability beginning in the Third Dynasty.
The second faulty assumption is iconographic in nature. It was assumed that, because Narmer appears on the palette wearing the White Crown of Upper Egypt in one location, and the Red Crown of Lower Egypt in another, it necessarily follows that he was the king of all Egypt, as we now understand it; and because he wore the White Crown in battle, and the Red Crown in the triumphal celebration that followed, observers concluded that he was the king of Upper Egypt who led a campaign to subject Lower Egypt to his rule, and having achieved this, he claimed the crown of the vanquished kingdom.
This assumption is faulty because it is predicated on the unproven belief that the Red Crown, which in Dynastic Egypt is considered one of the symbols of Lower Egypt, must necessarily have been indigenous to that region. There is, rather, one piece of evidence that suggests that the Red Crown had an Upper Egyptian origin, a crude Predynastic image of a king or sorcerer who is wearing a headdress that closely resembles the Red Crown. The logic of Egyptian symbolism is such that it is equally plausible that the Red Crown was the product of the southern culture, but subsequently applied to the north. The Egyptian sense of symmetry was such that the north needed to have a crown of its own to represent it, and if no suitably emblematic crown was available, one would be assigned to it.
The third faulty assumption is related to the other two; like the second assumption, it takes an image that may be symbolic at face value, and like the first, it represents an imposition of late 19th century and early 20th century preconceptions upon the Egyptian. It was assumed, in short, that the images of warfare and subjection shown on the palette must necessarily refer to an actual war of conquest. Anyone with even passing knowledge of Egyptian art will recognize, however, several iconic images that usually have a symbolic and magical meaning that do not necessarily reflect a specific, real event. These images include that of the king about to smite an opponent with his mace, the trampling of enemies underfoot, and the triumphal procession. While these images may in this case represent a real campaign and its successful conclusion, they might just as easily be symbolic and magical: symbolic of the king’s ability to win such a victory, and magical to ensure that he remains able to do so.
In short, our knowledge of Narmer is limited by a paucity of contemporary evidence, while our traditional interpretations of the evidence we do have was flawed by early modern preconceptions. What we think we do know is that there was a late Predynastic king, known as Narmer, whose domain included the city of Hieraconpolis. He seems to have been very powerful by the standards of his day, and if his rule did not encompass all of what we now consider to be ancient Egypt, it was probably substantial enough to grow into that state within a generation or two. Future discoveries may yet fill out this picture for us; Egypt has shown a remarkable ability to preserve its secrets.
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