Bird-shaped palette

Predynastic Period, Naqada I–IIa
3850–3300 B.C.


Height x width: 14 x 9 cm (5 1/2 x 3 9/16 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique


Out on Loan

On display at Houston Museum of Natural Science, TX, May 17, 2013 – June 30, 2018


The Ancient World


Cosmetic and medical

Hard stone palettes were used to grind malachite (a green copper ore) for eye paint, and were buried as offerings in the graves of both men and women from the end of the Neolithic period. They were usually placed near the head of the deceased, or perhaps suspended on a cord or leather thong around the neck. The earliest examples are flat and geometric, usually rectangular, but in the earliest phase of the Predynastic era (known as Naqada I), new shapes emerged, including representations of fish, birds, and turtles.

Some animal-shaped palettes are very large, suggesting that they may have had a ritual significance beyond their function of grinding eye paint.

The animal here, a bird, is portrayed from the perspective that best conveys its distinguishing characteristics. In this case, the bird appears in profile. The skill with which the early sculptors manipulated the exceedingly hard stone points to further advancements that would follow. By the Early Dynastic Period, Egyptian artists would be producing massive ceremonial palettes with narrative scenes in exquisite raised relief. By the Old Kingdom, however, these carved palettes would disappear completely.


Said to be from Naqada. 1903: purchased for the MFA from Mohamed Mohassib, Luxor, Egypt by Albert M. Lythgoe as part of a group (03.1472-03.1473, 03.1495-03.1496, 03.1506) for 12 shillings. Acquired with funds from the Emily Esther Sears Fund. (Accession Date: January 1, 1903)

Credit Line

Emily Esther Sears Fund