Turtle-shaped palette

Predynastic Period
Naqada II 3650–3300 B.C.

Findspot: Egypt, Naga el-Hai (Qena), Tomb K 362


Width x length: 13 x 16 cm (5 1/8 x 6 5/16 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique

Greywacke, shell

On View

Egypt: Pre-Dynastic and Dynastic (Gallery 105A)


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 turtle, is portrayed from the perspective that best conveys its distinguishing characteristics. In this case, the turtle is seen from above. Details such as the claws of the turtle are incised, and the eyes are inlaid with shell. 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.


From Naga el-Hai (Qena), tomb K 362. 1913: excavated by the Harvard University-Museum of Fine Arts Expedition; 1913: assigned to the MFA by the government of Egypt.

Credit Line

Harvard University—Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition