Cambridge Archaeological Journal

Rethinking ‘Cattle Cults’ in Early Egypt: Towards a Prehistoric Perspective on the Narmer Palette

David  Wengrow  a1
a1 St Hugh’s College, Oxford University, 31–Oxford, OX2 6LE, UK; E-mail: .


The Narmer Palette occupies a key position in our understanding of the transition from Predynastic to Dynastic culture in Egypt. Previous interpretations have focused largely upon correspondences between its decorative content and later conventions of élite display. Here, the decoration of the palette is instead related to its form and functional attributes and their derivation from the Neolithic cultures of the Nile Valley, which are contrasted with those of southwest Asia and Europe. It is argued that the widespread adoption of a pastoral lifestyle during the fifth millennium BC was associated with new modes of bodily display and ritual, into which cattle and other animals were incorporated. These constituted an archive of cultural forms and practices which the makers of the Narmer Palette, and other Protodynastic monuments, drew from and transformed. Taking cattle as a focus, the article begins with a consideration of interpretative problems relating to animal art and ritual in archaeology, and stresses the value of perspectives derived from the anthropology of pastoral societies.

(Received November 9 1999)
(Revised May 15 2000)

Key Words: Narmer Palette; cattle cults; Egyptian cattle cults.