During this pandemic, as we all sit at home (well, I say all, but probably mean just me), slumped over our laptops in T-shirts and tracksuit bottoms, we are unworried by anyone noticing or caring about our dishevelled looks (pace Zoom meetings). At the same time we are much occupied by the fear of infection, worried by the airborne virus, and also bemused at the measures we need to take to avoid infection.
Our knowledge of what makes us unwell, how we prevent illness, and how we counteract the effects, is much more sophisticated than the ancient Egyptians’; rightly, we take great consolation from our healthcare. In this relatively humble yet entrancing object, a grinding palette, both personal appearance and the circumventing of disease come together.
Such palettes were used to grind pigments for cosmetic purposes. Both men and women enhanced their appearance with make-up, most particularly the black kohl that outlined the eyes, familiar to us from countless images of Egyptian art: a defining look. It not only elongated the appearance of the lids, but when applied to the upper and lower eyelids acted to reduce glare from the sun and, mixed with an ointment, kept infectious flies at bay.
Maybe I should try a touch of mascara to enhance my crumpled looks. Having waved bye-bye to C-19 I need no longer wonder whether it can prevent contamination (btw...public service announcement, it can't)
Predynastic, Naqada II, c.3500-3200 BC
Rectangular grey schist grinding palette, the edges bordered by evenly spaced diagonal incisions, the topmost edge with two stylised birds and a central perforation. Some pale encrustation over the surface, one bird chipped.
Marianne Maspero, Paris, France; acquired 1980
Private collection, France