Tel Bet Yerah (Khirbet el-Kerak) is a low, 30ha mound located at the egress of the River Jordan from the Sea of Galilee, in northern Israel (Figure 1). Excavated periodically since 1933 (see Greenberg et al. 2006), the site provides one of the earliest examples of planned urban settlement in the southern Levant. Renewed excavations, led by the University of Tel Aviv in collaboration with University College London, have brought to light new evidence for the relationship between the Early Bronze Age town and the then nascent kingdom of Egypt to the south.
During the 2009 excavations, a fragment of Egyptian relief carving was found in proximity to a monumental structure known as the 'Circles Building'. Presented here for the first time, it is best identified as a piece from a ceremonial cosmetic palette, of the same genre as the famous palette of King Narmer. The find is remarkable, both in its own right and for its location. Egyptian cosmetic palettes of simpler forms are quite widely documented in the southern Levant (Jacobs 1996). But prior to the discovery of the 'Bet Yerah Palette', examples with relief decoration — most of which were produced during a relatively narrow window of time (c. 3300-3100 BC, or 'Dynasty 0') — were known only within Egypt itself, and their use was assumed to have been confined to the early Egyptian elite.
The fragment (Figures 2-3) was found in a secondary depositional context during the excavation of domestic structures adjacent to the 'Circles Building', in association with pottery dating to the earlier part of the Early Bronze III period (c. 2800-2600 BC). It is worked from siltstone, the nearest sources of which lie approximately 700km south-west of the site, as the crow flies, along the Wadi Hammamat: the shortest land route between the Nile Valley and the Red Sea coast.
The mineral resources of the Wadi Hammamat were widely exploited in Egypt from Neolithic (Badarian) through to dynastic times. Siltstone was especially valued for the manufacture of portable palettes on which cosmetic substances were ground. These palettes were a prominent feature of Egyptian material culture for over two millennia, becoming widespread with the onset of a pastoral economy (c. 5000 BC), and disappearing towards the end of the First Dynasty (c. 2800 BC). By c. 3300 BC, when they began to feature relief carving, these object-types had become closely linked to the expression of elite cultural values, as reflected in their increasingly restricted circulation and in their surface decoration, which reflects an emerging ideology of sacred kingship (see Wengrow 2006).
Relief decoration is also documented on siltstone vessels of the First Dynasty, where it is largely restricted to figural ornament accentuating the overall form of the container. The complex pictorial decoration on the Bet Yerah fragment sits more comfortably within the known range of 'ceremonial' palettes, dating to Dynasty 0, although both slightly earlier and later dates are possible. It appears on one face only, and its execution is consistent with the most prestigious Egyptian examples of this period.
The two surviving symbols — a was-sceptre and ankh (here evoking the form of a knotted fabric or garment) — belong clearly within the realm of Egyptian elite culture, pertaining to kingship and the gods (Hornung 1982). The execution of the hand that grasps them compares well with similar images on the Narmer Palette (e.g. Figure 4). The beginning of a further sign is just visible in the bottom-right corner, and continues uninterrupted around the side, indicating that the notched finish along the edge (which follows a slight curve) is contemporaneous with the relief. Similar border designs are common on First Dynasty palettes, which are usually devoid of other ornamentation (but see Saad 1969: pl. 75).
The combination of ankh and was-sceptre is intriguing. On later Egyptian temples these signs are carried by deities as emblems of life and potency, presented to the king in return for food offerings. Similar divine figures appear on cylinder seal impressions of the Second Dynasty (Figure 5), but differ in significant details from the images on the Bet Yerah fragment. The symbols are carried in separate hands, and the left arm reaches down to hold the sceptre, rather than rising to meet it. The latter feature may instead exemplify a visual convention, widely documented on early elite objects, which John Baines (1989) terms 'emblematic personification': the attachment of human limbs to hieroglyphic signs or symbols, rendering them active participants in a larger pictorial scene (cf. Figure 4).
In recent years a consensus has formed concerning the nature of early interactions between the Egyptian state and its Levantine neighbours (see van den Brink & Levy 2002). It accords relatively little significance to the northern Jordan Valley and adjacent coastal regions, by contrast with the southern coastal plain of modern-day Israel and Gaza, considered to be the focus of a late predynastic Egyptian colonial movement (c. 3200-3000 BC), and the coastal plain of Lebanon, where the Old Kingdom Egyptian state subsequently established close commercial and diplomatic ties.
While history cannot be rewritten on the basis of a single find, the Bet Yerah Palette adds support to recent suggestions (de Miroschedji 2002; Greenberg & Eisenberg 2002) that relations of elite patronage may have been cultivated earlier with centres in the Jordan Valley, albeit for a relatively brief period in the early third millennium BC, before Egyptian interests moved decisively to the northern Levantine coast.
We thank John Baines, David O'Connor, Stephen Quirke and Richard Bussman for sharing their thoughts on the fragment, but take full responsibility for the interpretations offered here.
* Author for correspondence