Egypt: The Palermo Stone

The Palermo Stone

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Alan Winston

The Palermo Stone

Almost everyone has heard of the Rosetta Stone, used to finally decipher Egyptian Hieroglyphics. Probably the second best known, and certainly one of the most important inscribed stones was the Palermo Stone, important in its own right for revealing to us information on the early kings of Egypt, along with mythical kings prior to the dynastic era. This fragment of a 5th century basalt stele also details information on cult ceremonies, taxation, sculpture, buildings and warfare. Essentially, the Palermo Stone is Egypt's oldest history book.

The stone, which has been known since 1866, is inscribed on both sides. It was probably about 2.1 meters long and .6 meters wide, originally, but only fragments remain, the largest of which is now at the Palermo Archaeological Museum in Sicily. Other smaller fragments are housed at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and the Petrie Museum in London.

We know little about the Palermo Stone's provenance, but together with the kings lists inscribed on temple walls, the papyri held in temple and palace archives, it was doubtless one of the documents that Manetho used to compile his history of Egypt.

The king list covers the period from the Old Kingdom back thousands of years into the predynastic period. It chronicles these mythical kings until the time of the god Horus, who is said to have given the throne to the human king, Menes. Then, hundreds of rulers are listed up to the 5th dynasty. The rows of compartments, containing inscriptions summarizing the main events of a particular year, are each separated by the Hieroglyph rempet, signifying a regnal year of the king. However, it is likely that the stone actually refers to biennial cattle censuses, rather than the actual number of years that the king reigned.

The information is similar to that recorded on the ebony labels found at Abydos, Saqqara and other historical sites. However, these labels include clerical information, while the Palermo Stone does not, and the Palermo Stone includes records of Nile inundation, but not the labels.

Other interesting information recorded by the Palermo stone is the construction of a stone building called Men-netjeret, either in the reign of Khasekhemwy, the last ruler of the 2nd Dynasty, or Djoser's predecessor, Nebka (2686-2667 BC). Modern Egyptologists belive this may be the same structure known as Gisr el-Mudir at North Saqqara, which was never finished. However, it would predate Djoser's Styp Pyramid, which is commonly credited as being the first large stone building.

The Palermo Stone also records that copper smelting was already taking place, and copper statues were being created in the 2nd Dynasty (about 2890-2686 BC). It also documents a number of early gods, such as Min, a fertility god and symbol of male potency, and Heryshef (Arsaphes), also a fertility god usually represented in the form of a ram, or ram headed man.

The Stone also contains a record of forty ships that brought wood from an unknown region outside of Egypt during the reign of Sneferu. It is a good source of information on Sneferu, also describing military expeditions such as campaign in Nubia that resulted in the capture of 7,000 slaves and 200,000 head of cattle. These types of campaigns probably resulted in the disappearance of the local Nubian culture known as the A Group. It also tells of his campaigns against the Libyans, and quarrying expeditions to the Turquoise mines of the Sinai.

Last Updated: June 20th, 2011