We also have other pieces, and the Petrie Museum has several too (e.g. UC473, UC474, UC478, UC23079, UC23081, UC23082, UC23083, UC23084, UC23085).
The ones in the Egypt Centre came to us in 1978, as a donation from the British Museum. We know they are from Amarna as they still bear the excavation numbers which show they came from the state apartments of the Great Palace (Pendlebury 1951, 74).
Previously, Petrie had also found fragments of faience fish dishes, together with faience tiles and shallow dishes in the shape of gourds in the Palace store-rooms (Petrie 1894, 12, 28). Petrie suggested that these were table dishes and that they were gathered together so that the pieces could be reused.
But, can other explanations be plausible?
As stated above, they are very similar to the stone and wood palettes of the 18th Dynasty. The stone and wood examples are usually found in temple and tomb contexts suggesting a ritual function and they are usually said to be cosmetic palettes rather than table dishes. But, I don't know of any studies showing what they actually contained. I would be glad if someone could tell me. Friedman (1998, 223) has also suggested that these faience types could be 'cosmetic palettes'.
The fish dishes also bear a strong resemblance to the late Middle Kingdom to Second Intermediate Period Marl fish dishes found on such sites as Kahun (Petrie 1891), Tell el Dab'a (Bader 2001) and Dashur (Allen 2011). Like the faience fish dish fragments, the marl examples are often found broken in groups, suggesting to Allen, some ritual significance. This is reinforced by the fact that the marl dishes are often, though not exclusively, found in temple and funerary contexts. The Middle Kingdom examples are in the shape of shallow fish and often have a raised rectangular area (unlike the Amarna faience ones).
Incidentally, it has been suggested that the s-'tiles' as identified at Petrie, alongside the shallow dishes were actually the lids of the fish dishes (Müller 1964, Friedman 1998, 223 and 236 notes 68 and 69).
It has also been noted that both the Middle Kingdom Marl dishes and the Amarna faience dishes have some resemblance to the faience marsh dishes - round dishes in blue faience often with aquatic scenes (Kronig 1934).
Why the fish? The fish is the bulti fish (Tilipa nilotica) which seems to have been a manifestation of the sun-god. The fish keeps the fertilized eggs in its mouth until they are fry and spits them out. It therefore appears to be swallowing them and giving birth to them.
Fish-shaped cosmetic palettes would make sense either for temple contexts (anointing statues) or in burial contexts. In either case rebirth symbolism would be apposite. Eye-paints and ointment were essential to resurrection. Before appearing in the 'Hall of Justice' the individual had to purify her/himself, dress in white clothing, make-up their eyes and anoint themselves. Applying eye paint also seems to have been part of everyday cult rituals. Depictions of cows destined for ritual slaughter are sometimes shown wearing eye-paint!
So then, elite tableware, cosmetic palettes, or something else?
Allen, J.S. 2011. Fish dishes at Dashur. In Aston, D. Bader, B., Gallorini, C., Nicholson, P. and Buckingham, S, (eds.). Under the Potter’s Tree. Studies on Ancient
Bader, B. 2001. Tell el-Dab`a XIII. Typologie und chronologie der Mergel C-ton keramik. Wien: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.
Friedman, F.D. ed. 1998. Gifts of the
Müller, H. 1964. Ägyptische Kunstwerke, Kleinfund und Glas in der Sammlung E, und M. Kofler-Trunger (MÄS 5). Berlin.
Pendlebury, J.D.S. 1951 The City of
Petrie, W.M.F. 1891. Illahun, Kahun and Gurob 1889–1890. London: D. Nutt.
Petrie, W.M.F. 1894. Tell El Amarna. Warminster: Aris and Phillips.