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The Stelae of Ancient Egypt


The Stelae of Ancient Egypt

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Randy L. Jordan



The private stela of Tetisheri, made of limestone and dating to the 18th Dynasty, is fairly typical of the rounded top stelae

If the typical Egyptian stela looks suspiciously like a traditional tombstone, the reason is because traditional tombstones are a modern rendition of these ancient markers. Stela (pl. stelae) is a Latin word derived from the Greek stele, which means pillar or vertical tablet. In English, the usual forms are stele and steles. In ancient Egypt, stelae are slabs of stone or wood, of many different shapes, usually bearing inscriptions, reliefs or paintings. There are several ancient Egyptian expressions for the term stela, which reflect reflect its different purposes. Wd is the most general expression, and it means "monument of any kind," "tombstone," "boundary stone," "monument in a temple," and more, according to Adolf Erman and Hermann Grapow, two scholars on the topic.


In ancient Egypt, stelae were erected most frequently as tombstones and as boundary markers, but also as Votive and commemorative monuments. From the 1st dynasty (when the earliest stelae were used in Egypt) onward until Roman times, a considerable change in the shapes of stelae, their decoration and their types of inscriptions took place. As tombstones, they were originally erected outside the tombs, to mark the offering place and to name the tomb owner. Those traditions hold over into our modern times, with the offerings now most often being replaced with flowers. In temples and sanctuaries, they were set up by individuals to worship the gods, but also to commemorate special events, such as successful expeditions to the mines in the desert or victories over foreign powers. In addition to their funerary and votive uses, stelae were also used as boundary markers for fields, estates, administrative districts or even countries.



The so-called famine Stela hardly qualifies as a stela at all in reality

There is one thing that must be remembered about Stelae. There are a large variety of them, and any discussion of standard forms relate to many, but certainly not all of the objects referred to as stelae. Their form can vary considerably from the typical, and in some cases, what is referred to as stelae hardly qualify. For exaple, the so-called Famine Stela at Aswan is little more than texts inscribed on a large rock.

Origins and Chronology

The earliest stelae were erected in Egypt during the 1st dynasty to mark the tombs of the kings and their courtiers in the cemetery of Abydos in Upper Egypt. Royal stelae of the 1st and 2nd dynasties (the Early Dynastic Period) consisted of large stone slabs with rounded tops, inscribed with the name of the ruler in a serekh frame. They were always set up in pairs, but their original position within the royal funerary complex is still unclear. Herbert Ricke believed that the stelae have marked the offering place outside the superstructure of the royal tomb, buy as Gunter Dreyer has pointed out they could also have been placed on the roof of the superstructure. Certainly they were not set up inside the burial chambers of the tombs.

The stelae of the courtiers in Abydos are much smaller and less carefully executed than those of the royal tombs. Unlike the royal stelae of the 1st and 2nd dynasties, they were not set up in pairs and do not have rounded tops. They were probably inserted into the walls of the superstructures of the tombs or erected in front of them. Sometimes, in addition to the name and title, they also bear a depiction of the tomb owner.

During the 2nd Dynasty, the use of tomb stelae gradually decreased. Owing to the enlargement of the tomb superstructures during the Old Kingdom, the offering place was moved into a niche in the panel decoration that covered the facades of the tombs. The false door (considered a form of a stelae) evolved from this niche. However, false doors, which were a focal point of the private offering cult for much of the Phraonic period, seem to have had a very different purpose. They provided a symbolic door between the world of the living and the afterlife, through which the ka, or soul of the deceased, could pass back and forth to partake of the offerings in the chapel.

The false doors in the tombs of the 3rd Dynasty at Saqqara consist of a door niche as well as a rectangular slab stela, which shows the tomb owner in front of an offering table. Similar slab stelae have already been found in the tombs of the 2nd Dynasty in Helwan, a large cemetery on the eastern bank of the Nile River near the modern city of Cairo. Although those slab stelae are closely connected with false doors, during the 4th Dynasty such stelae also appeared detached from false doors in the Giza mastaba tombs. A direct connection between those slab stelae and the round-topped stelae from the 1st and 2nd dynasties in Abydos cannot really be established.



The very atypical stela of Nemtyemhat from the Middle Kingdom, showing few of the formal traits of that era's stelae

The so-called classical stelae of the Middle Kingdom had their origin in those stone slabs, which were set into the brick mastabas of the provincial cemeteries of the late Old Kingdom and the First Intermediate period. A considerable number of such stelae from the 6th to the 12th Dynasties were discovered in the cemeteries of Naga-ed-Deir and Dendera in Upper Egypt. They are rectangular or of irregular shape and were originally inserted into the walls of the cult chambers or the pits of the tombs. George A. Reisner differentiated between two types of stelae from the First Intermediate period:

  • Almost square stone slabs decorated with a scene that show the tomb owner in front of an offering table. This type resembles the slab stelae and false door tablets of the Old Kingdom.
  • Vertical rectangular slabs with rounded tops that depict the standing tomb owner. During the 11th and 12th Dynasties the so-called classical stela of the Middle Kingdom evolved from this type.

Most stelae of the Middle Kingdom were vertical rectangular slabs, with a rounded top that symbolized the firmament. There were also rectangular stelae with a torus roll and a cavetto cornice, two elements that also appear on false doors and derive from early reed-and-mud constructions.



The quartzite Stelophorous statue of Amenwahsu, inscirbed with a prayer to the sun god

In the New Kingdom, the shapes of stelae were very similar to those of the Middle Kingdom, apart from a few innovations. For example, round-topped stelae as well as rectangular stelae with a torus roll and cavetto cornice also contained a triangle as the upper part, a reminder of a pyramidion. Another innovation was the kneeling statue that held stelae in front of them, known as stelophorous statues. Painted wooden stelae occurred for the first time during the New Kingdom, but hey become more frequent from the Third Intermediate Period onward. They were usually of a vertical rectangular shape, with a rounded top, but compared to earlier stelae the rounded top was given a flatter curve.

Functions of Stelae

Often, stelae were erected in front of tombs or inserted into walls of mastabas and rock-cut tombs to name the tomb owner. This use became common during the 1st and 2nd dynasties and was again common during the First Intermediate period and afterwards.

In the rock-cut tombs of the New Kingdom, stelae were placed in the open courts to represent the owner. They were also found on the side walls of the transverse halls, where they were cut out of the bedrock. There, the stelae marked thesecondary offering place in the tomb, while the main offering place in the longitudinal hall usually consisted of a statue niche. By the end of the 18th Dynasty, stelae were increasingly inserted into the facades of the tombs. In the Late Period, tomb stelae were not only placed in the superstructure of the tomb but also directly in the underground burial chamber.



A painted limestone statuette of Roay, and 18th Dynasty scribe and royal steward, holding a rounded topped stela (a New Kingdom stelophorous)

Stelae were also used as commemorative monuments. A large group of such stelae from the 12th and 13th Dynasties originated in Abydos. At the end of the Old Kingdom, Abydos developed into an important cult center for the god Osiris. It then became a famous place of pilgrimage, where festivals and processions were regularly held. Most of the stelae were erected along the procession roads, and some o them were also placed in small sanctuaries (cenotaphs), with statues and offering tables. These stelae were established as substitutes, through which their donors could participate in the festivals and might profit from the divine offerings. Sometimes commemorative stelae were set up in temples by kings or noblemen, to bear witness to successful military campaigns, royal building activities, dynastic marriages and other official events, but hey could also contain royal decrees.



A votive stela of Diedamununiankh, made of wood and dating to the 22nd Dynasty from either Deir el-Bahri or Qurna

A great number of Votive stelae, though far less numerous in the archaeological record than funerary stelae, were dedicated to the gods. Presented to temples and sanctuaries by individuals to express their personal devotion, they were also part of small altars erected in private homes, as was often the case in the houses of Deir el-Medina opposite Thebes on the West Bank of the Nile at modern Luxor. "Magic" stelae were also erected in houses and tombs as protection against dangerous animals such as snakes or scorpions.

Stelae also marked the boundaries of fields, estates, administrative districts and cities. For example, Akhenaten's newly founded capital at modern Amarna, in Middle Egypt, was marked by fifteen rock-cut boundary stelae on which the king explained why he had chosen that site for his new political and religious center. Also on Egypt's southern border with Nubia, and in Egypt's conquered Near Eastern territories, the pharaohs were very eager to set up boundary stelae as a manifestation of their power.

Types of Decoration

Stelae usually have both depictions and inscriptions, executed in raised or sunken relief, or painted onto the surface. The space within the top curve of a stela is called the lunette, and it is composed of special decorative elements. On Middle Kingdom stelae, the decoration of the lunette is clearly differentiated from the rest, the lower part of the stela, whereas in the New Kingdom the depictions in the lunette and those in the first register below it are blended into each other. In the Late Period and also in the Ptolemaic Period, a clear distinction was made once again between the lunette and the rectangular part of the stela, although some still follow the decorative scheme of the New Kingdom stelae.

A painted wooden stela showing the singer of Amon playing a harp, with Wedjet-eyes in the lunette

Typical elements used in decorating the lunettes were, for example,wedjet-eyes and the winded sun disk, both symbols of protection and defense. Wedjet-eyes have been interpreted as a combination of the eyes of the falcon and a wildcat. this image was also used as an amulet and was, for example, depicted on coffins and sarcophagi. The winged sun disk was originally a royal symbol and was usually depicted above temple entrances. Symbols for "life" and "regeneration," such as the sn-ring or the nh-sign, as well as depictions of deities (especially the jackal god Wepwawet), have also appeared in the lunettes. Some additional decorative elements that were used during the Late Period include barques with deities in them, scarabs, floral elements and stars.



A stela of Ptolemy V showing an offering scene to a sacred bull. This one is not from Saqqara, but rather shows the Buchis bull which was sacred to Montu

During the Middle Kingdom, the rectangular part of a stela usually contained several horizontal lines of inscription, above the depiction of the stela's owner and, occasionally, some of his relatives. On the so-called family stelae of the late 12th and the 13th Dynasties, from Abydos, a large number of figures were represented with the owner.

Most of them were his relatives, but some might also have been high officials, without any real family connections, whose appearance on the stela raised the prestige of its owner. In the New Kingdom, the first register of the rectangular part of a stela was decorated with adoration scenes, showing the owner and his family worshiping the gods. On tomb stelae of the Late Period and the Ptolemaic Period, the deceased was primarily shown among deities of the hereafter. The depictions were usually accompanied by short tests, but longer inscriptions were set below them. Votive stelae where often dominated by large images of the god to whom the stela was dedicated, and they contain very little text. Otherwise, many showed scenes of an individual bearing offerings to a deity or simply in the act of worshipping the god or goddess whose assistance was sought. Often the deities take the shape of animals, as was the case on the many stelae dedicated to the god Amun, on which he was depicted as a ram. Numerous stelae dedicated to the god Apis were found in the Serapeum, the tomb of the sacred Apis bulls in Saqqara. Such stelae usually show the dedicator in adoration before the Apis bull.



The stela of Bai, dating to the 19th Dynasty and originating at Deir el-Medina, is a very good example of a stela with ears

During the 19th Dynasty, Votive stelae with depictions of large ears were used for the first time. They are considered a part of the evidence for the growth of "personal piety" during the New Kingdom, whereby individuals attempted to make their own approaches to deities, rather than relying on priests to intercede on their behalf. The ears belonged to the gods, and they ensured that the prayers of of those who dedicated the stelae would be heard. Stelae with ears are classed as "magic" stelae, like the so-called cippus from the Late Period, a type of stela with the image of the child god Horus standing on a crocodile and holding snakes, scorpions and other dangerous animals. Such stelae were thought to provide protection against harmful creatures.

Types of Inscriptions



This Grey Schist stela is a cippus with Worus on the crocodiles, discovered at Alexandria and dating to the Ptolemaic Period

Stelae inscriptions were usually written in hieroglyphs but occasionally also in Hieratic, the cursive writing of the ancient Egyptians. Late Period stelae were also inscribed in Demotic, a written and spoken language that evolved during the 26th Dynasty. Some stelae from the Ptolemaic Period also have texts in Greek. In fact, some stelae from the Ptolemaic Period, the most famous example of which is the Rosetta Stone, had text repeated in several different forms and languages.

The earliest stelae of the 1st and 2nd dynasties had only the name and title of the owner. However, by the Middle Kingdom, stelae were inscribed with various kinds of texts, the most common being the offering formula, a prayer through which the owner of a stelae expressed the wish to participate in the offerings of the king donated to the gods. Besides the offering formula, which remained the most common prayer on stelae throughout Egyptian history, stelae also had genealogies, dedication formulas and other texts. Votive stelae were usually inscribed with hymns to gods, while commemorative stelae had autobiographies or descriptions of certain important events.



For example, the Kamose stela was erected to commemorate the victory of the pharaoh Kamose over the Hyksos ruler in about 1570 BC. Successful military campaigns were also mentioned on the boundary stelae that were set up by Senusret III of the 12th Dynasty, in Semna and Uronarti, lower Nubia, and by Tuthmosis I and Tuthmosis III of the 18th Dynasty, on the banks of the Euphrates River and on the Gebel Barkal in upper Nubia, respectively. Other famous commemorative stelae include the Israel Stele dedicated by Merenptah to honor his victories over the Libyans, Sea Peoples and Asiatics, the Victory Stele of the Kushite ruler Piye, recounting his glorious crusade through Egypt, and the Restoration Stele of Tutankhamun, describing the return to the traditional Egyptian religion after the heretic rule of his (probable) father, Akhenaten.

Stelae have played an important role in our understanding of ancient Egypt. Without them, we might not have discovered the key to ancient Egyptian writing until much later, and they have provided us with important information throughout Egyptian history.

References:

Title

Author

Date

Publisher

Reference Number

Art and History of Egypt

Carpiceci, Alberto Carlo

2001

Bonechi

ISBN 88-8029-086-x

Art of Ancient Egypt, The

Robins, Gay

1997

Harvard University Press

ISBN 0-674-00376-4

Atlas of Ancient Egypt

Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir

1980

Les Livres De France

None Stated

Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul

1995

Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers

ISBN 0-8109-3225-3

Egyptian Treasures from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo

Tiradritti, Francesco, Editor

1999

Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

ISBN 0-8109-3276-8

Literature of Ancient Egypt, The (An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, and Poetry)

Simpson, William Kelly

1972

Yale University Press

ISBN 0-300-01711-1

Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, The

Redford, Donald B. (Editor)

2001

American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 581 4

Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian

2000

Oxford University Press

ISBN 0-19-815034-2

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