BMCR 2006.04.27

Stelae from Egypt and Nubia in the Fitzwilliam Museum. Cambridge, c. 3000 BC- AD 1150

Martin, Geoffrey Thorndike,, Clackson, S. (Sarah),, Fitzwilliam Museum,, Stelae from Egypt and Nubia in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge : c. 3000 B.C.-A.D. 1150. Fitzwilliam Museum publications. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. xiii, 202 pages : illustrations ; 28 cm.. ISBN 0521842905 $190.00.

In ancient Egypt, funerary stelae functioned as part of an elaborate burial ritual and not as a work of art. Appearing from the beginning of the pharaonic period down to the Roman occupation, ancient Egyptian stelae have supplied scholars with much information on the rank and status of elite men, as well as women, who are otherwise underrepresented in the archaeological record.1

Many excellent studies and catalogues are available on the topic of ancient Egyptian stelae.2 These monuments are also popular in introductory hieroglyphic books aimed at the lay public.3 Since stelae contain fixed formulaic inscriptions that can be learned with a minimum of grammar, they are excellent for teaching the ancient Egyptian language to non-specialists.

The volume under review represents another excellent contribution to the field by one of the masters of Egyptology. Geoffrey Martin presents the reader with an in-depth study of one hundred and twenty seven stelae from Egypt and Nubia. The catalogue is greatly enhanced by the contributions and commentary from leading scholars. Although this work is aimed primarily at specialists, amateur Egyptologists, whose generous support helps fund Egyptology, will also find this book to be quite accessible. Additionally, this tome provides an overview of the development of stelae in Egypt in a systematic manner, beginning in the archaic period, where stelae served primarily as tombstones, and eventually coming to the False Doors and other longer inscriptions that over time expanded through the various levels of ancient Egyptian society.

Although some of the objects have already been published, the author presents fresh observations and meanings as well as new readings of names and titles. The addition of previously unpublished material provides new resources for researchers concerned with the various aspects of ancient Egyptian culture.

The stelae cover all scripts of the ancient Egyptian language — hieroglyphic (1-18, 20-30, 32-97, 99), hieratic (19, 31), Demotic (98) and Coptic (115-122), plus Carian (100-103), Greek (104-114) and the Cufic script, which was the earliest Islamic alphabet (123-126). A modern example (127) is also referred to for comparative reasons.

Information on dates (although some pieces cannot be precisely dated) and provenance, when known, is given on each piece. In addition the author supplies translation, notes, and commentary when necessary. Engraving and decoration techniques are also mentioned, while the indexes of royal names, deities, titles and provenances heighten to the value of this work. The inclusion of other scholar’s interpretations makes this work particularly enlightening.

Time and space allow for only a few observations. Objects one through ten are complete or fragments of archaic stelae from Abydos and contain information such as the names and titles of an official. Here the author offers new readings on titles, such as in number nine, where the phonetic complement supports the reading as hpr, controller, instead of the ” sqr -Beamter,” proposed by P. Kaplony.4

Monuments eleven and twelve are False Doors from the First Intermediate Period. These objects functioned as doorways to the next world and contain the highly formulaic Htp-dj-nsw or offering formula in addition to biographical and genealogical information on the tomb owner.

Number twelve dates to Dynasty Ten, while thirteen to thirty-two are from the Middle Kingdom. On these objects the tomb owners, family, friends and servants are present. By the Middle Kingdom, with the “democratization” of the Netherworld, more levels of society erected stelae, such as at Abydos, where the deceased hoped to partake in the mysteries of Osiris for eternity.

One unusual piece of particular interest is object nineteen, an unpublished four-sided stela inscribed in carbon black that was designed to obtain air, and therefore life for the deceased. This monument dates to Dynasty Twelve, and as the author notes, it may have been intentionally made into a pyramid or obelisk and may be a precursor of Graeco-Roman texts invoking the cardinal points. Each of the four sides mentions a request for “fresh air,” while the “fresh air of life” is the last blessing before the name and title of the highest ranking person. New genealogical information on both lines of the family tree is given and should be added to Franke’s monumental work.5

The line drawing of a round-topped stela (number twenty-two of the late Middle Kingdom) in black ink is extremely useful in that the inscription has faded since Petrie’s original publication.6 As observed by the author, line drawings may be more time-consuming, but they are able to flesh out signs and details that otherwise might not be apparent in photos.

Number thirty-one was originally a round-topped stela that is presently extremely weathered and cannot be dated precisely. However, the title of “lady of the house,” suggests a date after Senusert II.

Another piece of interest is number thirty-eight, part of a round topped stela showing the tomb owner and his wife before Osiris. Many of the New Kingdom stelae are from a funerary context with the deceased shown before divinities. Although Bourriau has done an extensive study of this monument,7 the author interprets the second cartouche as Tutankhaten instead of Tutankhamen, something not visible in the photo but which is made more apparent in the line drawing.

An additional example, fifty-one, a round topped stela from Thebes, further demonstrates the value of line drawings. The scene depicts the deceased before a table of offerings and dates from the New Kingdom or Ramesside Period. Although finely drawn, the surface is very worn and discolored. Thanks to the line drawing the inscription, image of the tomb owner and offering table are sharper than in the photographs.

Ear stelae (sixty-eight to seventy-four) are special ex-voto objects with prayers from a petitioner dedicated to a deity who was expected to listen and respond to the request. Petitioners believed the god heard the individual. Over time this belief led to the development of an immediate, personal relationship between gods and people. Ear stelae were subject to much variation in materials and appearances, as the catalogue indicates. Number sixty-nine (New Kingdom) is made of wood, while sixty-eight and seventy-four (also from the New Kingdom) are made of limestone. There were also different deities mentioned on the stelae, as Hathor (sixty-nine) appears with an ankh sign and scepter, while in seventy-one, Ptah is seated with offerings below a one winged sun disk.

Even though Egypt was subject to political decadence after the collapse of the New Kingdom, high artistic standards continued, as is obvious in stela eighty three, a beautiful round topped stela which dates from the Third Intermediate Period to the Ptolemaic Era. There is extensive color in this piece, which depicts two ba birds adoring a winged sun disk in the upper register as the deceased stands before an offering table and Re-Harakhty and Osiris.

Another piece that stands out is the funerary monument of two women from Qau el Kebir (ninety eight) in the form of a round topped stela of limestone. Unfortunately the first four lines of the stela are badly worn, but the line drawing enables the inscription to be read. The author notes that few demotic texts have been identified from this site.

During the Sixth Century B.C.E., Carian mercenaries left inscriptions in Egypt. Carian was an early alphabetic script based on Greek. These monuments are interesting because of the cultural blending they depict. For example object one hundred contains a Greek text but the winged sun disk and uraei are Egyptian motifs. However, the garments and inscription suggest that the piece was done by a Carian artist living in Memphis. Similarly, object one hundred-one includes a Greek inscription with a false door, a familiar pharaonic theme.

A similar trend continued during the Roman occupation of Egypt, where Egyptian iconography accompanies Greek inscriptions, as in one hundred four through seven. A modern piece in addition to Coptic and Cufic texts from the Christian to the Islamic period make up the remainder of stelae in this excellent volume.

Although this work is primarily geared towards specialists in ancient Egypt, this wonderful catalogue will be greatly appreciated by scholars interested in art, administration, kinship, philology, religion, as well as technology.


1. Franke, D., Altägyptische Verwandschaftsbezeichnungen im Mittleren Reich (= HAS 3). Hamburg, 1983 and. Millard, A., The Position of Women in the Family and in Society in Ancient Egypt: with special reference to the Middle Kingdom. 3 vols. London: University of London, 1976.

2. Bierbrier, M. L. (ed.), Hieroglyphic Texts from Egyptian Stelae, etc, Part 12. With Drawings by Richard Parkinson. London, British Museum, 1993 and Dunham, D, Naga-ed-Der stelae of the First Intermediate Period.. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1937.

3. Collier, M. and B. Manley, How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs. A Step by Step Guide to Teach Yourself, UC Press, 1998. This book concentrates on stelae found in the British Museum. Other introductions include Malek, J., ABC of Egyptian Hieroglyphs, Ashmolean Museum, 2002 or Zauzich, K.T., Hieroglyphs Without Mystery. An Introduction to Ancient Egyptian Writing, Translated into English by A.M. Roth, Austin 2002.

4. Kaplony, P., Die Inschriften der agyptischer Frühzeit, 1963, Vol. I, 202, 493.

5. Franke, D., Altägyptische Verwandschaftsbezeichnungen im Mittleren Reich, 1983, 257-76.

6. Petrie, W.M.F., Tombs of the Couriers and Oxyrhynkhos, London, 1925, 11, and pl. XXXIX.

7. Baines, J., et al. (eds.), Pyramid Studies and other essays presented to IES Edwards, London, 1988, 110-113 and plate 19 (a).