Sep 13, 2019 in Art
The Stelae of Ancient Egypt

Egypt is the home to one of the oldest and most advanced civilizations that had an enormous influence on the development of the world culture. The original culture of ancient Egypt attracted the attention of all humanity from the time immemorial. Egypt impressed travelers with its grandiose architecture, studies of which are still relevant (Roth 198). Most of the architectural studies focus on the Giza pyramids, paying no attention to the important historical and architectural source – the funerary stelae. This paper will discuss the stelae of the 1st dynasty of Ancient Egypt.

Stela is one of the common types of monuments in Ancient Egypt. Usually, it was made of stone or wooden slabs of various forms with inscriptions or embossed and painted images. Initially, Egyptian stelae appeared during the reign of Djer, the second king of the 1st dynasty. Stelae were discovered next to the royal tombs, near the so-called subsidiary burials. Stelae were completely covered with inscriptions, which could be divided into three major groups - names, titles, and lists of victims. The latter covered the largest area on the stelae. The presence of the name on the stela, regardless of the time of its creation, was the necessity. The most commonly found names on the stelae were the names of women. Men’s names and the names of dogs were seen less on the stelae. This ratio is explained by the fact that a large number of subsidiary burials around the royal tombs were intended for women of the harem (Reshafim). Compositionally, representation of victims was divided into the main list of the victims located in front of the deceased; the names of the victims, drawn under the table; designation of tissues; victims’ groups, united by one common name; and listing of granaries and their contents.

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The determinative takes one of the most important places in the compositional design of the stela. Stelae of the second dynasty suddenly gave a huge number of new forms and complication of the portrayed details. The sacrificial table, chair, and clothes of people in the second dynasty received the unique shape, which later would have a clearer design. Over time, the form of the determinative was improved, receiving only a few additional elements. They include a necklace around the neck, panther skin, and a dress with the elastic straps for women. Review of the determinative on stelae from the south (Abydos) and the north (Saqqara, Helwan, Giza) leads to the conclusion that there were two traditions. The first tradition is the southern one (man depicted squatting), and the second tradition is the northern one (man sitting in a chair). The last one was further developed.

The form of the stelae speaks volumes about the development of the stela as a monument. Early stelae from the first dynasty were made with the rounded top and they had a rectangular shape.

This form of stelae subsequently became the most widespread one. However, there were cases of manufacturing rectangular stelae for the first dynasty. For example, the stone slabs from Abu Roasha and the stelae of Sabef, an Ancient Egyptian official under King Qa’a, had a rectangular shape. One of the explanations for this difference may be a way of fastening. A stela was either dug in when it was suitable for that, or inserted into the masonry if it had a rectangular shape, or simply placed on the burial. It should be noted that the stelae in Saqqara and Helwan had a special form. They had rather broad raw edges from the two sides that were mounted in the support structure. More to say, the reason why the kings preferred a rounded top at their funeral monuments is still unknown. Obviously, the vaulted form itself is an imitation of something else; perhaps, it matched the shape of the sky or the sunstroke line. This fact was possibly associated with the appearance of the superstructure of the tombs and their end parts, which could be represented by means of the reconstruction only.

Our Process

Conceptually, the most difficult question is to assess and reconstruct the functioning of the early stelae correctly. The shape of the Abydos stelae with a rounded top took its origin, perhaps, in the shape of the door to the sanctuary of Anubis. Therefore, it is possible that the ancient Abydos stelae were a kind of entrance to the tomb; perhaps, some kind of a procession of the deceased could enter the burial chamber and leave it through them. They were the markers of the burial place and pointed out the most important place in the tomb at the same time.

The turning point in the functioning of the stela is the emergence of the dining scene in the northern tradition. Since that time, the monument has become a “cult” in the full sense of the word. The stela became not just a marker of a part the king’s mortuary complex, but one of the most important items of the burial equipment, which is essential for the further existence of the immortal and nutrition of the buried under this stela.

Stelae of the first dynasty of Egypt are a very important and informative source. They allow to present ideological shifts in the perception of the world and the ruler of the ancient Egyptians and provide insights into the social changes within Egyptian society. The picture of the cult practices cannot be comprehensive without taking into account the information on the early funerary stelae. The way personal information about a particular person emerges and transforms can be seen on these monuments. Presentation of this information transformed from simple mentioning of names on the royal monument to almost portrait image with a detailed description of positions, titles, and even family ties.

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