CULTURE: Ancient Egypt
PERIOD: New Kingdom 1550 – 1070 BC
MATERIAL: Limestone and pigments
DIMENSIONS: Height 13 cm; width 15 cm; thickness 4.5 cm.
PRICE: 8,500 Euros
PROVENANCE: From a private collection, France, acquired in the 1970s.
CONDITION: Fragment in a good general state of preservation. It has some damage to the left side and a part of the edge is missing on the right.
The upper half of a vertical funerary stele with rounded top. The stele is for a person called Mesu. At the top of the piece we find a “shen” ring. This is a sort of ring that had its origin in a stylized loop of rope, and was the precursor of the cartouche, the enclosed space in which the kings of Egypt would write their two main names, their birth name and that which they took once crowned. It symbolises the eternal, that which has neither beginning nor end and which, being tied, is permanent. On either side is the eye of Horus, the “wedjat”, a symbol with magic properties, able to protect and purify. It is also a symbol that epitomises order, the imperturbable and the perfect state. Just below this, three funerary signs are incised which give the name of the owner of the stele, the deceased, Ms-s-W (Mesu).
In the second horizontal band of the stele the deceased is depicted on a seat. This is shown in clear detail and we can associate this seat with ones we know to be of the same period as this stele, which were found in tombs as part of the funerary goods and are conserved in the Louvre Museum. The deceased appears with a naked torso, his waist and legs covered by a typical kilt. He is wearing a short curled wig and a usekh, or broad collar. Following the canon of polychromy of the time, the man’s body is a reddish colour, while the wig shows remains of black, as do the hieroglyphs, the irises of the wedjats and the seat. The character is holding some element in the right hand resting on the thigh while in the left he holds a lotus flower which he brings towards his nose to smell. The lotus flower was one of the principal elements of artistic decoration as it was one of the heraldic flowers of ancient Egypt.
The deceased sits in front of a table for offerings. It is covered with loaves of bread, vases, the leg of some animal and other items typically shown as offerings. In this way, the position of the deceased, his act of smelling the lotus, and the elements on the table, are all typical examples of funerary iconography from the Old Kingdom that varied very little until the arrival of the Romans. In the lower section of the stele, if we judge by similar steles of this period, there would be some horizontal bands of writing which would refer to the family of the owner, also to biographical details and to religious texts.
This stele represents an evident duality common in Egyptian artistic work: If we draw an imaginary central vertical line, we see that both sides of the stele have the same elements in similar dimensions occupying the same amount of space. They have the style and characteristics of steles of the New Kingdom. The placing of the two wedjats on either side of the “shen” ring is typical in the Thebes area in this period, although steles like this have also been found in other areas of the country. Steles were placed both inside tombs and also at the entrance to these. They were even carved directly onto the walls in high relief.