Feeding the Dead in Ancient Egypt: Stela of Mentuwoser

The Stela of Mentuwoser at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a standout record of Middle Kingdom Egypt society for both its rich textural documentation and the fine quality of the pictorial reliefs.  The painted limestone is well-preserved with a narrative scene that is clear and vivid, rendered in fine outlines and soft-hued painted surfaces.  The narrative, which comprises the upper 3/5 of the tableau’s area, is in excellent condition save for a small area of damage in the center of the hieroglyphic texts, yet these long inscriptions are otherwise visually succinct and invite an extensive gaze.

The Stela of the Steward Mentuwoser, 12th Dynasty (Middle Kingdom), ca. 1944 BCE, limestone and paint, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY https://www.metmuseum.org/

          Of figural representations in the lower area of the stela, Mentuwoser’s pharaonic stature clearly dominates the tableau.  A larger-than-life hierarchical scale commands his important status here, his additional attributes of chin-beard and staff notwithstanding.  This stela presents his substantial figure seated lower left at a golden lion-footed chair with his face beholding a central banquet table piled high with assorted foods.  Three significantly smaller figures at lower right face him and the table, gesturing toward him and presenting more substances, apparent offerings for the afterlife.  Even without knowledge of any context within the accompanying hieroglyphs, the figures present a clear message that the main topic of this scene is the seated figure and his food which, when regarding the central placement and clear definition, is also rendered at a scale that dominates the smaller human figures.  This man has a king-sized appetite and he must eat!

          While the figural representations at the lower section of the stela present a succinct visual account of food offerings to someone of significant social stature, the hieroglyphic inscriptions describe the central figure’s position in Egyptian society and his contributions to the kingdom.  The discovery and subsequent study of this stela’s long, clear narrations provide valuable material for “both the philologist and for the student of economic conditions and political organization in ancient Egypt.”[1]  Of note is an inscription for “field” (sekhet) among the glyphs between Mentuwoser’s visage and the abundance of produce on the table, perhaps a reference to the abundant crops in his domain and the resultant bounty from them.  According to the Wilkinson[2], sekhet is applied in Egyptian art “almost entirely in an emblematic way, as a symbol of ‘that which is produced by the fields.’” If his fields were prosperous enough to produce leeks larger than a child, as this picture almost suggests, his crops were surely the envy of the Ancient World.

          Further examination of the hieroglyphs offers important clues regarding the social status of our stela’s subject.  Linguistically, Mentuwoser was of high rank, one who spoke the official “cultivated language” used by officials and priests[3] —as the following inscription bears witness:

“I am one who speaks in the fashion of the nobles (i.e. the official language)” [4]

…as rendered vertically on the tableau:

While the body of the narrative offers substantial details of Mentuwoser’s many deeds, “described at length…steward, granary official…a good man who looked after the poor and buried the dead,”[5] it is this statement as to the type of language spoken that cements his high stature and praiseworthiness.   Linguistic discrimination, extending prestige and rank to individuals based on speech, apparently goes back even as far as twenty centuries before the Common Era.

          Further evidence of class arrangement is apparent around Abydos, a pilgrimage locale and desert necropolis popularized by the cult of Osiris during the Twelfth and Thirteenth Dynasties (1980-1648 BCE).  According to Robins[6], cemeteries and tombs and associated variations in equipment and construction quality attest to the highly developed social stratification of the period.  Numerous private chapels and stelae surrounded Abydos, too, not necessarily as burial tombs but to serve “the person’s permanent presence by proxy”[7] near the presence of Osiris and his festivals.  Besides offering relative comfort to the deceased with this stela’s nearness to the presence of the divine, this stela’s instructions for praising Mentuwoser were likely to be visited with a certain level of volume and frequency.  Mentuwoser would be assured a long legacy of remembrance and short periods between refreshment of provisions.  The Steward Mentuwoser, a man of good deeds and high rank, would not go hungry in the afterlife.

– Frank Gordón-Quiroga, University of Hartford

[1] C. L. R. “The Stela of Menthu-Weser.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, vol. 8, no. 10, 1913, pp. 216–218. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3252886.

[2] Wilkinson, Richard H. A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture. Thames & Hudson, 1992.

[3] Hernández, R. Díaz. “A Structuralist Approach to the Study of Egyptian Texts.” Academia.edu, http://www.academia.edu/33405292/A_Structuralist_Approach_to_the_Study_of_Egyptian_Texts.


[5]Metmuseum.org, http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/544320.

[6] Robins, Gay. The Art of Ancient Egypt. Harvard University Press, 2008.

[7] Málek Jaromír. Egyptian Art. Phaidon Press, 2011.

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