Ancient Mediterranean

Stele, ca. 2325–2160 BCE
Old Kingdom, 6th dynasty
26 x 19 3/4 inches
Gift of Ellnora D. Krannert Fund 1974-11-1

This partially preserved limestone stele, or commemorative marker, would once have been a part of a larger work. It is believed to have come from the desert plateau of Saqqara, one of the principal Old Kingdom burial grounds of Lower Egypt, just west of the ancient city of Memphis (and south of present-day Cairo).

This stele shows a tribute scene in sunken relief, a type of sculpture in which the image projects from the background. Typical of Egyptian art of this period, it has a hierarchical arrangement of figures, with the most important shown at a larger scale than the secondary ones. The large male figure on the left receives a tribute of ducks from the smaller male figure to the right. Kneeling at the feet of the largest figure is the diminutive figure of a woman who appears to assist him in acceptance of the gift.

The hierarchy is emphasized by variations in the degree of depth in the relief: details such as the figures' sandals are rendered in lower relief than the main focal points of the image. In addition, the garments and accessories worn by the figures signify their place in the hierarchy. The largest figure wears a starched triangular kilt, short wig, and elaborate necklace. He holds two staffs, indicators of his position and power. His imposing stride, a traditional stance in Egyptian art, further emphasizes his importance in the composition. Egyptian relief sculpture was often painted with vibrant colors that highlight the main elements of the image. This stele may once have had such painted decoration, though none is preserved today.

Limestone reliefs such as this one decorated tombs and palaces throughout ancient Egypt. One common iconographic theme exemplified here is the glorification of a pharaoh or other important figure in the Egyptian social structure through the presentation of tribute. The hierarchy of Egyptian society was observed both in day-to-day life and in the afterlife.

Text by Christine Zitrides, from Krannert Art Museum: Selected Works, 2008

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