Egyptian Mastaba Stelae

Slab Stela of Wepemnefret (G 1201; Hearst Museum, Berkeley 6-19825) Embedded in his Chapel’s Exterior Wall, Facing Southwest, March 1905

This museum as a whole discusses the depictions of the dead in both the Egyptian and Greek civilizations.  The entire museum highlights how the Egyptian and Greek cultures both depicted the dead in funerary art and at burial sites, and provides a survey through many different mediums such as grave stelae, vases and jars, and statues.  By comparing the two civilizations, it becomes clear that there is a certain cultural shift in both rituals performed for the deceased and in beliefs about death and the afterlife.  What is unclear, however, is what caused the shift in such practices.  It can be useful to look at different mediums of funerary art as a lens to examine the depictions of the dead in order to further study death and the afterlife in both Egypt and Greece.  These depictions of the dead can prove to be useful for the information they provide about both the deceased individual and the society as a whole. Each individual exhibit compares the mediums by which they were created and establish a theme of change and continuity in the ancient people’s view of the hereafter. This exhibit focuses specifically upon Ancient Egyptian Mastaba stelae.

This exhibit displays the Egyptian Mastaba stelae in order to show the way in which the Ancient Egyptians had depicted the deceased.  More specifically, this exhibit displays two Egyptian stelae: the slab stela of Prince Wepemnefret and the stela of Paser.  These two examples highlight Egyptian beliefs about death and the afterlife and show how the Ancient Egyptians depicted the deceased.  The Ancient Egyptian stela was a portrayal of the deceased that was highly important to funerary rituals.  The stela was a slab bearing reliefs and portraits in or near a grave or tomb, somewhat similar to a modern day tombstone.  These stelae had depicted the deceased person at a time when they were once alive.  These portrayals had shown the specific individual and had demonstrated the importance of the deceased in relation to the pharaoh or the society.  These Egyptian stelae were important funerary rituals that aided in depicting the deceased in life and in death.  The mastaba stela had depicted scenes of daily life that envisioned the deceased in a flattering image; the deceased were depicted in the best way possible.  This exhibit will examine Ancient Egyptian mastaba stela, and focus upon the images of the dead that are portrayed and argue that the stela are a way to honor the deceased in the afterlife.  This exhibit will also argue that while there are some similarities between the Ancient Egyptian and Ancient Greek grave stelae, there is no certainty that the Egyptian stela had influenced the grave stelae of Ancient Greece. This exhibit will mostly take a functionalist and post-processual approach to first understand the Egyptian mastaba stela and why it was used, and second to compare and contrast the Egyptian mastaba stela to the Greek grave stela to show that while there are striking similarities, the Egyptian mastaba stela did not necessarily influence the Greek grave stela seen later on.

Painted Limestone Slab Stela of Wepemnefret from G 1201, Giza: Hearst Museum, Berkeley 6-19825.

The first stela on display in this exhibit is the Stela of Prince Wepemnefret.  This stela shows the deceased seated on a stool dressed in animal print clothing is also wearing a wig.  Here we can distinguish the deceased’s wealth through clothing and the wearing of a wig.  Wepemnefret is reaching out to an offering table that contains bread loaves with his right hand while his left hand is placed over his chest (Manuelian 33).  The early types of funerary repast scenes depicts the deceased to the left of a table covered with bread (Altenmüller 81).  The position that Wepemnefret is seating is consistent with other slab stelae of the Giza Necropolis.  While some Greek grave stelae are shown standing in an athletic stance, others can be seen seated as well.  Wepemnefret is shown seated with loaves of bread, which can be interpreted as offerings to the dead.  It may be that the Egyptians had provided the deceased with all of the items that one would need in the afterlife.  The stela of Wepemnefret shows the individual and relates the deceased to his importance within society.  Wepemnefret was the chief person of one of three branches of the older generation of the royal family (Smith 3).  He would most likely have had power over many people.  Typically, Egyptian stelae depict the individual in his royal light.  On the other hand, Greek grave stelae had created the “ideal citizen” in which the dead would be compared to an ideal figure of a respectable citizen.  Inscriptions of names and titles of the deceased make the necessary statements about the status of the deceased during his or her life (Altenmüller 81).  The inscriptions on the stela of Wepemnefret show the deceased’s titles and status, the territories associated with the deceased, and the types of offerings that were given to the deceased at the time of burial so he may be prepared for the afterlife.  This is common with Egyptian stelae in order to depict the individual rather than an idealized figure of a common Egyptian citizen.  Wepemnefret was a prominent figure in society during his time and his funerary stela depicts exactly this.

Limestone Stela of Paser, ca. 1250 B.C., Memphis

The second stela on display in this exhibit is the Stela of Paser.  This stela somewhat differs to that of Wepemnefret.  The stela is a long, rectangular limestone stela with a rounded top.  The stela contains two relief scenes, one on top of the other.  The top scene shows a figure holding a staff wearing a large crown, with a woman behind and two male figures in front.  The woman and two males seem to be praising the figure.  The figure can either be Paser himself or can be the pharaoh to which he had served.  This can be a possibility because Paser was the overseer of the builders.  There are in fact certain stela that display not only the deceased, but family members as well.  The second scene on bottom represents Paser and his wife seated before an offering-table receiving offerings from many relatives, disposed in two sub-registers, squatting on the ground, wearing ointment cones and, all except one, holding lotus-flowers.  This bottom relief is consistent with other Egyptian stelae where the deceased is seated to the left of a table in front of offerings.  However, this stela is different because now we see the inclusion of family members and even the wife of the deceased.  This can be compared to the Greek stelae in which the deceased is depicted mourning with family members, seated, and sometimes shaking hands with family members.  Again we can see the emphasis on status in the stela of Paser as Paser has been given a large amount of offerings and is depicted as being worshiped by his family members who sit at his feet.  The inscriptions on the stela show the titles that Paser held and again strongly emphasize the importance of the deceased when he was alive and now prepares the deceased in the afterlife with pictorial representation of his offerings and items brought with him.  Through these stelae it is clear that the Egyptians had attempted to honor the deceased according to their status and relation to the pharaoh and society, and the stelae were also used to refer to the function of the tomb as the eternal dwelling place of the deceased (Altenmüller 81).  There seem to be some aspects that carry over to the Greek grave stelae, but it is not certain that the Egyptians influenced the Greeks.

It is true that while there are some similarities between the stelae of the Egyptians and the stelae of the Greeks, there is nowhere near enough evidence to conclude that the two rituals were influenced by each other.  Some similarities include the illustration of an individual that is to be representative of the deceased.  For the Egyptians, the stelae included the individual while the Greeks take a more functionalized approach, created an idealized image of the deceased.  By depicting the dead in relation to their families, their territories and their importance to the state, each mastaba stela is uniquely made for the deceased.  The Egyptian stelae are shown in different forms.  Mostly, however, the deceased are shown in the funerary repast scenes in which the deceased is seated at a table in front of the offerings given to them.  For the Greeks, the stelae can depict the deceased in different forms, sometimes the figure is standing and showing the profile of the face, and other times the figure is seated and the entire face can be seen.  Other differences between the two can be seen in the detail of the individual.  For the Egyptian culture, it was common to portray the deceased, as best as they could, and make the individual look strong and beautiful.  The Greek stela would sometimes have the individual shown aging with beards or some form of aging.  One can certainly believe that the Greek grave stelae was certainly influenced by the Egyptian stelae.  They both seem to illustrate the deceased and depict the dead using reliefs.  However, while the Greek stelae did not emphasize power, the stelae in Greek cultures seem to play more on family emotion and sad grieving.  Athletes were depicted as those who are wealthy, but there are instances where wealth cannot always be determined for the Greek stelae.  It becomes increasingly difficult to posit that the Greek culture was influenced by the Egyptian stelae, even with some of the similarities one can make at first glance of the two side by side.

Greek Marble Grave Stela, with Family Group, ca. 360 B.C., Greek, Attic

While royal tombs developed into the pyramid, the tomb architecture of officials and high profile members of society retained the form of the stone mastaba (Altenmüller 79).  Pharaohs in royal tombs were given funerary stelae, as were the officials and high priority figures that were buried in the stone mastabas.  The Egyptian mastaba stelae is an individualized depiction of the deceased that emphasize power, authority, wealth, territories, titles, and the importance of offerings to bring into the afterlife.  From these stelae we can see the importance for the Egyptians to honor and immortalize those deceased that were high-ranking citizens.  Compared to the stelae of the Greek culture, there are certain similarities that jump out.  However, one cannot assume that the Egyptians somehow influenced the Greeks because there simply is not enough evidence.  However, from what we do see in similarities, can we make any decisions that there are certain beliefs that were universal throughout?  We see that in both cultures it was important to depict the deceased outside of the tomb for all who visit to see.  The two stelae on display in this exhibit show the importance of honoring the dead to the Egyptians from the depictions on the stelae.  The Egyptian mastaba stelae was an important aspect in funerary rites for the Egyptian civilization and they provide us with great information regarding their society and even cross-culturally.

Works Cited:


1. Altenmuller, Hartwig. “Daily Life in Eternity – The Mastabas and Rock-Cut Tombs of Officials.” Egypt: The World of the Pharaohs (2010): 79-93. Print.

2. De Manuelian, Peter. “Slab Stelae of the Giza Necropolis.” Publications of the Pennsylvania–Yale Expedition to Egypt (2003): Web. <>.

3. Gardiner, Alan H. “An Archaic Funerary Stele.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 4.4 (1917): 256-60. JSTOR. Web. <>.

4. Simpson, William Kelly. “Studies in the Twelfth Egyptian Dynasty IV: The Early Twelfth Dynasty False-Door/ Stela of Khety-ankh/Heni from Matariya/Ain Shams (Heliopolis).” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 38 (2001): 2-20. JSTOR. Web. <>.

5. Smith, Sydney. “An Egyptian Stele and Other Antiquities.” The British Museum Quarterly 12.4 (1938): n. pag. JSTOR. Web. <>.

6. Smith, William Stevenson. “The Stela of Prince Wepemnofret.” Archeology Spring 1963: 2-13. Web. <>.

7. Stagner, Jennifer M. S. “”Let No One Wonder at This Image”: A Phoenician Funerary Stele in Athens.” Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens 74.3 (2005): 427-49. JSTOR. Web. <>.


1. “Slab Stela of Wepemnefret in Chapel”

2. “Slab Stela of Wepemnefret”

3. “Stela of Paser”

4. “Greek Grave Stela”

-Michael Mattia