Ancient Egyptian, first half of the 13th dynasty
Our Object of the Month for August is this limestone stela which was made for a man called Siamun or Za-amun, almost four thousand years ago. The stela tells us that Siamun was an ‘overseer of scribes’ – an important title and role in Ancient Egypt. Text is carved onto the stela in hieroglyphs, and images of Siamun, his wife, and other family members are also included. At the top of the stela are two eyes of the sun god Horus and a sun disk in the centre.
A stela is a standing tablet or monument inscribed with information in the form of text or pictures. They were made in the memory of people or events, and it was believed that some could be used to access the realms of the gods or the afterlife. Funerary stela kept the memory of a person alive by recording their names, titles, and a representation of them. They would often depict, as is the case with Siamun’s stela, various offerings to the dead such as food and drink. Stela could also be used as location markers, or to record royal decrees. The Ancient Egyptian name for a stela was wedj, meaning command.
Round-topped limestone stela with representations of the deceased and family-members with offerings, Ancient Egypt, Middle Kingdom, British Museum, museum number EA226
Siamun can be seen in the middle section of the stela alongside his wife, below five lines of hieroglyphs which include his name and titles as part of a passage honoring the gods. A translation of the stela has been carried out by Wolfram Grajetzki in his paper for IBAES Volume 5 (2005, pages 60 – 66). Wolfram translated the first few sentences of the opening passage as follows –
An offering given by the king to Osiris, lord of Busiris, the great god, lord of Abydos, to Amun-Ra, lord of the thrones of the two lands, and to the gods and goddesses who are in Thebes, that they may give voice-offerings consisting of bread, beer, cattle, fowl, alabaster, linen, incense, oil and all good pure things on which a god lives
Offerings can be seen placed on the table in front of Siamun and his wife. The Ancient Egyptians believed that it was important to please the gods and the dead with offerings of luxurious items such as those listed in the passage on this stela. If it was not possible to offer such expensive items, ‘voice-offerings’ would be sufficient instead. Presenting offerings to the gods kept them happy and ensured their favour. The deceased could enjoy the offerings presented to them in the afterlife. Recording someone’s name and presenting ‘voice offerings’ was a way to ensure they would never be forgotten. Siamun’s stela also records the names of his family members so that they would be remembered also. The lower part of the stela depicts Siamun’s family, including his sons and daughters, with their names listed beside them.
Siamun and his wife seated on a couch, with offerings placed in front of them
Siamun’s family members with their names in hieroglyphs
It is clear from this stela that Siamun held a high position and status in society. His father is named as ‘great scribe of the treasurer’, indicating that he worked for the administration department of the palace of the Pharoah. Scribes often inherited their roles, and they played a very important part in Ancient Egyptian society. It was their job to master hieroglyphs and write anything from wills and legal contracts to magic spells such as those included in the ‘Book of the Dead’. The Book of the Dead was particularly important because it contained spells and magical formulas required to help the dead reach the afterlife, and to ensure they could enjoy themselves when they got there. The majority of scribes came from well-off families. They could enjoy privileges such as not having to pay tax or perform manual labour. As ‘overseer of scribes’ Siamun would have enjoyed a particularly privileged life.
Bronze figure of Imhotep as a seated scribe, bronze with inlaid gold eyes, Ancient Egypt, Late Period, British Museum, museum number EA63800
Papyrus roll containing text from the Book of the Dead for a man names Thutrekhsu, Ptolemaic period, British Museum, museum number EA75042,1
The stela of Siamun can be viewed in the Castle’s Egyptian Room. We are grateful to the Sussex Egyptology Society for their previous study of the stela and their continued support and help. The Castle is open through the summer holidays, until the end of October.
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