The Fitzwilliam museum contains a number of objects given by the Egypt Exploration Society that it obtained through its excavations and redistributed to different charitable institutions that have supported its work. One of the objects in the Egyptian gallery of the Fitzwilliam is a limestone stele from the necropolis of Saqqara, located some twenty kilometres south of Cairo, and famously the site of one of the first pyramids of Egypt, the stepped Pyramid of Djoser. Although the pyramid of Djoser is quite early (ca. 2667–2648 BCE), this stele depicting two figures is from a much later period, from the sixth century BCE.
One of the first things you notice when viewing the object is the characteristically Egyptian winged sun disk of Amun-Ra. And, at first, the position of the two figures in profile is also very reminiscent of Egyptian portraiture. But, once you’ve noticed and gotten past the obvious Egyptianising motifs, it’s quite obvious that this is actually quite un-Egyptian in many ways. At first the sunken-relief carving and thin, elongated limbs of the figures are reminiscent of Amarna Style art, which was a radical new style of art that flourished under the short-lived religious reforms of the pharaoh Akhenaten (ca. 1353–1334 BCE), but the presence of the sun disk of Amun-Ra from traditional Ancient Egyptian religion disassociates it from that particular period. Upon closer examination of the clothing of the figures, one might notice that they are dressed in Ionian Greek style, so from this one might deduce that they were Greeks that settled in Egypt, perhaps from the settlement at Naukratis?
There is one final clue to the identity of these people, which is difficult to notice because the stele is badly damaged: There are the two lines of inscription – one beside each figure. It is an unusual script based on the local Ionic alphabet used at Halicarnassus, and in fact it could not be reliably read until the 1990s. The script is the Carian alphabet, which was used to write the Carian language – so we may finally realise that these people are not Egyptians, not Greeks, but Carians – Carians who had come to Egypt all the way from the southwest coast of Asia Minor. Herodotus mentions that Ionians and Carians came to Egypt to serve as mercenaries in the army of the twenty-sixth dynasty pharaoh Psammetichus I (664-610 BCE). These Greek and Carian mercenaries originally settled the delta region, but under the pharaoh Amasis (II) (570-526 BCE) the Greek and Carian mercenaries in Egypt were resettled in Memphis, which is some ten kilometres south of modern-day Cairo. The Carians in this settlement are almost certainly the people to whom these two people belonged.
Because I am a linguist, I get quite excited about unusual and fragmentary languages. Carian is an Indo-European language of the Anatolian sub-family, so it’s closely related to many other Anatolian languages attested from Asia Minor like Lydian, Lycian, or Hittite. It is also more distantly related to Latin and Greek, but the distance between Carian and them would have to be thought of like the distance between English and Russian or French and Persian. Carian was known to be an Indo-European language for a long time from evidence of personal names recorded in Greek sources, but it wasn’t until recently that we could read their own inscriptions. The Carian alphabet is derived from the Ionian Greek alphabet, but for a long time the approach of applying the Greek values to the letters was not producing any results that we ought to expect from known Greek transcriptions. A new approach to the script was pioneered by John Ray, who happens to be the Sir Herbert Thompson professor of Egyptology here at Cambridge. This is where the Carians in Egypt proved instrumental in deciphering their script, because a number of Egyptian-Carian bilingual inscriptions from this Carian immigrant community provided the key to the script. It seems that when the Greek alphabet was adapted for Carian, for whatever reason, the values of the letters got completely jumbled. Between the initial decipherment proposal by Ray in the 1980s, and some refinements to Ray’s decipherment by Ignacio Adiego and Diether Schürr in the 1990s, we can now read the correct values.
As an example of this, the Egyptian text reads Jrš(3) s3 n 3rskr s3 Jˤḥ(?)[… which may be translated as ‘Yersha son of Arsker son of Yah(?)’. Using the sound values of the Egyptian hieroglyphs from many Egyptian-Carian bilingual inscriptions like this one, we can now read this particular inscription as arlišś ursk̑leś kiδbsiś which we can translate as ‘Arliš- (son of) ursk̑le- (son of) kiδbsi-’.
So returning to the inscription on our stele, it’s too fragmentary to make out the beginnings of the lines, but on the side of each figure we can make out the same word: mdaýn. There have been different proposals for what this means, but one promising interpretation is an ethnic, perhaps ‘from Myndos’, one of the Carian cities in Asia Minor. Perhaps this is where these people, or their ancestors, were originally from.
I wouldn’t want to leave without a final appreciation of the stele for what it is as an object. I am not an archaeologist or an art historian, so this is entirely my subjective appreciation of this object as an amateur. Given where this was found, I’m guessing it’s most probably a funerary object. There are two figures, one clearly female, the other a male, and it looks to me like a parting and farewell scene. They’re touching hands with one hand, and touching each other’s chins with other. It’s a very tender gesture. As I view this, I think that maybe this was a couple, a husband and a wife. Maybe one has died and the other is bidding the other farewell as she or he departs into the afterlife. I can’t actually tell from viewing the stele who is saying goodbye to whom—maybe it’s a grave marker for both of them. In the conventions of Egyptian art the relative size of figures indicates relative importance, and so given the comparable size of the figures and it looks to me very egalitarian and, to be honest, a genuinely loving expression of affection of the two people.
In sum, I think this object is my museum favourite because of all the things that are going on with it, and different aspects of it that can be appreciated. There are all the elements of cultural fusion that are behind the production of this object in a Greco-Carian milieu situated in a sixth century BCE Egyptian context. There are meagre remains of the Carian inscriptions on the stele that we have only very recently, within the last twenty or thirty years, have been able to read, which give us a clue as to who these people are. And, I think, above all, it’s a very personal object – a very intimate portrait of two people from antiquity – two people who lived and loved and experienced grief and died, and to me, it’s a beautiful representation of that.
Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Anna Judson for taking the photographs of the stele used in this blog post.