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Art Through Time: A Global View

Writing Art: Stela of Mentuwoser

» Egyptian artist, Abydos possibly, Northern Upper Egypt

Stela of Mentuwoser

Stela of Mentuwoser
Artist / Origin: Egyptian artist, Abydos possibly, Northern Upper Egypt
Region: Africa
Date: Middle Kingdom, 12th Dynasty, ca. 1954 BCE
Period: 3000 BCE – 500 BCE
Material: Painted limestone
Medium: Sculpture
Dimensions: H: 41 1/16 in. (104.3 cm.), W: 19 9/16 in. (49.7 cm.)
Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Credit: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Edward S. Harkness/Photo by Max Yawney

The city of Abydos, on the west bank of the Nile in central Egypt, was a sacred site for the ancient Egyptians during the Middle Kingdom, which lasted from the mid-twenty-first through the mid-seventeenth century BCE.

The city was important to the cult of Osiris, the god of the dead, and played a special role in Egyptian funerary rituals. The dead were thought to take part in the annual festival of Osiris at Abydos, and archaeologists have discovered a large number of memorial stelae, or carved stone panels, there. This particular stela was carved in honor of a man named Mentuwoser, an official in charge of agricultural and livestock management, at the behest of Senwosret I (ca. 1971–1926 BCE); the king’s name appears at the top center, inside the cartouche.

Writing was closely tied to spiritual belief for the Egyptians, and while it was used for administrative business and record-keeping, its greatest significance lay in its magical properties. Text, especially hieroglyphs which were sometimes referred to as “words of god,” had the ability to bestow powers, protect against harm, and assist the dead. According to Egyptian belief, the permanent inscription of a person’s name was necessary for achieving immortality. The finely carved hieroglyphics taking up more than half the surface of Mentuwoser’s stela include lists of his good works and accomplishments, as well as prayers intended to guide him in the afterlife and give him access to the festival of Osiris.

Expert Perspective:
John Costello, Professor of Linguistics, NYU

“The thing is about the human mind, one of the things that apparently makes our mind different from those other creatures with intelligence, is that as soon as there is a sequence, whether it be sound or visual, the human attempts to put them into a relationship with one another. And so, basically, what we see as linguists is that the simplest way to express a relationship between concepts is to put them in words next to one another.

If you are going to look at four different writing systems, the oldest and best known are the Chinese, the Egyptian, the Sumerian and the Mayan. In only one of them did the original representation of writing, which is to represent words, develop into something that you represented with sounds. And this happened in the Egyptian system. The hieroglyphics were the representation of the language by means of words with characters. If it was a rather difficult word to represent graphically, they would sometimes put two simpler things together. Let’s say we have a word in English, like ‘fish,’ we can draw a picture of a fish. But what about the word ‘budget’? You can’t draw a picture of ‘budget.’ But if you put a bud, and let us say, a jet, a picture of a jet, together you could read it as ‘budget.’ I’m not saying that the Egyptians had the word ‘budget,’ but one of the ways that they figured to represent something was do it by parts.

What they started doing when they had to do this was, on occasion, some of the symbols they were using stood for just monosyllabic words. And so they had the potential to put a string of these together, to represent words as well. Now, the thing is, the Egyptians had hundreds and hundreds of characters. Now if we think of what happens when the Hebrews return to their homeland, okay, they are wandering in the desert for forty years. Moses is leading them. Two times Moses goes up to Mount Sinai and records the Ten Commandments because he destroys the tablets, the first time in anger. Now we know, therefore, that Moses could write. What Moses was doing was he was using something between twenty and thirty simplified Egyptian hieroglyphics that stood for monosyllabic, or monoconsonantal words, and he was writing the language by sound rather than by words.”

Additional Resources

Assmann, Jan. Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt. Translated by David Lorton. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005.

Betro, Maria. Hieroglyphics: The Language of Ancient Egypt. New York: Abbeville Press, 1996.

Malek, Jaromir. Egyptian Art (Art and Ideas). London: Phaidon, 1999.

Robins, Gay. Art of Ancient Egypt, revised edition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.

Shaw, Ian, ed. The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Silverman, David, ed. Ancient Egypt. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

“Stela of Mentuwoser.” In Collection Database. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site.

Wilkinson, Richard H. Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture. London: Thames & Hudson, 1994.

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