Object in Focus: The Stela of Amenemhat Nebwy
by Thomas Mann
This painted limestone slab, or stela, belonged to a man named Amenemhat Nebwy, the 'overseer of the house of divine offerings'. It dates to Dynasty 12 (c.1853–1794 BC) and was presented to the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1900 by the Egyptian Research Account. The owner is shown in two registers — both seated and standing — together with numerous members of his family and domestic staff. Amenemhat has included as many people as possible on his funerary stela (even his Asiatic servants) in order to ensure that the working unit of his household is preserved in the afterlife. The stela is carved in sunk relief, surrounded by a border decorated with a rectangular pattern and kheker-frieze, which may imitate woven wall coverings. Amenemhat and his family are known from another stela at the Fitzwilliam Museum ( E.273.1900), but the latter is kept in reserve becauseof its damaged and fragile state.
The inscription surmounting the upper register reads: An offering which the king gives to Osiris Wenenefer, that he may give invocation offerings of oxen, fowl, provisions and all things good and pure for the spirit of the overseer of the house of divine offerings, Amenemhat Nebwy, the justified. 'The house of divine offerings' refers to a temple, but Amenemhat does not tell us which one. The ka is a difficult word to translate literally, but it refers to the creative life force, or spirit, of an individual. When a person died, it was believed that his or her ka continued living and required the same sustenance as that which the person enjoyed in life. For this reason, the ka was provided with either real food offerings, or figurative offerings such as those depicted on tomb walls and stelae. Behind the seated Amenemhat kneel his mother Nefret and the 'mistress of the house' Seneb, probably his wife. In front of him are his brothers Sankh and Renankh, and his sister Rekhutankh. Beneath the family, two servants offer the foreleg of an ox (a symbol of perpetual food offerings) together with other types of meat.
In the lower register, Amenemhat stands with his staff of office, inspecting the "various tribute" brought by a procession of men. These men must have been relatively important, since each is identified by name. Two among them are identified as 'Asiatics', which distinguishes them from the rest of Amenemhat's family. 'Asiatic' was a label applied by Egyptians to the inhabitants of the Eastern Desert, Sinai and Syro-Palestine, and it occurs frequently on stelae such as that of Amenyseneb, Priest of Abydos, held at the University of Liverpool Department of Egyptology (E.30). Excavations in the Eastern Delta have shown that a large community of Asiatics became established there during the 12th Dynasty. Asiatics gradually achieved greater prominence in Egyptian society, and eventually Egypt would be ruled by a group of Asiatic kings known as the Hyksos (from the Egyptian meaning 'rulers of foreign lands') between the end of the Middle Kingdom and the beginning of the New Kingdom — a phase known as the Second Intermediate Period (c.1640–1550 BC).
The term 'tribute' is translated from the Egyptian word inw, which literally means 'that which is brought', but it is also sometimes translated as 'produce' or 'offerings'. Offering and tribute scenes feature prominently in the art of Ancient Egypt, but our understanding of 'tribute' is not always clear. Often trade and the exchange of gifts between Egypt and other countries were presented as 'tribute' because the Egyptians wished to portray foreign lands as subservient, i.e. paying voluntary tribute to Egypt, even if this was not the case in reality.
The stela of Amenemhat Nebwy was set up in a cenotaph chapel at Abydos, a place of pilgrimage believed by the Egyptians to be the burial place of the god Osiris. However, there is no evidence that Amenemhat himself was actually buried here.
Osiris was the lord of the underworld and it was in front of him that the dead were judged before entering the afterlife. He was usually depicted as a green-skinned pharaoh wearing the atef-crown – a form of the white crown of Upper Egypt flanked by plumes of ostrich feathers. Osiris can be seen on the funerary stela of Pynefabastet, in which the deceased offers to the gods Osiris, Isis, Nephthys and Anubis ( E.GA.4540.1943), as well as in a small statue made from dried mud ( E.20.1901), both of which can be found in the Fitzwilliam Museum's Egyptian Galleries.
These objects are currently on display in the museum's Egyptian Galleries Click Here to view a floorplan of the museum.