An Egyptian Tombstone From a Period of Transition

By: H. Ranke

Originally Published in 1948

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The limestone slab1 published here for the first time2 is a characteristic and unusually well-preserved document of the latter part3 of the so-called ‘First Intermediate Period’ (about 2475-2160 B.C.), which followed the breakdown of the Old Kingdom and finally led to the consolidation of the Egyptian state under the eleventh dynasty. According to the inscription, the stone comes from the cemetery of This, or Thinis, the capital of that Upper Egyptian district to which the sacred town of Abydos belonged, and which had been the home of King Menes and his successors of the first and second dynasties, the so-called ‘Thinites’.4

Funerary Stela with brightly colored painting carved in sunk relief, the deceased is shown before piles of offerings and offering bearers bringing different types of meat and animals with four horizontal lines of inscription beside the 32 entries of a menu.
Plate VII — Egyptian limestone slab from the First Intermediate Period.
Museum Object Number: 40-19-1

The surface of the rectangular slab is covered with unsymmetrically arranged reliefs and inscriptions, which are incised and painted in gay colours. The observer’s eye is first attracted by the standing figure to the left. It represents the owner of the tomb, in which the stele originally was erected. This owner was, as the horizontal lines of the inscription reveal, a well-to-do inhabitant of This, called Nefer-safkhy. His pompous (although at this time rather meaningless) ancient titles, “count, treasurer of the King of Lower Egypt, and unique courtier,” show that he must have belonged to one of the old families of the town. His real office was a priestly one, that of an ‘overseer of the priests’ and of a ‘lector priest,’ obviously in the temple of the district god Onuris at This. It is in the ceremonial garb of the latter office, the spotted leopard’s skin worn over the pointed linen kilt, that Nefer-safkhy’s imposing figure parades on his tombstone. In addition, he wears bracelets, a long black wig which leaves the ears uncovered, and an elaborate broad collar, consisting of three strands of vertically strung beads of varying breadth, which are separated by two double strands of horizontally strung ones. He faces right, his left hand holding a long walking-stick, his right5 grasping the short ‘sceptre.’ In contrast to this stately apparel, the priest’s feet remain unsandalled.

To the right of Nefer-safkhy, and rising to his full height, the sculptor has depicted, in an awkward arrangement, the various gifts which were supposed to be placed in front of him: below, the round stone table on a high marble stand, with stylized slices of bread; above, in a more natural confusion, two geese, ribs and a joint of beef, and two baskets with different patterns. The contents of neither of them is indicated. The lid of the upper one is attached by a broad band, knotted in a rather sophisticated way so as to suggest the form of the Egyptian hieroglyphic sign of ‘life.’

To the right of this, the space below the inscription is divided into three registers. In the lowermost, two men, bowing reverently and with their right hands touching their chests, are leading one a red and white, the other a black and white ox with curved horns. Above them, a third man carries a joint of beef, while at the end of this line, a fourth one tries to cope with a pair of most refractory antelopes, whose legs are tied together, and one of whom he seizes by the neck. Between the two last mentioned, a boy succeeds in balancing a live calf on his shoulders. The fifth man, preceding the boy, comes with empty hands, but what he contributes is at least as important as the supply of meat brought by the others. The inscription in front of him, as well as the leopard skin he is wearing, designates him as a ‘lector-priest,’6 and the gesture of his right hand shows that he is reciting, without the aid of a papyrus roll, the ritual formulae by whose force only the deceased was able to eat and to drink.7

The uppermost register contains what we usually call the ‘menu’ for the deceased, a list of thirty-two entries arranged in two rows of sixteen each. But if we examine the list more closely, we find only a very few items which refer to food, several kinds of bread, onions, and some beverages, including wine and beer. The remainder consists of ‘water’ and various kinds of ‘natron’ to cleanse the mouth before the meal, of ‘incense,’ of green and black eye cosmetics, and of the seven sacred oils or perfumes which were favored by the Egyptians from the time of the Old Kingdom.8

In the inscription the Jackal-shaped Anubis, recognized throughout the country as a special protector of the dead, is invoked ‘at all his seats’ of worship to provide the deceased, who is designated as “honored by the great god, the lord of heaven (i.e. the sungod Re),” with the food and drink which he needed for the continuation of his life. In the following brief speech of Nefer-safkhy, Onuris, the local god, is mentioned in an unusual way:

“I was an excellent commoner who was active with his arm,9 excellent of speech in the council10 hall of This I surpassed every one of my peers of This. I presented my brothers and sisters11 with my own possessions out of that which (the god) Onuris12 had made for me.”

The last expression, for which I am unable to quote an exact parallel,13 seems to convey the idea that Nefer-safkhy owed his wealth to the chief god of his district, in whose temple he had done service-an interesting witness of personal piety at this time.

The style of the reliefs14 is characteristic of the latter part of the First Intermediate Period, which had definitely abandoned the rather petrified elegance and polished perfection of the vanishing Old Kingdom. Instead, we find two innovations: a new primitiveness in the rendering of the human faces whose receding chins and prominent noses give them an almost bird-like appearance, and in the overemphasized knee-caps of Nefer-safkhy that remind us of reliefs of the archaic period; and secondly a new observation of life and motion. This can be seen in general in the narrower spacing of the single figures, and in particular in the charmingly free drawing of the calf (with the well-observed, although a little exaggerated position of its hanging tail) and of the fiercely struggling antelopes. In both cases, there was hardly a tradition to be followed,15 and the local artist, who had very commendable talents, obviously enjoyed his freedom in rendering life as he had seen it. In fact, even his two geese seem to be alive. Not only are they not shown plucked and roasted, as was the rule in the Old Kingdom, but their feet seem to walk, their wings to flutter, and with their bills they seem to peck, one at the joint of beef, the other one at the wings of its companion.

The bright original colours are unusually well preserved: a dark red-brown for the uncovered parts of the human bodies, the first ox, the joint and ribs and the upper basket; yellow for the leopard skins, the ewer and basin in front of Nefer-safkhy,16 the long staff, the stylized loaves, the antelopes and the lower basket; a light blue for the sceptre, the geese, the collars of priest and servants, the stand of the offering table, and, strangely enough,17 for the horns and hoofs of the oxen and the hoofs of the antelopes! Black is used for the wigs, the irises of men and animals, the second ox and the calf, the leopard’s spots. White, finally, is found as background of the whole stele and also used for the linen kilts, the white of the eyes, the fingernails and the armlets.

The same variety of colours is displayed in the hieroglyphic signs of the horizontal inscription.18 This is another example of the new life, as contrasted with the usage of the Old Kingdom or with the fully developed Middle Kingdom, in both of which the hieroglyphs were usually painted in a uniform and highly conventionalized way. Some of them show the natural colours of the objects which they represent, as the human head and arm in the first line, the human leg in the second, the seated men in the third and fourth. Others were painted conventionally-(the owl, the chick, and the falcon yellow with red spots, the bee yellow with a blue centre)-or even in varying colours. Thus some of the ‘reed-leaves’ are painted yellow, others blue; the sign for ‘town’ once blue and once red; the kh-sign either blue or yellow, while all the t-signs are blue and all the r-signs red. In general, a very pleasing balance of colours has been achieved.

Even the forms of the signs betray the period of transition in which they were executed. The human head, for instance, shows the same characteristics which we found in the reliefs. Other signs have highly conventionalized forms which soon afterwards were abandoned in favour of a closer imitation of nature.19

Of course, the carver had to transform the abbreviated (so-called ‘hieratic’) signs of the papyrus, from which he had to copy, into hieroglyphic pictures, and we can tell that his knowledge of ‘hieratic’ was rather limited. Fortunately, we recognize without great difficulty that the lowest one of the three signs beginning the third line ought to have been transformed into a small bird. But the sign after the big owl, a little further to the left, cannot with certainty be identified, and thus our translation of the corresponding part of the text is marred by a question mark.

Nefer-safkhy’s name, finally, is of some interest. It is an abbreviation of fuller forms like Nefer-saiekh-ptah “good is the loosening of (the god) Ptah” (referring to an easy birth), with an ending -y added. This name had hitherto been known only from one single source: a pottery bowl, containing a letter which a woman addressed to her deceased ‘brother’ Nefer-safkhy.20 In this letter, the writer, who seems to have been the widow of the addressee,21 complains to him that her daughter was wronged by a third person. If this daughter was the child of the addressee, it would be very tempting indeed to consider both Nefer-safkhys as one and the same person. The bowl, as well as our stele, was inscribed during the First Intermediate Period, both come from the Thinite district22 both Nefer-safkhys have the title ‘unique courtier,’ and the strange words of our text stating that Nefer-safkhy presented his possessions to his brothers and sisters would find a significant echo in the complaint of the mother whose daughter really ought to have inherited her father’s possessions.


1 The measurements are: height, 0.57 m.; width, 0.70 m.
2 It was acquired by the University Museum together with the New Kingdom tombstone and the granite statue of Hathor, published in the October, 1940, and the January, 1941, issues of the Bulletin.
3 The absence of the name of Osiris in the offering formula points to the early eleventh dynasty as the latest possible date: cf. J. Polotsky, Zu den Inschriftcn der 11 Dynastie. (Leipzig 1929), § 79.
4 Tombstones from the cemetery of lhe Thinite district, of the same general period, have been treated by Mr. Dows Dunham, Curator of the Egyptian collection in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, in an excellent monograph called ‘Naga-ed-Dêr Stelae of the first Intermediate Period,’ Boston, etc. 1937. On plate I of this book several tombstones are shown as found in their original position.
5 In fact, the sculptor has given Nefer-safkhy two left hands!
6 Perhaps he was the son of Nefer-safkhy and his successor in office.
7 Prominent among them was the spell of ‘opening the mouth’ which we found
quoted on our New Kingdom stele, see Bulletin of January, 1941, p. 20.

8 Below each entry, ‘a bowl’ or ‘two bowls’ are shown as containers, excepting live
cases in which ‘5 pellets’ (of natron, incense, etc.) are recorded.

9 Perhaps meaning that he acquired his possessions by his own work, not by inheritance,
see Polotsky, ibid., §73, pp. 44-45. See also Dunham, ibid., No. 62 and 69.

10 Cf. “of able(?) mouth in the council of the officials,” Polotsky, ibid.,, §76.
11 The Egyptian language has one word, corresponding to the German “Geschwister.’,
12 The Horus-sign seems here to replace, as a determinative, the falcon on the standard. Or should we rather read ‘Onuris-Horus,’ and compare “Onuris, the strong-armed Horus,” Dunham, ibid., stele 7, line 5?
13 But cf. Dunham, ibid., n. 78; “I arose from the back of my father’s house by the might of Onuris!”
14 Across the figure of Nefer-safkhy the traces of 6 horizontal lines are plainly visible which guided the artist in giving his drawing the proper proportions.
15 The man or boy carrying a calf or an antelope on his shoulders is found on various stelae of the First Intermediate Period, cf. Dunham, ibid., Pls. 14, 1, 24, 1 and 32. For the refractory antelopes I know of no parallel.
16 They probably indicate gold as the material.
17 H. E. Winlock suggests to me that perhaps the rendering of a greyish color was intended, which was missing in the painter’s palette.
18 The signs of the ‘menu’ are all printed light blue, with yellow lines dividing the single items.
19 Note especially, at the beginning of the first line, the bread on the reed-mat, which has developed an utterly unwarranted stem; the misunderstood shrine upon which the jackal is lying; the apparent sign of life in the djeser-arm, and the totally unrecognizable sign for ‘way.’
20 A. Gardiner and K. Sethe, Egyptian Letters to the Dead (1928), Pl. IV, 1.
21 The words ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ in Egyptian are often used instead of ‘husband’ and

22 The bowl came from Hu, about 30 miles from Thinis.

Cite This Article

Ranke, H.. "An Egyptian Tombstone From a Period of Transition." Museum Bulletin XIII, no. 3 (June, 1948): 24-29. Accessed September 28, 2023.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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