Sully wing, 1st floor - Room 22. Princess Nefertiabet and her food, reign of Cheops (Khufu), (2590-2565 BC), 4th dynasty. Painted limestone. H. 37.7 cm; W. 52.5 cm; D. 8.3 cm
Ask students to sit facing display case 5 and to describe the stele element by element: the woman; the objects surrounding her; the pieces of text.
The artifact is interesting for two reasons:
- Its standardized depiction of the human body. Note the two left hands, two left feet, the front-view eye on a side-view face, a side view of the abdomen but a front view of the shoulders.
-The text surrounding the deceased woman and the rectangular shape of the stele, which acts as a cartouche.
Note her royal origins and her name inscribed above her (“The King’s daughter, Nefertiabet = Beautiful One of the East”), and the lists of food and items (such as make-up and linen) that she would need in the afterlife. Use this opportunity to look at the Egyptian numbering system: a lotus stem is used for “one thousand” (and when repeated, the motif means “infinity”), a spiral for “one hundred”.
Explain that, without a name, the deceased could not gain entry into the afterlife, because in order to be summoned to the Court of Osiris, the deceased had to be called by name. Explain that hieroglyphs are read in the opposite direction to the walking animals. You can then ask them to show you which way to read the writing on this stele. They will notice that there is more than one reading direction: the princess (herself a hieroglyph), her titles, and her name written above her head are read from right to left, while the rest is read from left to right. This organizes the image: the woman is receiving “written” offerings that mirror her position.
Why “write” offerings on a stele? Signs have a magical function and a performative value. Writing – or, in this case, reading – a sign creates and materializes the object it represents for the deceased, and, as a result, guarantees the princess enough food and toiletries for all eternity.