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No Two are the Same: Stela Production in Ptolemaic and Roman Akhmim

Emily Cole

University of California, Berkeley

Egyptians produced funerary stelae as part of their mortuary assemblages for more than three millennia. This practice continued during the Ptolemaic and Roman periods (ca. fourth century BCE to fourth century CE) even as the region’s population diversified. While individuals retained certain elements as defining features of this corpus, such as the representation of the deceased and standard offering formulae, other material, stylistic, and textual elements were inherently customizable (Wells 2014). By investigating the variations in this material, I show that the artisans involved in creating such outwardly similar stelae provided a degree of religious stability to local residents through the first and second centuries CE. Nevertheless, the broader interactions taking place in the Eastern Mediterranean at this time offered new opportunities for social expression, which visually manifest in this corpus.

In this paper, I explore the nature of the production and consumption of funerary artifacts drawing on the corpus of material from the Egyptian site of Panopolis, modern Akhmim. Over 130 stelae excavated in the 19th century from two cemeteries at Akhmim are now dispersed in various museum collections (Kamal 1904, Munro 1973).To understand the driving factors that led to the production of a heterogeneous corpus, I compile the range of representations of, for example, deities, elements of iconography, ritual texts, and biographical information about the deceased, to determine which elements were required and which represented personal choice. Craftsmen producing and individuals commissioning these stelae had to reach a mutual consensus on the presentation of the final product for objects to have been deposited in the tombs of the Panopolite cemeteries.

Therefore, the innovations that can can be traced on these objects allow me to consider the social value of the various aspects of production. In particular, the appearance of the contemporary Demotic Egyptian script to write texts that previously only appeared in traditional Egyptian Hieroglyphs suggests that the rules for the visual display of written language shifted in the Ptolemaic period. A group of literate individuals offered objects that conformed to tradition, but pushed the boundaries of acceptable practices of display. I argue that the reason these adaptations appear is the necessary dialogue between stone-carver, ritual specialist, and customer attested in this community of practice. With new avenues of communication opened in each case, no two stelae could be exactly alike.

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Systems of Knowledge and Strategic Planning in Ancient Industries

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