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The Funeral Stele of Heliodora

Roger Bagnall, Cathy Calloway, and Alexander Jones

New York University, University of Missouri, and New York University

This stele, which may with near certainty be assigned to Terenouthis (Kom Abu Billou), commemorates a woman named Heliodora. The combination of adjectives with which she is described makes this a most unusual artifact and document.

Provenance: Acquired by the Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Missouri from Charles Ede Limited, London, in 2011. Published: Charles Ede Ltd. Egyptian Antiquities (London 2011), object no. 25. Deriving from a private collection with documentation to the early1950s. The close similarities to other stelai from Terenouthis virtually guarantee its original location. Enoch Peterson of the University Michigan excavated part of the cemetery in 1935. Of the many stelai recovered, 197 went to the Kelsey Museum and some stayed in Egypt.  The stelai were published by Finlay Hooper in 1961 (The Funerary Stelae from Kom Abou Billou), on the basis of the material in the Kelsey and Peterson’s excavation notes. More recent excavations at Kom Abou Billou have taken place on and off since the 1970s. In addition to stelai recovered from the formal excavations, quite a few have found their way into the art market and into various collections. A volume by Abd el-Hafeez et al. (1985) published 73 more stelai from excavations in 1970-1, and journal articles, particularly by Zaki Aly, have added more stelai from various collections.

Description: Limestone with traces of paint. On it is a woman carved in relief, within a small, temple-like structure, an aedicula or naiskos. This has a triangular pediment with ornaments (acroteria) at the corners and is flanked on each side by a column with a papyrus capital. Traces of red pigment are preserved on the pediment and on the two columns. A row of black squares marks the dentil course across the architrave. Inside the aedicula, the woman reclines on a mattress, propping herself up on her left elbow, which rests on two small cushions. Her face and shoulders are fully frontal; her knee is raised and her foot points to her right, resting on the mattress. In her right hand she holds up a two-handled cup (kantharos). Heliodora has long hair (or a wig) with stylized tresses that fall over her shoulders from behind her ears. She wears a chiton and a himation. The mattress rests atop a kline, below which are two registers. The lower one contains the inscription, while the upper one features two columns and three conventional elements of the “banquet” carved in relief. At the left of the composition a statue of a jackal, an animal sacred to the god Anubis, sits atop a pedestal, facing Heliodora.

Beneath the plinth is a carved inscription in Greek characters in three horizontal lines. In it, Heliodora is described as μαθηματική, ἁγνή, ἀκάγνωστος, παρθένος, and φιλάδελφος. Her age is given as 52. Although φιλάδελφος is found of women in other stelai, usually coupled with φίλανδρος, the other terms are rare or unknown in other Terenouthis stelai and indeed uncommon in the Greek epigraphy of Egypt generally. A string of this length and complexity is remarkable, and indeed an unmarried woman of 52 was a rarity in Roman Egypt. The most striking term, however, is μαθηματική, an epithet that in this context and period can scarcely signify anything other than a person versed in astrology.

In this paper we will present the stele as an object, discuss the iconography and symbolism, and consider what the significance of the exceptional string of epithets might be.

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Culture and Society in Greek Roman and Byzantine Egypt

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