Tales on a Tablet

27 March 2013

For many visitors to museums and art galleries around the world, there is nothing more enticing than a section devoted to Ancient Egypt. The fascinating stories and relics of this famous era offer insights into the lives and beliefs of those who inhabited this ancient world.

The South Australian Museum's Ancient Egypt Gallery includes an exciting array of items that represent the spiritual underworld of the time – from mummified humans and animals to artworks and stelas or tablets — that were placed above or near a tomb of somebody after their death.

The Museum's Honorary Research Associate in Egyptology, Michael O'Donoghue (also a Senior Lecturer at the University of South Australia) working with his colleague Dr Anne Morrison, has recently had a paper published about one of the stelas on display in the Museum. A regular consultant for scientists and the media, Mr O'Donoghue is passionate about the exotic tales of Ancient Egypt, especially gathering as much information about the lives of its community as possible to better understand how they lived and why.

He says a stela is a stone tablet, pillar or slab inscribed "with scenes of the deceased before the gods and of the family making offerings to their dead relative". Stelas were not always used to tell stories about the dead, but also as commemorative items to record the military, political or social achievements of rulers and nobles; as signs to mark land boundaries; and as ways of honouring specific deities, to solicit protection from harm or to represent the dedicator at cult rites and festivals.

Mr O'Donoghue says, "belief in an afterlife is suggested by Egyptian burial practices before 3000 BCE, and persisted throughout the dynastic era. After death, the ka, one of several spiritual components of the individual, required access to all of the essentials of mortal life: an intact body, shelter, material goods, and an eternal supply of food and drink. Without these essentials, the ka would perish and the individual would 'die' a second and final time."

Mr O'Donoghue's paper looks at the limestone stela of Semen-tawy, which can be seen in the Museum. Semen-tawy was considered to be a "scribe of the divine book". The stone is thought to have been erected by his son in the 19th dynasty (1320–1318 BCE) and contains figures of Semen-tawy (the man's family) adoring the gods Osiris, Isis and Horus. The exact site and circumstances of the stela's collection is unknown, but it offers an insight into the values of the people of Ancient Egypt.

"The type of stela depended on your social status – they were not used so much to mark an actual burial than to place someone in the presence of the gods to bring the name and reputation of the person to the gods' attention," Mr O'Donoghue says.

"References to family members are difficult though. The hieroglyphic terms for sister or brother were used loosely – it might have meant 'cousin' or even 'wife' or 'husband'. In this particular stela, the children made offerings to their dead parents. There's a bit of debate about whether they are in-laws or grandparents – this is all examined in our paper too."

Stelas were traditionally carved in the shape of a door, representing the spirit's entrance to the realm of the dead. Other artworks in our gallery tell the traditional stories of the underworld, where the deceased person's heart is weighed against a feather. The feather was a symbol of justice and truth; if the heart was heavier, the person's soul was refused entry into the afterlife.

The more objects that the Museum is able to display, the more stories we can tell about the wonders of Ancient Egyptian life.

However, Mr O'Donoghue says that objects from this era are so rare and expensive that purchasing them is near impossible. The only way the Museum's collection could potentially be expanded is if private owners donated items.

Studying objects, particularly stelas, "offers researchers a fascinating perspective on administrative and social organisation in ancient Egypt, and provides information on changing religious beliefs over time," says Mr O'Donoghue.

"Each stela combines symbolic elements in a subtly unique manner that reflects both the choices of individuals and the influences of social norms."

Visit the Museum's Ancient Egypt Gallery on Level 3 to enjoy beautiful artworks and relics, and debate the curious ideas of the underworld.