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Seattle Art Museum (SAM)

Stele of Chaywet

Photo: Paul Macapia

Stele of Chaywet

ca. 2250 - 2000 B.C.

This object is a memorial stele, carved over 4000 years ago, about the year 2250 BC, during the period known as the Old Kingdom in Egypt. The stele is meant to memorialize forever a man named Chaywet. Depicted on the left, Chaywet faces inscriptions and images of food that were to accompany him eternally, which is why they are carved in stone.
Limestone and pigment
22 x 27 x 5 3/4 in. (55.9 x 68.6 x 14.6 cm)
Thomas D. Stimson Memorial Collection and partial gift of Hagop Kevorkian
Provenance: [Hagop Kevorkian, New York]; partial purchase and partial gift (1/3 of purchase price) from Mr. Kevorkian to Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, Washington, with funds From Thomas D. Stimson Memorial Collection, March 13, 1947
Photo: Paul Macapia
Now on view at the Seattle Art Museum

An offering given… for the Count and Sole Companion, Chaywet.

Inscription on Stele of Chaywet

Royal Versus Provincial Production

In ancient Egypt, art was commissioned by both private individuals like Chaywet and by members of the royal family, such as the Hellenistic (Greco) Egyptian pharaoh Ptolemy II.

Chaywet's stele shows him alone with his offerings and with the funerary formula granting him offerings forever. By contrast, the funerary relief of King Ptolemy II shows him in the company of the gods. Kings were shown with the gods because they had a special communication with the deities, whereas private individuals are usually not shown with that special relationship to the gods.

This stele is quite typical of Egyptian funerary stelae, although it is clearly made in a provincial style. The shape of the stone is not completely squared off as would be expected from a royal workshop, and it contains dips and burbles in the surface of the stone that would normally be smoothed down in an official workshop. The colors also indicate that the stele does not come from the most formalized workshop. It incorporates yellows and browns that are not typically favored by royal patrons.
Left: 47.64; right: 47.57

The Power of Words

Detail, frontal view of stele, with non-hieroglyphic areas grayed-out, 47.64
Writing was an important feature of ancient Egyptian culture; it had a potency far beyond just a means of communication. Today we think of writing as merely a means of communication, but in ancient Egypt writing had the potential to transcend life and death. Writing was used to communicate with the gods and to communicate with people in the afterlife.

Ancient Egyptians believed that the written word (each word represented by a hieroglyphic image) was a viable substitute for the object being written about. This is the reason that funerary offering formulas often refer to food. On this stele you see a leg of a cow, an important element of the funerary offering, which is also the hieroglyph meaning "to have power." The depiction of the cow's leg serves as a food offering for the deceased as well as a symbolic sense of empowerment in the afterlife.

Funerary inscriptions also often include a plea, saying, "Oh you living ones upon earth, may you say, a thousand of bread, a thousand of beer, a thousand of oxen, a thousand of birds." When someone recited hieroglyphic text aloud, it was believed that those objects it referred to would come into being and be made available to the deceased in the afterlife. In fact, we know that ancient Egyptians communicated with dead people through writing, so the texts that we see on this stele really are a means of communicating with this deceased man Chaywet.
Detail of left half of Stele of Chaywet, 47.64
The stele of Chaywet also illustrates the close relationship between hieroglyphs and art in ancient Egypt. When a personal name was written in hieroglyphs, it usually included the phonetic values in that name as well as a small picture of a man or a woman to identify the gender of the individual whose name was being written. In the Egyptian writing system, the individual letters—the individual hieroglyphs—are little drawings, and in this case these small images add up to tell us that this man's name is Chaywet. But on this stele, the large image of Chaywet that we see on the left hand side is doing double duty. It is both a hieroglyph and an image of the individual.

The ancient Egyptians believed that as long as the name of the deceased was remembered by people who were still living, that person was not truly dead. By extension, as long as a name was carved into a stone tablet, it would not be forgotten. Moreover, some funerary inscriptions actually ask visitors to the tomb to say the name of the deceased aloud, for through speaking the name of the dead they are made to live again.

The Inscription

Detail, frontal view of stele, with non-hieroglyphic areas grayed-out, 47.64
The ancient Egyptians believed that after death, people had the same physical needs as when they were living. The hieroglyphic inscription on a grave stele is a funerary offering formula. The deceased would still need food, and this inscription was thought to provide food for Chaywet in his afterlife. The inscription, which reads from right to left in horizontal lines, says:

An offering given by the king and given by Osiris, Osiris the god of Jedu, the foremost of the Westerners, Lord of Obju, that there may go forth at the voice bread and beer for the Count, the Sole Companion, Chaywet.

The inscription means that Osiris, the main god of the afterlife and the god of the cities Jedu and Obju (Abydos), is the chief of all the Westerners, or those dwelling in the land of the dead.
Detail, smaller hieroglyphics in center of stele, 47.64
Smaller hieroglyphs in the middle of this stele, which again read from right to left, elaborate on the food that Chaywet wanted in the afterlife:

A thousand of bread, a thousand of beer, a thousand of oxen, a thousand of birds and a thousand of every good and pure thing.

Any particular item that was not mentioned would be included in the catchall phrase, "thousand of every good and pure thing."
Detail, frontal view of stele, with non-hieroglyphic areas grayed-out, 47.64
Although the hieroglyphs on this stele read from right to left, writing in ancient Egypt can also be read from left to right. Hieroglyphs can appear in horizontal lines or in vertical columns. We know that the signs on this piece are meant to be read from right to left because of the direction the figures face. For example, the little seated man and the bird are looking toward the right, which means you start reading at the right and move to the left. In the first several lines, the symbols are oriented horizontally, while the hieroglyphs at the far right read from top to bottom.

Tombs and Funerary Art

Almost all the Egyptian art that survives today is somehow related to funerary beliefs. Most of the statues that exist from ancient Egypt were left in tombs to essentially be the double of the individual, the undying image of this person. We know that this stele came from the tomb chapel of Chaywet because of the representation of the food and the type of inscription on it, which is purely funerary. This stele would have been installed in the wall of the funerary chapel where people could come and leave offerings for Chaywet. These tomb chapels were usually quite small and dark, so this stele would not have been exposed to a lot of light, which is why the colors are so well preserved. This stele would have hung in the public area of a two-part tomb. The second part was probably an underground burial chamber where Chaywet's body was placed. This second area would not have been accessible after the burial.

This stele was probably originally part of a false door, a larger architectural element, and would have been positioned near an offering slab where food would actually be laid. Because this area would have been far from bright light, the viewer would have had to come quite close to read it. The reason the stele is fairly large is so that viewers could make out its details in the dimness.

Friends, family and even tourists would come to admire the image of Chaywet as shown in the stele, look at the pictures of the food, and if they were literate (the literacy rate was quite low) read the inscription.
Tomb of Padeshu
Photo: Robert Fraser, licensed under Creative Commons

The Chaywet Stele

Although we do not know where this stele is from exactly, we know from the title that Chaywet holds—Seal Bearer of Lower Egypt—that the stele must come from the northern part of Egypt. (Lower Egypt refers to the northern part of Egypt, upper and lower Egypt being determined by the south-to-north flow of the Nile.) Based on the administrative titles shown on the work, it probably comes from a medium-size city. But the style of art, which is quite provincial, indicates that it is not from the largest of the cities of this size in the area but probably from a village. Larger population centers had craftsmen who were trained in the formal aspects of ancient Egyptian art, but this example shows inviting provincial elements that would not be typical of the large, official craft workshops.

This stele was acquired by the Seattle Art Museum in 1947 as a gift honoring one of the patrons of the museum, Thomas D. Stimson. In the 1940s, when this work was acquired for SAM's collection, the art world had greatly different circumstances; more pieces were on the market, and laws were different, making it possible to acquire spectacular pieces like this for museums.


An important feature of funerary stelae is the depiction of food. In the stele of Chaywet, not only do the hieroglyphs refer to food, but images of food comprise the majority of the right side of the stele. In the upper left of this group of images, we can see tall, slender, feather-like objects, which are representations of bread loaves in, a very particular size and shape that were made especially for funerary offerings. To the right is an offering table with a wash stand underneath, where Chaywet can wash his hands before and after eating. There is a haunch of a cow, which you can identify by its small hoof, and what are probably vegetables on top of that. At the bottom left of this section, directly in front of Chaywet's skirt, is another offering table with different types of fruits and vegetables and another haunch from a cow and then to the right of that table are other vegetables and jars of beer. In the lower section one sees a little image of a bird with one wing outspread and its neck lying on the ground.

The representation of food was especially important in ancient Egypt because the Egyptians believed that a representation of food actually substituted for real food. Because the deceased was thought to dwell eternally in the afterlife, and just as when they were alive, they would forever need food. Adding images of food to a stele was a very practical way the Egyptians developed to make sure the soul of the deceased was sustained. To Chaywet, these images would provide nourishment for all eternity.
Detail, frontal view of stele, with nonoffering areas grayed-out, 47.64

Who Was Chaywet?

Chaywet was not, according to the inscriptions, one of the highest-ranking nobles, but he shows himself in a highly status-conscious way in this stele. He wears a triangular kilt made of linen with an inverted box pleat. The kilt sticks out oddly in front of him, a fancy style that men wore at that time.

Further indications of his rank are the long staff he holds in one hand and the scepter he holds in the other. These objects were typical of men of the noble classes and symbols of their rank. He is also depicted with a large necklace around his neck, which is a sign of his wealth, and a short false beard, which was the fashion at the time this stele was commissioned.

We know something about Chaywet because of the inscription on this piece. In addition to a funerary offering inscription, the text indicates that Chaywet served as "mayor" or "count," a title whose context is unclear, but it also claims that he is the "sole companion," which is usually a reference to the "sole companion of the king." This reference does not mean that this man was actually a friend of the king but that he was part of the ranks of courtiers who could claim this title.

Chaywet also bears the title Seal Bearer, or Treasurer, of Lower Egypt, which means that he was a member of the administration. Ancient Egypt was incredibly bureaucratic, and it is common to find stelae like this one dedicated to lesser officials because any person who had the resources to commission such a stele would do so.
Detail of Chaywet, 47.64


Emily Teeter, Egyptologist at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, discusses the Stele of Chaywet


Exhibition HistorySeattle, Washington, Seattle Asian Art Museum, Images of Immortality, December 2, 1988
Published ReferencesTeeter, Emily, Egyptian Art in the Collection of the Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, WA: Seattle Art Museum, 1988, no. 4, p. 9

Teeter, Emily. "Ancient Art of the Mediterranean and the Near East." In Selected Works, pp. 29-32. Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1991; p. 31, reproduced.

Teeter, Emily. "The Egyptian Collection of the Seattle Art Museum." KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt, vol. 12, no. 3 (Fall 2001): reproduced p. 26.

Seattle Art Museum: Bridging Cultures, London: Scala Publishers Ltd. for the Seattle Art Museum, 2007, p. 52

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