Collection Highlight: A Tale of Three Potters

By Museum of Ancient Cultures

Limestone Funerary Stela MU 4575

This limestone stela (an inscribed stone slab) was erected by a certain Ptah-wenenef in Egypt during the Middle Kingdom (1975 to 1640 BCE). The stela contains an offering prayer for Ptah-wenenef ‘s brother Aku, an ’overseer of the potters’, and also mentions another individual named Dedu-Sobek, who is believed by some to be their father. This stela provides a great deal of insight into funerary customs in ancient Egypt, demonstrating that Ptah-wenenef provided the stela for Aku’s mortuary cult, so that his name may live on. Ptah-wenenef, Aku and Dedu-Sobek all held the previously mentioned title of ‘overseer of potters’. This suggests that professions such as this passed through the family, with fathers passing on their specialist skills and knowledge to their children. One may be able to make out the silhouette of a standing person, most likely Aku himself, in the bottom left corner of the stela. However, that part of the stelae has been badly damaged, and it is too hard to tell for certain who is depicted.

The Inscription:


[Horizontal text]

1 ḥtp di nsw [Inpw tp.y] ḏw⸗f ḏi⸗f 2 pr.t-ḫrw
kȜw irṯ.t [Ȝpd.w sš] mnḫt iḫt nb.t
3 nfr.t w3b.t
ʿnḫ.t [nṯr] im ḏḏ p.t kmȜt
4 n kȜ n(y) imy-r
ḳdw Ȝkw im sn⸗f imy-r ḳdw

[Vertical Text]

5 Ptḥ wnn⸗f sʿnḫ [rn⸗f]
6 imy-r ḳdw Rnwtt sȜ…
8 iri.n imy-r ḳdw Sbk-ḏḏw


(1) An offering which the king gives, [Anubis] upon his mountain, he gives (2) an invocation offering of bread and beer, oxen and [fowl] alabaster and linen, oil and every (3) good, pure and living thing upon which (a god) lives, and (everything) that the sky gives and the (4) earth creates for the ka of the overseer of the potters Aku.
It is his brother, the overseer of the (5) potters Ptahwenenef, who caused [his name] to live.
(6) Overseer of the potters, Sa-Renut,
(7) […]
(8) which the overseer of the potters, Dedu-Sobek

Translated by Matt George and Pauline Stanton

More about the Stela

Only three stelae commissioned by potters have survived to the modern period; MU 4575 is one of these three! The so-called Satire of Trades, an Old Kingdom piece of didactic literature widely read in scribal schools, places the profession of public scribe well above everything else, including that of a potter. In doing-so, the satire presents the occupation of a potter as being undesirable in ancient Egypt, perhaps even associated with the ‘working-poor’:

“He is muddier with clay than swine
to burn under his earth.
His clothes are solid as a block
and his headcloth is rags

The air that enters his nose
comes from his furnace direct.
When he has made the pestle out of his legs,
the pounding is done with himself,
smearing the fences of every house,
and beaten by his streets.”

Despite the entertaining nature of this excerpt, it is evident that these potters were at least wealthy to some degree, for stone tablets were not ‘a dime a dozen’ in this period. The fact that Ptah-wenenef and the owners of the two other surviving stelae could afford such a monument suggests that they had some degree of wealth and status. In regard to Ptah-wenenef, this is most likely because of his role as ‘overseer of potters’.

As one can see, MU4757 is a very intriguing artefact, revealing a great deal about everyday life in Middle Kingdom Egypt.

For more information on this and similar items from the museum’s collection, see Tristant, Y. & Ryan, E. (eds) Death is Only the Beginning (2017).

Post by Ewan Coopey

Museum of Ancient Cultures

The Museum of Ancient Cultures is a leading museum of Macquarie University which supports a range of museums, collections, art galleries, a sculpture park and herbarium. It is an archaeological museum that introduces modern minds to a number of cultures from the ancient world through its research and publications, learning, teaching and outreach programs, its displays and exhibitions and its involvement in the activities of the University.