Relief sculpture of Metjetji and his son Sabu-ptah - ROM2004_1039_1


Relief sculpture of Metjetji and his son Sabu-ptah

Medium:Limestone, carved and painted
Geography: Excavated at the Tomb of Metjetji, Saqqara, Egypt
Date: c. 2494-2321 BC
Period: 5th-early 6th Dynasty, Old Kingdom
82.3 x 67 cm
Object number: 953.116.1
Credit Line: This purchase was made possible with the support of the Reuben Wells Leonard Bequest Fund
On view
Gallery Location:Galleries of Africa: Egypt

This fragment comes from the tomb of a Fifth Dynasty nobleman, Metjetji.  It is elegantly carved in sunk relief, a technique most often employed on the outside walls of monuments.

The Arabic word “mastaba”, meaning bench, refers to the massive rectangular structures found above many Old Kingdom tombs in Egypt. This inscription is probably from the left side of the facade because Metjetji is looking right. The images and glyphs were carefully and delicately carved.  Details of Metjetji's pleated kilt and elegant wig are shown in detail to establish his status.  Metjetji himself is the largest figure, shown walking forward, out of his tomb into the light. .The nobleman sports a short beard and a gentle smile.  His arms are elegantly muscular.  He carries two objects, a staff and sceptre, which establish his importance and which also might function as weapons.

At his feet, grasping his staff and walking in his footprints, is a small, naked male.  This is his son, Sabu-Ptah, shown without clothes as he was not old enough, when this was carved, to have any status of his own.  Above the boy is written, "His son, whom he loves, Sabu-Ptah."  Scratched below that name is another son's name, Ihy.  Other fragments from this tomb show that Ihy was an older brother.  It's pleasant to wonder who wrote that other name.

A tail seems to hang from beneath Metjetji's kilt.  This was an error in carving, almost certainly filled in with plaster when the tomb was new.  Nobles like Metjetji were often shown wearing a leopard-skin garment, whose tail would have hung as this one does.  Perhaps there was a change in plan, and Metjetji's garment was changed during the time the tomb was being decorated.  This error, and the carving of another child's name, take us back to the days when the work was being done, more than four thousand years ago.

Above the figures is a line of hieroglyphs giving a shortened titulary for Metjetji: "royal noble, Overseer of the Office of (the) Khentyiw-shay, Metjetji." It is possible that this title means that he was an overseer of royal bodyguards during a time of royal assassinations and dynastic change.

 The right half of the block is occupied by an autobiographical inscription praising the tomb owner's merits as a good son, "an honoured one whom his mother blessed."  Though a few glyphs are missing at the top of each line, the inscription is fairly standard, and easy to follow.  It's interesting that Metjetji tells us of his devotion to his deceased parents, of how he obtained a sarcophagus for them from the king, of his good behaviour as a child, and his amiability - "I never made anyone angry" - and saves for the last that he had a voice in every work that the king undertook.

Literate visitors to the necropolis would have been able to pause and read Metjetji's name and titles.  As important as his name is his assertion that he was a good person, a valued member of his society.  By stressing his virtues, which can also be read in his fine figure, clothes and accoutrements, he is seeking assistance from readers.  He wanted visitors to the cemetery four thousand years ago, and the museum now, to say leave food offerings, or say a prayer for him.  The Egyptian prayer for the dead is rather friendlier than most:  "May he be given bread and beer (and other supplies)."  By saying his name aloud and reciting the offering formula, visitors to this stone established a two-way communication with Metjetji.  If we offer prayers for him, he will look out for us in the Afterlife.

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