Every now and then something is unearthed in Egypt that can give pause to historians. It doesn’t happen all that often anymore, but the historical record can provide us numerous examples. One of the best examples is an unassuming, rather unimportant little stela usually called the Inventory Stela, also known as the Stela of the Daughter of Cheops (Khufu).
The stela was uncovered in 1858 at Giza by the Frenchman Auguste Mariette (1821-1881). Mariette was one of the titans of Egyptian studies at the dawn of Egyptology. He worked in a time when his European and American colleagues were first trying to wrap their minds around the great pharaonic civilization, digging frantically all over the Nile Valley in a quest not only to find gold but to wrest facts and details from the very distant past.
The historians of Mariette’s time were only beginning to flesh out the dynastic history of Egypt. Hieroglyphs had been deciphered by the Frenchman Champollion only 36 years before the Inventory Stela was excavated. Given these limitations,a little monument such as this stela was certain to cause some measure of confusion and possibly lead some folks down the wrong path.
Mariette found the stela in the rubble out front of the farthest-left (southernmost) little pyramid to the east of the Great Pyramid. These little pyramids had been made for either the wives or daughters of Khufu, the king for whom the Great Pyramid was built. The little pyramid in question is today known as G1-c (see red circle below):
Each of the three little pyramids had a small mortuary temple to its east, mirroring the larger arrangement of the Great Pyramid. Each queen or daughter buried there would’ve had her own mortuary cult and cadre of priests to service her afterlife needs, just as Khufu himself did, albeit on a much larger scale. These mortuary temples today are in ruins.
It was in this jumble of ruined masonry that Mariette found the Inventory Stela. The stela is made of hard limestone. It’s 30 inches high and 15 wide, contains four registers of inscriptions, and relief carvings of divine statues (Zivie-Coche 2002: 83). It’s the inscription that caused confusion in Mariette’s day and the inscription has become the darling of many fringe adherents, who are quick to glom onto most anything that might suit their agenda.
The stela is in rough shape and there are numerous lacunae, but enough is intact to make sense of what the stela was for. You will come across different translations of the text on the stela, some very poor and some more on the mark. Here I provide a reliable and professional translation from Zivie-Coche’s book (ibid 85):
Live the Horus Medjed, the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Cheops, given life. He found the house of Isis, Mistress of the Pyramids, next to the house of Haurun, northwest of the house of Osiris, Lord of Rasetau. He (re)built the pyramid of the king’s daughter Henutsen beside this temple. He made an inventory, carved on a stela, for his mother Isis, the mother of the god, Hathor, Mistress of the Sky. He restored for her the divine offerings and (re)built her temple in stone, that which he found in ruins being renewed, and the gods in their place.
When studying and interpreting an inscription like this one, the student is obligated to follow it to the letter and not insert information that doesn’t belong. Therefore, it’s critical to start with a reliable and modern translation.
Fringe adherents have abused this inscription in all manner of ways. They have an obsession with trying to establish that the pyramids and Sphinx are thousands of years older than anyone thought and were built by some nebulous, unproven, and lost advanced civilization that existed there prior to the Egyptians. Or maybe it was aliens. This stands foolishly against modern science and the evidence from carbon dating that shows these pyramids and temples were erected around the very time we always thought (Bonani et al 2001).
So in taking the stela at face value, it would seem the Sphinx and pyramids were already there when Khufu came along. The inference is, he just repaired things and took them as his own. You will see this preached time and again in fringe literature. You will even see fringe writers claim the inscription “proves” Khufu found the Great Pyramid itself already in place, even though the inscription nowhere says that.
Referring to the inscription above, you can see where it clearly states Khufu was supposed to have “(re)built the pyramid of the king’s daughter Henutsen beside this temple.” This is the little pyramid designated G1-c, built, as mentioned, for one of Khufu’s wives or daughters, The temple in question is today’s jumble of ruins out front of G1-c that was originally the little pyramid’s mortuary chapel. The chapel in the inscription is referred to as “the house of Isis, Mistress of the Pyramids.” In other words, it was a chapel dedicated to Isis, the great mother-goddess.
What we know today is that the old mortuary chapel really did become a temple to Isis, but not in Khufu’s time (Dynasty 4, c. 2500 BCE). On archaeological grounds, the conversion to the temple can be dated to some time in the Third Intermediate Period. We can narrow it down to the reign of Psusennes I (1047 BCE-1001 BCE), in Dynasty 21, based on his cartouche found in the ruins (Petrie 1883: 65). By the time of the Third Intermediate Period, the monuments on the Giza Plateau had been abandoned for many centuries.
In Mariette’s day the stela was already causing confusion because of its inscription. Flinders Petrie felt the stela was either a refurbished copy of a very old monument, or “more probably an entire invention” (ibid 49). Others, such as Maspero, believed the stela should be taken as an historical document (Maspero 1894: n. 364-65).
So, is the stela from the Old Kingdom or from some later time? A great deal of time has elapsed from the days of Mariette, Petrie, and Maspero, and thus we have the benefit of generations of steady scholarship and concerted studies. We have learned a tremendous amount since those distant days and have greatly refined our abilities to interpret and understand things like the Inventory Stela.
This being the case, certain features on the stela present immediate problems. For one thing, in style and form the stela is not of the type one generally sees from the Old Kingdom. That’s immediately noticeable. That might possibly be explained away in some manner, but there’s more.
A notable problem is the name Haurun in the inscription. This is a reference to the Great Sphinx. Haurun was originally a Canaanite god and one of manifestations of Baal. Egypt did end up assimilating this deity, as it did numerous foreign gods and goddesses, but Haurun did not end up becoming part of the Egyptian pantheon until the New Kingdom—many centuries after the time of Khufu. Only at some later time was Haurun associated with the Sphinx, to the point that it became a name for the Sphinx. How this occurred is not known, but it may have been the presence of Canaanite workers living in the area; perhaps they identified the Sphinx with their deity Haurun (Wilkinson 2003: 108). But to be certain, referring to the Sphinx as Haurun is a noticeable anachronism; we don’t even know what the Egyptians of the Old Kingdom might have called the Sphinx.
Similar anachronisms appear on the stela. As mentioned, the stela includes relief carvings of divine statues. This is the “inventory” portion of the stela. It’s a listing of statues that were once featured in the little temple to Isis. This goddess herself presents an immediate problem, as does the mention of Osiris: neither of these deities appears to have been part of Egyptian veneration as early as Dynasty 4. Neither appears in the Egyptian pantheon until the end of Dynasty 5. For that matter, the title attributed to Isis on the stela, “mistress of the pyramids,” is nowhere else given to her in Egyptian history.
We can say the same about some of the other divine statues on the stela, including the mention of such deities as Nephthys, Harendotes, and Harmokhis. These did not exist in the pantheon in Khufu’s time.
Yet another problem exists with the mention of the “king’s daughter Henutsen.” She is supposedly the royal daughter for whom the little pyramid, G1-c, was erected. While the pyramid was certainly built for one of Khufu’s royal women, daughter or wife, there is no evidence contemporary to Khufu for a daughter named Henutsen (Dodson and Hilton 2004: 53). She’s an invention for the narrative.
Everything considered, then, this stela cannot date to the Old Kingdom. So to what point in time can it be dated?
We’ve seen that the little temple to Isis was first established in the Third Intermediate Period, probably Dynasty 21. But the stela itself is much later. The Giza Plateau fell into ruins after this period and sat abandoned for a number of centuries, until Dynasty 26 (664 BCE-525 BCE). This is also known as the Saite Period due to the capital city of the time: Sais, in the Delta. Egypt itself had been much diminished by then, but there was a brief resurgence under the powerful king Psamtik I Wahibra. This king restored much of the stability and power of Egypt, at least internally, and a lot of attention was given to Giza, which experienced a renaissance.
The stela is of the style and form of the Saite Period. While many of the deities mentioned on the stela were unknown in Dynasty 4, they all would’ve been familiar to the Egyptians of Dynasty 26. The stela was simply part of the plan to bring grandeur back to Giza.
Most scholars today agree that the Inventory Stela dates to Dynasty 26. Therefore, the stela can be thought of as a pious fraud. The Egyptians had their own sense of history, but this must not mean we should believe they viewed history the way we do. Their perspective was far removed from our own (Zivie-Coche 2002: 87-88). They were not trying to pull one over on anyone but were, indeed, honoring the past and the memory of one of their great, distant monarchs, Khufu.
This is a lesson in critical thinking. We have to view things in context and dig deeper. The stela tells us everything we need to know. It is the mistake of the fringe not to dig deeper but to jump to conclusions based on a thin veneer.
I welcome comments and questions, and thanks for reading.
Bonani, Georges et al. “Radiocarbon Dating of Old and Middle Kingdom Monuments in Egypt.” 2001.
Dodson, Aidan and Dyan Hilton. The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt. 2004.
Maspero, Gaston. The Dawn of Civilization: Egypt and Chaldea. 1894.
Flinders, Petrie. The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh. 1883.
Wilkinson, Richard H. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. 2003.
Zivie-Coche, Christiane. Sphinx: History of a Monument. 2002.