[stee-lee, steel for 1–3; steel, stee-lee for 4]
stele, slab of stone or terra-cotta, usually oblong, set up in a vertical position, for votive or memorial purposes. Upon the slabs were carved inscriptions accompanied by ornamental designs or reliefs of particular significance. Stelae were often used as commemorative stones in ancient Egypt and as boundary markers in Mesopotamia. The marble funerary stelae of Greece, especially of Athens, are among the most beautiful monuments of classical art. Likenesses of the dead were sculptured in relief and painted upon them. Stelae of great age are found in China and among the ruins of the Mayan culture in Mexico and Central America.

A stele (from Greek: στήλη, stēlē, ; plural: stelae, στῆλαι, stēlai, ; also found: Latinised singular stela and Anglicised plural steles) is a stone or wooden slab, generally taller than it is wide, erected for funerals or commemorative purposes, most usually decorated with the names and titles of the deceased or living — inscribed, carved in relief (bas-relief, sunken-relief, high-relief, etc), or painted onto the slab.

History and function

Stelae were also used as territorial markers, as the boundary stelae of Akhenaton at Amarna, or to commemorate military victories. They were widely used in the Ancient Near East, Greece, Egypt, Ethiopia, and, most likely independently, in China and some Buddhist cultures (see the Nestorian Stele), and, more surely independently, by Mesoamerican civilisations, notably the Olmec and Maya. The huge number of stelae surviving from ancient Egypt and in Central America constitute one of the largest and most significant sources of information on those civilisations. An informative stele of Tiglath-Pileser III is preserved in the British Museum. Two stelae built into the walls of a church are major documents relating to the Etruscan language.

Unfinished standing stones, set up without inscriptions from Libya in North Africa to Scotland were monuments of pre-literate Megalithic cultures in the Late Stone Age. The Pictish stones of Scotland, often intricately carved, date from between the 6th and 9th centuries.

In 1489, 1512, and 1663 CE, the Kaifeng Jews of China left these stone monuments to preserve their origin and history. Despite repeated flooding of the Yellow River, destroying their synagogue time and time again, these stelae survived to tell their tale.

An obelisk is a specialized kind of stele. The Insular high crosses of Ireland and Britain are specialized stelae. Likewise, the Totem pole of North and South America is a type of stelae. Gravestones with inscribed epitaph are also kinds of stelae.

Most recently, in the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, the architect Peter Eisenman created a field of some 2,700 blank stelae. The memorial is meant to be read not only as the field, but also as an erasure of data that refer to memory of the Holocaust.

Notable individual stelae


See also


  • John Boardman ed., The Cambridge Ancient History, Part 1, 2nd Edition, (ISBN-13: 9780521224963 | ISBN-10: 0521224969)
  • Christopher A. Pool, Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica, Cambridge University Press 2007 (ISBN-13: 9780521783125)
  • Karen E. Till, The New Berlin: Memory, Politics, Place, University of Minnesota Press 2005

Footnotes and references

External links

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