Highlights of the Manchester Museum: a stela of the Overseer of Works, Mery-Ra

For this issue, Campbell Price choses a small stela in Manchester’s collection that commemorates the official responsible for the creation of a famous statue.


This small (21cm high) basalt stela of Mery-Ra (above) is a modest commemoration of a man responsible for the construction of a mighty monument. Mery-Ra was ‘overseer of works’ on a colossal
statue named Ra-of-Rulers, one of the many colossi of Ramesses II (c. 1279-1213 BC). The most famous surviving example now stands in Luxor temple (see opposite, top left). Ramesses followed his illustrious predecessor Amenhotep III in creating a large number of colossal statues of himself, each with its own name. Giving a statue a name imparted to it a separate divine identity. This enabled the colossus to be singled out for worship as a deity in its own right and not merely a conduit to the divine as scholars often previously believed. These named statues, which we might term ‘cult colossi’, were usually set up outside temples, at what may perhaps be called the boundary between the sacred and the profane. The colossal statues are depicted on several other stelae, being adored by a range of fairly ordinary people. Access to them was likely to have been mediated, but is difficult to envisage how this could have been arranged.

A small stela (accession number R4566, 1937) commemorating Mery-Ra (his name ringed). Photo: Manchester Museum/University of Manchester

To the left, the text on our stela identifies the donor: “Made by the overseer of works of (the statue) Ra-ofRulers, Mery-Ra”.

Mery-Ra faces, and offers flowers to, a seated figure of the goddess Satet, with her horned headdress. She is captioned: “Satet, Lady of Elephantine, Lady of the Sky”.

A colossal statue of Ramesses II in the First Court of Luxor Temple. Photo: Campbell Price/Manchester Museum

Among many rock cut inscriptions on Sehel Island, just upriver of Elephantine Island near modern Aswan, there exists a graffito (see opposite, bottom left) made in the name of Mery-Ra, overseer of works on the (statue) Ra-of-Rulers. This must surely be the same man as depicted on our stela. Mery-Ra followed in a long line of important men, including members of the king’s own close family during the Old Kingdom, who had responsibility for “(all) royal works”. This title implied an involvement with more resource management than the modern term ‘architect’ may indicate.

A graffito (ringed) on Sehel Island made in the name of Mery-Ra, overseer of works on the statue Ra of Rulers. Photo: SG

Our stela came to Manchester from the collection of the pharmaceutical baron Sir Henry Wellcome in the 1980s, and its exact find-spot is unknown. However, the dedication to Satet, the local goddess of Elephantine, and the graffiti at nearby Sehel point to an original location in a temple or chapel near Aswan.

The inscription on the side of the statue base, naming the statue as Ra of Rulers (ringed in blue),
Photo: Campbell Price/Manchester Museum

Aswan was a major source of granite throughout the pharaonic period and it is likely that this is where the colossus named Ra-of-Rulers was quarried. The formulaic dedicatory phrase “made by …” may therefore be the result of a command of Mery-Ra to a craftsman under his charge, or it may be the work of the man himself – whose own skilled hand had, no doubt, won him responsibility for overseeing work on a colossal statue of the king, and the creation of a god.

By Campbell Price
Dr. Price is Curator of Egypt and Sudan at Manchester Museum (the University of Manchester) and a regular contributor to AE magazine.