teacher resources

High School /College : Memorials : Overview, Questions, Bibliography

Topic: Stelai (Grave Memorials)
Written by Anne Wadlow, Dartmouth College, Class of 2001

The ancient Greeks often marked their graves with upright slabs of stone called stelai (singular stele). The stele sat either on top of or in front of the tomb, both to indicate the position of the burial and to serve as a monument to the deceased. In the Geometric Period (about 700–600 B.C.E), plain stone blocks and clay vases more commonly marked graves. The first stele appeared about 650 B.C.E in the form of a simple slab with limestone base (Kurtz and Boardman 81). As wealth increased beginning in the Archaic period and continuing through the Classical and Hellenistic periods, the common practice was to have a relief of the deceased on the stele. The reliefs sometimes show the deceased alone, and other times the deceased are accompanied by living family members (fig. 1). In the instance of the death of more than one family member, the relief may show both deceased figures (figs. 2, 3, and 4). An inscription on the bottom or top of the stele usually names the deceased in the relief.

While modern tombstones are simple monuments to the dead, ancient Greek stelai held more significance. Family members would regularly visit the tombs of their ancestors, and during this visitation they would adorn the stele and anoint it with oil. They would pour libations for the dead either at its base or on the tomb itself, with the stele standing in for the deceased.


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Questions for Further Study:

  • Unlike modern gravestones, ancient Greek stelai rarely indicate the age of the deceased in the inscription. What features of the children’s stelai indicate youth in comparison to representations of adolescents (fig. 5) and adults (figs. 6, 7)?
  • A common feature in Classical Attic funerary reliefs is the dexiosis, a handshake between the deceased and living family members (Garland 68). Several such reliefs depict deceased fathers shaking the hands of their living sons (figs. 8, 9, 10, and 11). How do representations of children on these stelai vary from those on stelai of their own? Why might such differences occur?
  • How do the depictions of boys and girls differ (figs. 12, 13, 14, 15, and 16)?
  • What is the basic composition of the stelai? What are the stylistic differences among them? What might these differences indicate?


Coming of Age in Ancient Greece website
Topic: Stelai (Grave Memorials)

Figure 1

Attic Stele of Asia, Mother and Son
First quarter of the 4th century BC
National Archaeological Museum, Athens, 767
(not in exhibition)


Figure 2

"Brother and Sister" Stele
ca. 540–530 B.C.E.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 11.185, and Staatliche Museen, Berlin, Antikensammlung A7
(not in exhibition)


Figure 3

Stele of Ampharete and her Grandchild
ca. 410 B.C.E.
Kerameikos Museum, Athens, P695
(not in exhibition)


Figure 4

Stele of Mnesagora and her brother Nikochares
ca. 430 B.C.E.
National Archaeological Museum, Athens, 3845
(not in exhibition)


Figure 5

Attic Stele of Eupheros, Youth with Strigil
ca. 430 B.C.E.
Kerameikos Museum, Athens, P1169
(not in exhibition)


Figure 6

Stele of Man and Dog ("The Borgia Stele")
ca. 470 B.C.E.
Museo nazionale, Naples, 98
(not in exhibition)


Figure 7

Stele of Woman, The Giustiniani Stele
ca. 460-450 B.C.E.
Staatliche Museen, Berlin, 1482
(not in exhibition)


Figure 8

Stele of Man shaking hands with son
Piraeus Archaeological Museum, Piraeus, 46
(not in exhibition)

[Image forthcoming]
Figure 9
Stele of Man shaking hands with son
National Archaeological Museum, Athens, 3947
(not in exhibition)


Figure 10

Stele of Man shaking hands with son
ca. 420–400 B.C.E.
National Archaeological Museum, Athens, 778
(not in exhibition)


Figure 11

Stele of Man shaking hands with son
ca. 400 B.C.E.
Musée du Louvre, Paris, Mg 773
(not in exhibition)


Figure 12

Parian Stele, Young Girl with Pet Birds
Ca. 450 B.C.E
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Fletcher Fund, 27.45
(not in exhibition)


Figure 13

Attic Stele of Girl with Doll and Goose
360 B.C.E
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, 82.AA.135
In Coming of Age in Ancient Greece, cat. 68


Figure 14

Stele of Boy Mnesikles
ca. 400–350 B.C.E.
Marble, H. 66.5 cm, W. 27.5 cm
Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Museum Purchase Fund, y1986-67
In Coming of Age in Ancient Greece, cat. 122


Figure 15

Stele of Apollonia, Daughter of Aristandros and Thebageneias
ca. 100 B.C.E.
Marble, H. 112.4 cm, W. 63.4 cm, D. 20 cm
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, 74.AA.13
In Coming of Age in Ancient Greece, cat. 126


Figure 16

Stele of Boy Apolexis
ca. 400–375 B.C.E.
Marble, H. 45.8 cm, W. 35.9 cm, D. 8.3 cm
Indiana University Art Museum, Bloomington, V.G. Simkhovitch Collection, 63.105.33
In Coming of Age in Ancient Greece, cat. 123


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Sample Bibliography and Weblinks
Topic: Stelai (Grave Memorials)

Beaumont, L. "The Social Status and Artistic Representations of ‘Adolescence’ in Fifth Century Athens." In Children and Material Culture, ed. Joanna Sofaer Derevenski. London, Routledge, 2000.

Clairmont, C. Gravestone and Epigram.

Demand, N. Birth, Death and Motherhood in Classical Greece. Baltimore and London, 1994.

Garland, R. The Greek Way of Death. Ithaca, NY, 1985.

Golden, M. Children and Childhood in Classical Athens. Baltimore, 1990.

Hirsch-Dyczek, O. Les Représentations des enfants sur les stèles funéraires attiques. Warsaw, 1983.

Houby-Nielsen, S. "Child Burials in Ancient Athens." In Children and Material Culture, ed. Joanna Sofaer Derevenski. London, 2000.

Humphreys, S. The Family, Women and Death: Comparative Studies. London, 1983.

Jeffery, L. H. "The Inscribed Gravestones of Archaic Attica." Annual of the British School of Athens 57 (1962), pp. 115 ff.

Johansen, K. F. Attic Grave-Reliefs. Copenhagen, 1951.

King, J. E. "Infant Burial." Classical Review 17 (1903), pp. 83 ff.

Kurtz, D., and J. Boardman. Greek Burial Customs. Ithaca, NY, 1971.

Lattimore, R. Themes in Greek and Latin Epitaphs. Urbana: The University of Illinois Press, 1942.

Morris, I. Burial and Ancient Society. The Rise of the Greek City-State. Cambridge, 1987.

Pfohl, G. Greek Poems on Stones. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967.

Richter, G. Archaic Attic Gravestones. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1944.

Scott, E. The Archaeology of Infancy and Death. Oxford, 1999.

Toynbee, J. M. C. Death and Burial in the Roman World. Ithaca, NY, 1971.

Zanker, P. "The Hellenistic Grave Stelai from Smyrna: Identity and Self-image in the Polis." In A. Bulloch, E. S. Gruen, A. A. Long and A. Stewart eds., Images and Ideologies: Self Definition in the Hellenistic World, Berkeley: Berkeley University of California Press, 1993, pp. 212-30.



brief introduction to stelae

earch word "stele" for many images and references

example of an early stele