Vocabulary List—Egypt and Mesopotamia

This page is containing a listing and explanation of words, terms, and phrases that are used in descriptions of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia life and art.


basalt: a hard, durable, dark-colored stone used for sculpture in ancient Egypt and the Near East.
bronze: an alloy of copper (95-99%) and tin, sometimes with small quantities of lead and/or other metals than can be formed by casting. First produced by the second millennium BCE (Bronze Age) in Mesopotamia and China; the metal most often used for sculpture until the 20th century.
cuneiform: a script composed of nail-shaped wedges pressed into wet clay, the earliest known form of writing; developed in Sumerian Mesopotamia.
cylinder seal: a small, cylindrical stone decorated with incised patterns. When rolled across clay or wax, a raised relief pattern is made, which served in Mesopotamian cultures as an identifying signature.
diorite: a hard, compact, black or gray stone used for sculpture, notably in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt.


dressed stone: highly finished, precisely-cut blocks of stone laid in even courses, creating a uniform face with fine joins; often used as a facing on the visible exterior of a building.
gilding: coating with gold or gold leaf applied to the surface of a manuscript or sculpture.
ground: the surface on which a painting is executed.
groundline: the solid baseline that indicates the ground plane on which the figure stands.
hieratic scale: the use of different sizes for significant or holy figures to indicate importance; the larger the figure, the greater the importance.
hieroglyphs: picture writing; words and ideas rendered in the form of pictorial symbols, often used to name Egyptian monumental writing (hieroglyphics).
hypostyle hall: marked by numerous rows of tall, closely-spaced columns; in ancient Egypt, a large interior room of a temple complex preceding the sanctuary.
mastaba: a flat-topped, one-story structure with slanted walls over an ancient Egyptian underground tomb.
obelisk: a tall, tapering shaft of stone—usually granite—of square or rectangular section, and ending in a pyramid. Prominently used in ancient Egypt, although some were transported to Europe during the Roman empire and in the 19th century.
orant: a standing figure praying with out-stretched arms and upraised hands.
palette: a slab on which pigments could be ground for cosmetics in ancient Egypt.
papyrus: a native Egyptian river plant whose stems are used to make a writing paper (papyrus); also a decorative element in Egyptian architecture.
pylon: a massive gateway formed by a pair of tapering walls of oblong shape, used by ancient Egyptians to mark the entrance to a temple complex.
relief sculpture: a three-dimensional image or design whose background surface is carved away, setting off the figure. Types of sculpture include high relief (projects strongly from the background) low or bas relief (projects shallowly from the background) and sunken relief (the image is modeled below the surface of the background.)
shaft grave: a deep, narrow pit used for burial.
slip: a mixture of clay and water applied to a ceramic object as a final decorative coat; also used to bind different parts of a vessel together.
sphinx: a compound creature with a human head and a lion’s body.
stele: a stone slab placed vertically and decorated with inscriptions or reliefs. stepped pyramid: a pyramid consisting of successive levels of mastaba forms appearing to rise in staggered “steps” rather than in sloping triangular faces.
stylus: an instrument with a pointed end, used for writing and printmaking, which makes a delicate line or scratch.
ziggurat: in Mesopotamia, a tall, stepped tower of earthen materials often supporting a shrine.

Works Referenced:
Honour, Hugh and John Fleming. The Visual Arts: A History. 7th ed. Upper Saddle River, Prentice Hall, Inc., 2005.
Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. Upper Saddle River, Prentice Hall, Inc., 2002.
Art: A Brief History. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, Prentice Hall, Inc., 2007.