A stele (from Greek:, stēlē, ; plural: stelae,, 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, and so forth), or painted onto the slab.
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.
The erection of steles was popular in China and consisted of rectangular stone tablets usually inscribed with a funerary, commemorative, or edifying text. Although the earliest steles, inspired by Buddhists, date to the first half of the fifth century this visual form did not come into general use until the last years of the fifth century, and this custom prevailed until the end of the sixth century. From then on the design of steles drifted away from pure Buddhist influence and became wordy displays of script mostly eulogistic or commemorative. They were placed in front of tombs to announce the name of the person buried there, often to provide details of the deceased’s life, or were provided to commemorate a particular incident or event and to give details of the purpose of the occasion. Erecting steles at tombs or temples eventually became a widespread social and religious phenomenon.
Thousands of steles, surplus to the original requirements, and no longer associated with the person they were erected for, have been assembled in Xian and the display has become a popular tourist attraction. Hundreds can also be found in selected places in Beijing, such as Dong Yue Miao, the Five Pagoda Temple, and the Bell Tower, again assembled to attract tourists and also as a means of solving the problem faced by local authorities of what to do with them. The long, wordy, and detailed inscriptions on these ste;es are almost impossible to read for most are lightly engraved on white marble in characters only an inch or so in size, thus being difficult to see since the slabs are often ten or more feet tall. Very seldom are the inscriptions are memorable or of any interest.
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.
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.
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.