The Shabti – a helper for everyday of the year

This week I am taking a look at one type of object and how it changed over the course of ancient Egyptian history. The object I have chosen ? Shabtis. If you have been to a museum with an ancient world or ancient Egyptian collection chances are you have seen a shabti.

Shabtis are small mummiform figurines which developed during the Middle Kingdom out of funerary statutes and models placed in tombs of the Old Kingdom[1]. Initially they took over the role of the deceased servants having supplemented the tombs models common during this period that[2]. However, they could also act as a replacement for the deceased, in this way some shabtis were interred in small coffins[3]. Early examples of shabtis were made from wax and clay. But, over time, they came to be made from a variety of different materials; wood, stone, glass, bronze and most commonly faience (a ceramic material of crushed quartz usually coated in a bright blue glaze). The meaning of the word shabti is unknown but may derive from the Egyptian Swb ‘stick’ originally, perhaps reinterpreted from the Egyptian wSb ‘answer’[4]. But what did these figurines need to answer?

For the ancient Egyptians the afterlife mirrored the material world and just in the material world there was work to be done. The purpose of the shabti was to spare their owner from menial labour in the afterlife which would be required for the deceased to produce his or her food and complete tasks for the gods[5]. Most of the shabtis would be inscribed with a special formula known as the Shabti formula.  

Figure 1: Miniature coffin for funerary figurine of Queen Neferu ca. 2051–2030 B.C. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/544338

The shabti formula   

There are some variations in the Shabti formula however a good source for its reading comes from the Book of the Dead. The Book of the Dead contains a collection of spells to be spoken at different times and for different purposes in the afterlife. There are spells to give protection, to move from one area to another and even some to justify one’s actions in life. Among these verses is Spell Six which is known as the “Spell for causing a shabti to do work for a man in the realm of the dead”[6]. This spell is a re-worded version of Spell 472 from the Coffin Texts. These texts were a collection of spells written on to the deceased coffins before the existence of the Book of the Dead.  When the deceased was called upon to labour for Osiris, they would recite this spell and the shabti would come to life and replace them. The spell can be read;

“O Shabti, [if the deceased] is commanded to do any work in the realm of the dead; to prepare the fields, to irrigate the land or to convey sand from east to west; “Here I am” you shall say.”[7]

Figure 2: Limestone shabti of Senwesir https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA58782

The ever-shifting life of the Shabti

The shabti went through many different phases throughout Egyptian history from its introduction in the Middle Kingdom to the end of their use in the Late Period. Below I am going to try and give a brief look at the different forms they took – I warn you now some are more aesthetically pleasing than others.  

Late First Intermediate Period and Early Middle Kingdom (2030-1640)  

The precursors of shabtis date from the First Intermediate Period (2150-2030 BCE) and consisted of small wax of clay figures formed to resembled a body with their legs together and arms by their sides [8]. In their role as mimicking the deceased ka this was furthered through the wrapping of them in linen and placing then within a small coffin (Figure 2). As in the case of the one below belonging to Queen Neferu although this object dates closer to Dynasty 11 ca. 2051–2030 B.C and the beginning of the Early Middle Kingdom[9].

The Middle Kingdom

The first mummiform statue make their appearance in the 12th and 13th dynasties of the Middle Kingdom with the names and titles of the deceased occurring occasionally on them[10], a difference from earlier examples that included no inscriptions (Figure 2). Originally these figurines seemed to represent the deceased person, although the idea of substitution by a servant existed already at this time.  

Second Intermediate Period

The inclusion of shabtis within grave goods seems to have petered out during the end of the Middle Kingdom. But, a new type of object connected to them appears, known as a ‘stick shabti’ (Figure 3).  These objects are called stick shabtis for obvious reasons, they look like sticks and lack the mummiform shape of their predecessors. They are also often referred to as being crudely carved. Unlike most shabtis, stick shabtis are mainly recorded as being found buried in the outer/open portions of tomb chapels[11].The location of these stick shabti deposits in these open areas have been suggested by some to show they formed part of the offerings left by visitors to the tombs during the Beautiful Festival of the Valley [12]. The fact that these figurines are crudely carved to the modern eye should not be taken as a sign of wealth or stature, several in fact seem to have been commissioned by well-respected members of society. Furthermore, the choice of wood may represent a deliberate means of employing reworked detritus from coffin manufacture, imbued with a special power and connection to the deceased[13].

The New Kingdom

From the New Kingdom onwards, shabtis generally show an inarticulate body, from which only the head and wig protrude, the hands are often visible, especially when they hold tools or other attributes.[14] This period also saw the production of high quality shabtis, especially during the 18th and 19th dynasties. These new shabtis featured; necklaces, tools (both painted on or represented in miniature) (Figure 4/5), clothing and wigs.

Figure 4 (Left) Shabti of Hesyef-shemsu-nesu in dress of daily life, carrying hoes and holding djed
and tit amulets . Next to the shabti is a little model basket. https://www.rmo.nl/en/collection/search-collection/collection-piece/?object=13210

Figure 5(Right): New Kingdom Shabti with painted hoes, wig and necklace. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA53980

Post the Amarna period saw the development of the role of the shabti as workers for the decreased becoming more important and by the end of the period large numbers of shabtis including a new type dressed as overseers are included (Figure 6)[15]. They are distinguished as overseers through being well dressed and carrying whips to stress their authority[16].  The overseer was in charge of keeping ten shabtis at work and, in the most elaborate tombs, there were thirty-six overseer figures for the 365 worker dolls.[17]  Alongside this new role the shabti was also not shown as a mummy but in fashionable clothing (Figure 5).

Figure 6: Blue glazed composition shabti of Pinudjem I https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA18588

Third Intermediate Period

Although the workmanship of the shabtis does not match the New Kingdom, the faience shabtis of this dynasty are eye catching thanks to the deep cobalt-blue also known as “Royal blue”[18] (Figure 6). This is probably the shabti that comes to mind to mode when they think of them, tiny figurines dense in their detail (Figure 6). A common attribute of shabtis from this time is that they wear the sashed/ fillet headband (Figure 7). With the end of the Third Intermediate Period shabtis were getting smaller and the quality of declining and many graves from the 22nd dynasty and later, only have small, roughly-formed figurines made of mud, dried clay or terracotta. These roughly formed figurines are known as ‘peg-shabtis'(Figure 8).

Figure 7 (Left): Blue glazed composition shabti of Pinudjem II with black headdress tide around its head https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA64572
Figure 8 (Right): Peg Shabti of the 20th Dynasty https://www.rmo.nl/en/collection/search-collection/collection-piece/?object=1763

Kushite Period

The general decline in craftsmanship was countered by the rulers of the 25th Dynasty. Kushite rulers (747 – 656 BC), unified Nubia (Modern day Sudan) and Egypt. During this period shabtis were made of stone and closely resembles statues from the Middle Kingdom, with fuller faces, tight mouths and large ears[19] (Figure 9).

The Late and Ptolemaic Period

In the Late Period (c. 737-332 BCE) the shabtis continued to be placed in tombs but the overseer figure no longer appeared. A new standard was developed displaying a characteristic feature of ancient statuary: the dorsal pillar (Figure 10). The shabti stands on a pedestal, the hands grasp two hoes or a hoe and a pick, as well as the rope of a basket hung over the left shoulder[20]. The face displays a “Greek” smile and is adorned with the long Osirian beard including shabtis of women[21]. From the Persian Period onwards, texts also appeared in a T-shaped arrangement (Figure 11).

There is so much more to talk about shabtis beyond how they looked. But I hope that I you have enjoyed this week’s blog on Shabtis and their development through ancient Egyptian history. I also hope to have shown just how much one time period can have a whole host of variation in the way one object like a shabti can display.   

Figure 10 (Left): Blue glazed composition shabti of Psamtek https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA49419 Figure11(Right): Nesbanebdjed Priest, overseer of Wab-priests in Mendes https://www.ushabtis.com/chronological-overview/

References

[1] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 299

[2] Ikram, S., 2015. Death and burial in ancient Egypt. New York: The American University in Cairo Press. page 129

[3] Ikram, S., 2015. Death and burial in ancient Egypt. New York: The American University in Cairo Press. page 129

[4] https://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums-static/digitalegypt/burialcustoms/shabtis.html

[5] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 299

[6] Mark, Joshua J. “Shabti Dolls: The Workforce in the Afterlife.” World History Encyclopedia. Last modified January 18, 2012. https://www.ancient.eu/article/119/shabti-dolls-the-workforce-in-the-afterlife/  

[7] Ikram, S., 2015. Death and burial in ancient Egypt. New York: The American University in Cairo Press. Page 130

[8] Milde, Henk, 2012, Shabtis. In Willeke Wendrich (ed.), UCLA Encyclopaedia of Egyptology, Los Angeles. http://digital2.library.ucla.edu/viewItem.do?ark=21198/zz002bwv0z Page 3

[9] https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/544338 Accessed 31/03/2021

[10] Milde, Henk, 2012, Shabtis. In Willeke Wendrich (ed.), UCLA Encyclopaedia of Egyptology, Los Angeles. http://digital2.library.ucla.edu/viewItem.do?ark=21198/zz002bwv0z Page 3/4

[11] https://egyptmanchester.wordpress.com/tag/stick-shabti/ Accessed 31/03/2021

[12] https://egyptmanchester.wordpress.com/tag/stick-shabti/ Accessed 31/03/2021

[13] https://egyptmanchester.wordpress.com/tag/stick-shabti/ Accessed 31/03/2021

[14] Milde, Henk, 2012, Shabtis. In Willeke Wendrich (ed.), UCLA Encyclopaedia of Egyptology, Los Angeles. http://digital2.library.ucla.edu/viewItem.do?ark=21198/zz002bwv0z Page 4

[15] https://www.ushabtis.com/chronological-overview/ Accessed 01/04/2021

[16] Milde, Henk, 2012, Shabtis. In Willeke Wendrich (ed.), UCLA Encyclopaedia of Egyptology, Los Angeles. http://digital2.library.ucla.edu/viewItem.do?ark=21198/zz002bwv0z Page 5

[17] https://www.ancient.eu/article/119/shabti-dolls-the-workforce-in-the-afterlife/ Accessed 01/04/2021

[18] https://www.ushabtis.com/chronological-overview/ Accessed 01/04/2021

[19] https://www.ushabtis.com/chronological-overview/ Accessed 01/04/2021

[20] Milde, Henk, 2012, Shabtis. In Willeke Wendrich (ed.), UCLA Encyclopaedia of Egyptology, Los Angeles. http://digital2.library.ucla.edu/viewItem.do?ark=21198/zz002bwv0z Page 6

[21] Milde, Henk, 2012, Shabtis. In Willeke Wendrich (ed.), UCLA Encyclopaedia of Egyptology, Los Angeles. http://digital2.library.ucla.edu/viewItem.do?ark=21198/zz002bwv0z Page 6

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