Updated: Dec 31, 2021
For the Ancient Egyptians, the Afterlife was a continuation of life, albeit improved and eternal. The requirement for work, public and private, would also continue and shabtis were anonymous workers, who would answer the call to work on behalf of the deceased for any tasks that might be imposed after death, such as in the bountiful fields of the Afterlife.
There is much written about shabtis and ushabtis, so we will just focus briefly on a few of our favourite aspects of these wonderful little figures ready to provide their skills and labour on behalf of the dead.
Shabti or Ushabti?
The term shabti was used prior to and in the New Kingdom period (1549-1069 BCE), towards the end of which, they were mass-produced. The term ushabti was used in the Third Intermediate period (1069-693 BCE). They ceased to be used altogether after the Ptolemaic Period (332-30 BCE). For ease we will use the term shabti generically to cover these types.
Why are shabtis so collectable?
There were so many produced, particularly in the Late Period, that they were relatively easy to come across for early collectors or as souvenirs. Quality varies from not so good to stunning, as does preservation. They are small, easy to transport and display. Despite their eventual mass-production, many are individually charming, characterful and beautifully made, full of meaning and symbolism. They are varied in type and decoration, and yet have well-known, consistent forms within and across periods.
Often brightly coloured, covered in hieroglyphs and in the quintessentially pharaonic shape of a mummy, shabtis are among the most easily recognisable and attractive Egyptian antiquities.
CAMPBELL@MANCHESTER | MAY 19, 2012
Along with styling natural hair, wigs and hair extensions were commonly worn in Ancient Egypt in a variety of styles made from human hair. Complete wigs were costly to produce and so were largely for high status or wealthy individuals. They may have been used for protection from sunlight, to provide ventilation for a shaved head and/or to discourage head lice.
Shabtis usually sport a wig, often lappet wigs, that is with lappets of hair hanging down either side of the face, and often tripartite, with a third section down the back. Other styles include Nubian wigs (curly wigs popular in the Armana period), duplex wigs (in two layers), short, rounded, striated, with banded or corkscrewed lappets, plain or elaborate.
A fillet is a type of headband made from cloth, leather, cord or braid, or a garland. They were popular in classical antiquity. On shabtis they often appear tied at the back of the head in crossed, folded or twisted fashion.
Divine false beard
False beards were worn in life by pharaohs, symbolising divinity by association with Osiris, who wore a beard as god of the Underworld. They also sometimes appear on shabtis, and can be plain, plaited or braided. Most shabtis with long beards are from the Late Period. Some beards appear on earlier shabtis, perhaps for, or from a connection to, a royal person.
Although real facial hair was not often admired, Pharaohs (divine rulers) would wear false beards to signify their status as a living god.
Workers and overseers
Early shabtis were buried in small numbers and represented substitutes for the body of the deceased, in case it became damaged, an intact body being important for survival in the Afterlife. During the New Kingdom shabtis came to represent servants and workers ready to help the deceased with labour in the Afterlife. Many carried the tools they might need, while some that have no tools may have had them modelled separately.
From the Third Intermediate Period, shabtis were used in large numbers, one worker shabti for each day of the year. This necessitated someone to organise and keep them in order, and so overseer shabtis were included, one for every ten workers. The overseer is often portrayed wearing a kilt and holding a whip, which may say something about how workers were disciplined!
This is an example of an overseer shabti of Nauny circa 1050 BCE from the Met Museum New York collection.
Tools & equipment
The team of workers going with you into the Afterlife needed various accoutrements to help with their labours. These could include hoes, picks, yokes, pots, brick moulds and a variety of bags and baskets, and of course for overseers, a whip.
Hoes and picks
The Egyptian hoe was made from wood with a handle shaft and wooden blade inserted. A rope was used to control the angle.
An example of the hieroglyph for hoe - very like the real object.
The hoe was used for a wide variety of tasks, including irrigation works, preparing land for sowing, breaking up clumps of earth and covering sown seed and brickmaking, much like the turiah/fes used today in Egypt.
Curator's comments: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA41677
Picks, which were metal bladed in reality, replaced broad blade hoes on shabtis in the Late Period, which had become highly stylised during the New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Periods (as above). From the Late Period therefore, shabtis usually carry one pick and one hoe, rather than two hoes.
Bags and baskets
Woven bags and baskets are often worn by worker shabtis, much like a modern rucksack, or over one shoulder, when a dorsal column is present. The Ancient Egyptians used a variety of materials and techniques for making bags and basketry.
According to Wendrich (2000) there were three types of bags: twined, knotless netting and knotted papyrus carrier nets. The best known bags are the open twined “seed-bag”, which was made of grass cord, with widely spaced rows of twining, which could be either ﬁne or coarse.
Nesrin M. N. El Hadidi, Rim Hamdy Cairo University, Basketry accessories: Footwear, bags and fans in ancient Egypt. In Journal of Archaeological Science 38(5):1050-1061, May 2011
The seed bag would have been held in one hand during use. It is also found depicted on tomb scenes and decoration.
The above is part of a facsimile of decoration in the crypt of Sennedjem. His wife Iineferti is carrying a seed bag and sowing seeds in the fields of the Afterlife. The original was from circa 1295–1213 BCE. The facsimile is on display in the Met Museum New York.
Name of the deceased
Shabtis usually had the name of the deceased painted or inscribed on the front and/or back, such as on this pretty blue-glazed composition shabti from the Third Intermediate Period, 21st Dynasty circa 1069-945 BCE, Western Thebes.
The hieroglyphs read:
The Osiris, Nes–pa–her–an
'As detailed in inscriptions on his sarcophagus, Nespaheran held the office of god's father of Amun-Re, king of gods, wab priest of Khonsw, and scribe of the office of the house of Amun'
Aubert, Liliane, Les Statuettes Funeraires de la Deuxieme Cachette à Deir el-Bahari. Cybele, Paris, 1998, 74
Magical spells from the Book of the Dead
O shabti, allotted to me, if I be summoned or if I be detailed to do any work which has to be done in the realm of the dead; if indeed obstacles are implanted for you therewith as a man at his duties, you shall detail yourself for me on every occasion of making arable the fields, of flooding the banks or of conveying sand from east to west; 'Here I am,' you shall say.
Spell 6 from the Book of the Dead
The Book of the Dead was a collection of funerary texts detailing spells to help the journey of the deceased into the Afterlife. One or other of these magic spells sometimes appeared as hieroglyphs on the shabti, designed to be recited, and to instruct the shabti what to do.
On this shabti from the Late Period 26th Dynasty circa 664-595 BCE, the dorsal pillar is inscribed with two columns of hieroglyphs, which read:
(right column) O, this ushabti, if the Osiris, Pa-di-pepet,
(left column) born to Bastet-ir-dis is called upon, 'here (I am)' you shall say; justified
This is a short version of spell 6 above, which the soul of the deceased Pa-di-pepet would recite when called to work by Osiris. This would bring the suitable shabti to life ('here I am') to perform the required task. 'Justified' assumes a judgement of worthiness.
Presumably Pa-di-pepet's soul could then carry on with other business, or at leisure, while his work obligations in the field were taken care of, as this shabti is well-equipped with a hoe, pick and seed bag.
It is a wonderfully detailed and charming vision of the blessed existence in Paradise that Ancient Egyptians could look forward to, assuming they were found worthy!
All the shabtis shown here (except the one referenced to the Met Museum), along with several others are on sale on our website at time of posting.
References & further information
Aubert, Liliane, Les Statuettes Funeraires de la Deuxieme Cachette à Deir el-Bahari, Cybele, Paris, 1998, 74
Fletcher, J, Ancient Egyptian Hair and Wigs 2002. In the Ostracon: the Journal of the Egyptian Study Society 13, 2 Summer 2002
James, Glenn, Shabtis A Private View, Cybele, Paris, 2002
Nesrin, MN & El Hadidi, Rim, Hamdy Cairo University, Basketry accessories: Footwear, bags and fans in ancient Egypt. In Journal of Archaeological Science 38(5):1050-1061, May 2011
Wendrich, WZ, Basketry, 2000. In: Nicholson, PT, Shaw, I (Eds), Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, Cambridge University Press pp 254e267