Shabtis - take a work crew with you into the Afterlife

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.

Examples of four Ancient Egyptian shabtis for sale

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?

Why are shabtis so collectable?

Head adornments

Workers & overseers

Tools & equipment

Name of the deceased

Magical spells from the Book of the Dead

Shop for shabtis

References & further information


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

https://egyptmanchester.wordpress.com/2012/05/19/why-do-museums-collect-shabtis/


Close up of a shabti with a smile
A quirky smile on a characterful face ... (26th Dynasty circa 664-600 BCE)

Head adornments


Wigs


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.


Close ups of a shabti with tripartite wig with band
Shabti with plain tripartite wig with lappets with single band. New Kingdom 19th Dynasty circa 1293-1185 BCE
Close up of a shabti with striated lappet wig
Lappet wig striated. Late Dynastic Period.
Close up of two aspects of a shabti with short wig and sidelock
Short wig and a 'sidelock of youth', typical of a Sem priest. New Kingdom 19th Dynasty circa 1250 - 1230 BCE

Fillet


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.


Close up of a twisted tied fillet on a shabti's head
Shabti with fillet and twisted tie at back of head

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.

https://www.denverartmuseum.org/en/edu/lesson/creating-first-hand-detailed-description


Close up of a shabti with a plain false beard
Shabti with a plain false beard
Close up of a shabti with a plaited false or divine beard
Shabti with a plaited false beard

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.


Close up of an overseer shabti with a whip or flail

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.


Ancient Egyptian hieroglyph for hoe

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


Examples of shabtis carrying hoes
Left: two stylised hoes typical of the late 18th to 25th Dynasties Right: reaslistically carved hoe from the Late Period
Close ups of two Late Period Egyptian shabti picks
Late Period picks

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