The Ushabty Statuettes

What are The Ushabti Statuettes?

Ushabty figures were a common feature of most of the large ancient Egyptian burials. Ushabti are considered as a type of funerary statuettes. They were made either for royal or private persons. Shabtis were made of different materials such as wood, various kinds of stones, bronze (mainly royal shabtis), pottery, wax and faience (commonest material used).

The Ushabty Statuettes

Ushabty History

The shabtis made their first appearance in the 11th dynasty (earliest known belonged to Mentuhotep II) and continued to exist throughout the Pharaonic history with the exception of the Hyksos Period. In the Ptolemaic Period, they were still in use but on a smaller scale. The last dated shabtis can be attributed to the end of the reign of Cleopatra VII.

During the Roman period, most probably they were not included in the funerary equipment because we did not find any shabtis from this era. However it had been suggested that there are a few examples of Roman date kept in the British museum. The name, shape, function and number of the shabtis differed from one period to another.

The Ushabty Statuettes

The development of the name of the shabtis:


In the 11th and 12th dynasties, Shabtis were called SAbty or SAbtyw. This was written with a determinative of wood or a mummiform statuette and wood as well but always with plural strokes. This was most probably derived from the word Sbd, which means stick or staff and less likely from the word Sbt which means enforced labour. Other opinions suggested that the term might be derived from the verb SA meaning “to command” or the verb SAdt meaning “to dig”.

In the 2nd Intermediate Period they were called SAwAbty. And this name always had a determinative of wood. Some scholars suggested that it was either derived from the word Sbd or SAwAb which means (Persea tree –Ishid tree). From the 21st dynasty onwards, they started to be called WSAbty. This name is derived from the verb wSb which means to answer or to respond and this name is related to their function.

The development of the shape the shabtis

- The earliest examples from the 11th dynasty took the shape of an elongated human body of a male or a female. Each figure is represented with both arms held at the side and legs together. At the beginning of the 12th dynasty, they took a complete mummiform shape without hands or details except for the face. Then they started to add the details of hands and arms to allow them to perform their duties.

The Ushabty Statuettes

These were regarded as the beginning of true shabtis. They were inscribed with the Htp di nsw formula and some magical spells which formed later on Chapter 6 of the Book of the Dead. From the middle of the 18th dynasty, they were provided with models of tools of agricultural implements such as (basket- pick - axe-hoe).

After the Amarna period, Shabtis wearing daily life costumes appeared for the first time. This new style was very popular during the 19th dynasty but this new style didn't survive for a long time only for the shabtis representing the overseers.

The development of the function of the shabtis


At the beginning of their appearance (during the 11th and early12th dynasty) and because they were taking the facial features of the deceased, their function was to act as substitute for the mummy in case it got destroyed or disappeared. Towards the end of the 12th dynasty, they were regarded as the counterpart of the deceased who takes his place in the corvee of the underworld. In other words, they served as master and servant at the same time.

The Ushabty Statuettes

From the 20th dynasty and during the Late Period, the shabtis were considered as Hmw or slaves, thus their main function became restricted to replace their masters or owners in the manual work required from the deceased in the corvee of the underworld, when he was asked by Osiris to perform certain duties, for example: cultivating the land, irrigating the riverbanks or transporting sand from the east to the west. The shabtis will magically transform in the afterlife by means of a special formula to be recited to them when needed. This formula is what we call chapter 6 of the Book of the Dead and it is normally inscribed on the shabtis themselves.


The development of the number of the shabtis

At the beginning of their appearance, they were very few in number, ranging from 1-5. Starting from the New kingdom, the number of the Shabtis began to increase considerably. Sometimes we find 365 (each one to correspond with each day of the year), or 401 (they added 36 overseers or reis upon each group of ten or one overseer for each 10-day week) or 413 (adding 12 foremen (each one for each month of the year).

But in the tomb of king Seti I we found about 700 shabti figures and this was the largest number of shabtis collected from one tomb. [High officials used to have 401 ushabtis but Tutankhamun had 413 because he added 12 as explained before]. They were made in special workshops under the direction of a priest whose title was “Chief Fashioner of Amulets”.

In the Middle Kingdom and greater part of the New Kingdom, shabtis were usually dedicated to the deceased by his family or friends. When the numbers increased, they were bought and sold. Finally, the names and titles of the owners of the shabtis show that they were made for the privileged ones and for the elite classes of the society throughout the Egyptian history.


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