Artemission Explains The Egyptian Shabties
Shabtis are, after the sacred scarab beetle, the commonest of ancient Egyptian antiquities. Their name means, literally, ‘answerer’. These mummiform figures were buried in the tomb with the dead person and were intended to be able to stand in his place in the Afterworld and carry out any work that he might be called on to perform, especially the dreaded corvee of clearing the canals. Shabtis can be made of many different materials, various stones (even of granite), wood and pottery, but more commonly they are made of faience, a sand-glazed frit fired at over 1000 degrees centigrade. Colours were achieved in faience by adding materials such as cobalt (for blue) or malachite (for green) to the frit in the firing.
Deir el Bahari Royal Blue
Some of the best examples are in what is known as ‘Deir el Bahari royal blue’ – they often come from the Great Cache of Royal shabtis (1881), or from that of the priests of Amun (known as the Second Cache). In the Late Period, after c. 500 BC, a fine apple-green is common To be effective in the next world shabtis had to carry the name of their owner.
The optimum number provided was 365, one for each day of the year, and they would be shown carrying a pick and hoe in their hands and a seed bag over their shoulder on their back. These ‘worker’ shabtis were represented mummiform, but there were also extras, ‘reis’, or overseer’ shabtis provided to keep the rest in order. These wear a civil kilt and carry a whip at their shoulder; one ‘reis’ was provided for every ten ‘worker’ shabtis, and they often have the owner’s name and titles written on their kilt, and their title as being ‘one of ten’.
Shabtis and the Afterworld
The best ‘worker’ shabtis have a long inscription on them, usually in eight or ten horizontal bands around the body. This is Chapter 6 of the Book of the Dead, often called the ‘shabti chapter’. It is a prayer or instruction, beginning with the owner’s name and titles and continuing telling the shabti that should anyone in the Afterworld call upon the owner to carry out any work, the shabti will answer ‘Here am I’, and stand and work in his place. At the end of the Chapter the dead person is declared to be ‘ma’at heru’ – True of Voice – in other words worthy of admission to the Afterworld, the realm of the god of the dead Osiris.
Even pharaohs and members of the royal family were provided with shabti figures, and these are usually particularly finely made, notably those in stone of Amenophis II and the granite and wood examples of Amenophis III.
Artemission have a selection of authentic shabties mostly with good provenances such as big auction houses and known private collection.
Check our Shabti category on artemission.com
Artemission.com (Atticart Ltd.) is the leading antiquities gallery online. Starting the very first internet site dealing with authentic antiquities, Artemission specialise in ancient art from Egypt, the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, as well as Islamic Art and Ancient Coins.