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What is a shabti?

Blue-coloured Royal Shabti of King Sethos I in the Egyptian Room at Kingston Lacy, Dorset
This shabti of King Sethos I can be found in the Egyptian Room at Kingston Lacy in Dorset | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

A shabti (also known as a shawabti or an ushabti) is a generally mummiform figurine of about 5–30cm found in many ancient Egyptian tombs. They are commonly made of blue or green glazed Egyptian faience, but can also consist of stone, wood, clay, metal or glass. The meaning of their name is debated; one possible translation is ‘answerer’, as they were believed to answer their master’s call to work in the afterlife.

The shabti’s ancestors

Long before the shabti’s occurrence, small human figurines were deposited in tombs. Since the Fourth Dynasty (2613–2494 BC), for instance, the deceased were buried with servant statuettes like bakers and butchers, providing their owners with eternal sustenance.

In the First Intermediate Period (2160–2055 BC), naked statues made of wax and clay, wrapped in linen, were used. However, without corresponding inscriptions, their exact meaning remains unknown.

The first shabtis

Only since the Twelfth Dynasty (1985–1773 BC), when their name is documented in texts, can funerary figurines be called shabti. At the beginning, they represented their owners.

According to Egyptian belief, the conservation of the body was essential, as without a functioning body the deceased could not survive in the afterlife. The shabti therefore acted as a surrogate in case their master’s mummy was damaged, guaranteeing his or her eternal life. Because of this intimate relationship, the deceased was only buried with one or two of these figurines.

Shabtis and mass production

During the New Kingdom (1550–1069 BC), the role of the shabti changed. The figurine became a mere servant who fulfilled different tasks that would otherwise be imposed on the deceased in the afterlife, such as fieldwork. For this reason, the shabtis are equipped with tools like hoes and seed bags.

The number of servant figurines deposited in tombs increased dramatically at this time. Now the deceased would ideally own 401 shabtis, consisting of 365 worker-shabtis (one per day of the year) and 36 overseer-shabtis (one per Egyptian 10-day week).

After the Ptolemaic Period (332–30 BC), the shabti was no longer produced.

Collecting shabtis

Shabtis are among the most common objects preserved from ancient Egypt. Because of their small size and low weight, early travellers often brought them home as souvenirs. It is therefore unsurprising that there is no Egyptian museum or private collection without at least one shabti.

A group of people walk up the gravel drive towards Kingston Lacy stately home
Kingston Lacy is home to an Egyptian collection that includes several shabtis | © National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra

Shabtis in National Trust collections

Kingston Lacy

Kingston Lacy, home of the explorer and Egyptologist William John Bankes (1786–1855), houses a fascinating Egyptian collection that Bankes collected on his extensive travels. Among the many objects of his collection are several shabtis of private as well as royal individuals.

See a shabti at Kingston Lacy

Snowshill Manor and Garden

Snowshill Manor houses the collections of architect, artist-craftsman and poet Charles Paget Wade (1883–1956). An avid collector, Wade owned several shabtis dating to different Egyptian time periods.

This article was written by Manon Schutz from the University of Oxford. Manon is interested in the funerary culture of ancient Egypt, especially the use and meaning of beds inside tombs, as well as the multiculturalism observed in the Roman Period of Egypt.

Landscape mural of Italian seaport showing a harbour scene in the dining room by Rex Whistler at Plas Newydd House & Gardens, Anglesey

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