What is a shabti?

Shabti fragment from a box marked 'Minor Egyptian Antiquities', Kingston Lacy

A shabti (also known as shawabti or ushabti) is a generally mummiform figurine of about 5 - 30 centimetres 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, and glass. The meaning of the Egyptian term is still debated, however 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 amongst 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.

Hyacinths in front of Kingston Lacy house, Dorset

Kingston Lacy 

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

Snowshill Manor

Snowshill Manor and Gardens 

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.

Shabtis in the collection at Tatton Park

Shabtis in our collection 

Explore our collection to see the shabtis in our care