What is a shabti?
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.
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.