by Kristina Donnally, Archaeological Laboratory Manager at the Virtual Curation Laboratory
Shabti figurines are funerary figurines that were used in Ancient Egypt. These figurines represented animated spirits that would come to “life” in the afterlife to serve the person with whom they were buried. These figurines were in mummiform, which refers to objects meant to represent the sacred positioning of the human mummy. Shabti figures vary in size, material, color, decoration, and inscriptions. Based on the clay material, the red painted decoration, and the lack of inscription, the shabti on exhibit at the Las Vegas Natural History Museum most likely dates to the Middle Kingdom between 2040-1782 BCE.
Shabtis appear in the archaeological record around the start of the Middle Kingdom, and grow in popularity through time. Shabti figurines seem to reach their peak in the New Kingdom, as can be seen in the vast quantity and spread of these figurines found in tombs from this time period. One of the key features of shabtis from the New Kingdom and later are their specific inscriptions. Sacred spells from the Book of the Dead were inscribed on the figurines very rarely in the Middle Kingdom. In the New Kingdom, however, spell inscriptions were almost unanimous on shabtis, because the Book of the Dead was not unified and widespread until that time. The lack of inscription on this shabti is one of the indications that it dates before the New Kingdom. This shabti is also made out of clay, which was the most popular material for Middle Kingdom shabtis. Shabtis of the New Kingdom were primarily made out of faience. The red painted design on the shabti is also very similar to the styles popular in later Middle Kingdom art, further indicating that it indeed dates to the Middle Kingdom.
Shabtis would be buried in multiples with the deceased, and the more wealthy the individual the more shabtis they could afford to have blessed and buried with them. Some high-ranking officials have been found with more than 300 shabtis in their tombs. In order for a shabti to be considered authentic, the figurine had to be blessed by a priest or priestess and ritually cleansed. Priests would have to perform a special spell on the figurine in order to give it the essence needed to form a servant n the afterlife. Shabtis were specifically made to never look like any one person, and were often purposefully sculpted with non-descript facial features. This is because the Egyptians believed a person’s Ka (spirit) was tied to all parts of their identity, including how they looked. If a shabti was made to look like a certain person and then given the spell, Egyptians believed the spirit of the person whom the figurine was modeled after could be bound and forced into spiritual servitude.
Shabtis serve to be a rich area of study for archaeologists in studying Ancient Egypt. Their changes in manufacturing and design help show changes in overall production trends as well as cultural ideas. These differences also serve as a great reference for relative dating techniques. Furthermore, the abundance of these figurines, and the effort that was clearly put into them, highlight the very real importance of the afterlife to Egyptians, and not just the royals or elites. Since tombs as well as necropolis graves have been found with shabtis, it shows that this belief in needing servants for the afterlife was shared among the lower socio-economic classes as well as the elites. This share of funerary material culture is unique and incredibly valuable to study, since many of the more elaborate funerary goods associated with Ancient Egypt were limited to the tombs of royals and the highest classes.
Credit to the Las Vegas Natural History Museum for access to the shabti. You can see it online at: https://skfb.ly/6QBqw
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