Known as shabtis, shawabtis, and ushebtis, funerary figurines were small statuettes fashioned either as mummies or as living persons dressed in fine linen garb. They served as proxies for ancient Egyptian deceased by magically performing various obligatory agricultural tasks in the underworld. Over time, so many funerary figurines were produced that apart from scarabs and amulets, they are the most numerous of all ancient Egyptian antiquities. Over time they became one of the characteristic components of a proper burial.
The three terms for funerary figurines are indiscrimnately and incorrectly used as synonyms. Each designation has historical limits to its usage, and the term shawabti is restricted geographically as well—to Deir el-Medina and other Theban areas. The appropriate spelling is found in the version of chapter 6 of the Book of Going Forth by Day (Book of the Dead) that was painted or inscribed on the figurines at some point before the eighteenth dynasty. However, because many of these statuettes lack chapter 6 and have simply the title and name of the deceased, none of the three terms applies. Hence, the designation “funerary figurines,” despite its antiquarian ring, is at least accurate for all types in all periods.
Small wax prototypes appeared at Saqqara during the Herakleopolitan period and in the eleventh dynasty mortuary complex of Nebhepetre Montuhotep I at Deir el Bahri in Thebes. Shaped as humans, wrapped in linen, and deposited in coffins, these little wax figurines were miniature mummies. These earliest examples do not have chapter 6 or any other specific word for funerary figurine; however, they continue the tradition of work done on behalf of the deceased, which appears in the Old Kingdom in the form of both servant statuettes and tomb paintings and reliefs of laborers.
Throughout the Middle Kingdom, funerary figurines appeared in small numbers per burial. Usually made of stone, they were consistently mummiform and uninscribed or labeled only with the title and name of the deceased. Either in the thirteenth or the seventeenth dynasty, a simple form of chapter 6 of the Book of the Dead appears on sporadic examples. This text enumerates the agricultural labors to be performed—irrigation, cultivation, and sand removal. In the early version, both the spellings shabti and shawabti appear, but the latter is restricted to the strange stick figures from the Theban area. Shawabti does not recur until the nineteenth dynasty on no more than a few dozen figurines from Deir el-Medina and elsewhere in the Theban necropolis; hence, it is probably a dialectical variant and is the least preferable of the three spellings for general reference. The etymology of shabti and shawabti is not clear.
The eighteenth dynasty was a time of great innovation, not only in the development of funerary figurines but also in all other Egyptian art. No longer made primarily of stone, funerary figurines appeared in wood, faience, terracotta, metal, and even glass, in rare examples. An expanded version of chapter 6 occurs regularly on the figurines, and shabti is the routine spelling. The numbers of shabtis per burial increase from a few to dozens and even hundreds. Still made only in mummy form, shabtis from the first half of the eighteenth dynasty are large and bulky. Although some terracotta and faience shabtis are mold made and mass produced, most figurines are hand fashioned and are of high quality.
The great innovation in funerary figurines, not only in the eighteenth dynasty but also in their entire history, happened during the reign of Thutmose IV, when craftsmen reinforced their agricultural nature—fashioning them with baskets, sacks and hoes, or mattocks held in their hands on the chest or waist. Some shabtis have separate models of the agricultural tools, and still others are unadorned. Once established, however, the decorative scheme of the agricultural tools became a standard feature of funerary figurines. Either at the end of the eighteenth or early in the nineteenth dynasty, figurines in the garments of the living first appeared. Finely rendered with loose folds and tight pleats, the clothing resembles the dress of the elite classes often seen elsewhere in Egyptian art. Because these raiments were inappropriate for hard labor in the fields, they perhaps had a religious significance, indicating that the deceased were reborn in the underworld and dressed in their best for all eternity.
Although many shabtis and most shawabtis of the nineteenth dynasty were carefully rendered, the majority of funerary figurines were roughly fashioned. Mold-made shabtis of faience or terracotta became increasingly popular, and the numbers per burial expanded appreciably. Chapter 6 of the Book of the Dead also became elaborated; however, uninscribed figurines or those with only the title and name of the deceased are also numerous. In the twenty-first dynasty, the spelling ushebti occurs and is the standard word that appears in chapter 6 throughout the Ptolemaic period, when the last figurines were made. The etymology of this spelling is again uncertain; perhaps it derives from the verb wšb (“to answer”). The ushebtis of the twenty-first dynasty and the rest of the Third Intermediate Period are consistently fashioned of blue-colored faience, with details in black. In the Late period and thereafter, ushebtis are again rendered in faience, in pastel tones of green or blue. In the Late and Ptolemaic periods, ushebtis are consistently mummiform; examples in the dress of the living are exceedingly rare, if at all existent. So numerous were the figurines in each burial that in many instances there are “overseer” figurines designed to control the gangs of workers.
- Aubert, J.-F., and Liliane Aubert. Statuettes Egyptiennes: Chaouabtis. Ouchebtis. Paris, 1974.
- Schneider, Hans D. Shabtis: An Introduction to the History of Ancient Egyptian Funerary Statuettes with a Catalogue of the Collection of Shabtis in the National Museum of Antiquities at Leiden. 3 vols. Leiden, 1977.
- Spanel, Donald B. “Notes on the Terminology for Funerary Figurines.” Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur 13 (1986), 249–253.
- Spanel, Donald B. “Two Unusual Eighteenth-Dynasty Shabtis in The Brooklyn Museum.” Bulletin of the Egyptological Seminar 10 (1989–1990), 145–167.
- Speleers, Louis. Les figurines funéraires égyptiennes. Brussels, 1923.
Donald B. Spanel