The name of these servant figures, shabti, is taken from the text carved on some shabtis (see below) and is also found in a variant form shawabty. In the Late Period they were also known as ushabti, which means "answerer" and is a reference to their function of answering the call for labour in place of the deceased. However the original word (shabti) may have referred to their form or to the wood that they were originally made from.
Shabtis are figurines of varying sizes (from about 5cm to 65cm) and various materials (including faience, glass, pottery, various stones, wax, and various woods). They may be a carved likeness of the owner, or a more generic servant figure. Some carry labourer's tools or an overseer's whip, others are mummiform. The variance in form is determined not just by the time period the shabti was produced in (see below), but also the quality of workmanship that the deceased (or their family) could afford. Kings were buried with large & beautifully made shabtis, lesser individuals had smaller shabtis which may have been little more than wooden pegs. Shabtis were often buried in boxes, called shabti boxes, with their owner's possessions.
Most shabtis are inscribed either with the name of the owner or with the text of Chapter 6 of the Book of the Dead, or both. The Book of the Dead (called "The Book of Going Forth By Day" by the ancient Egyptians) is one of the collections of spells which were used to guide the deceased successfully from the land of the living to the Afterlife. A translation of Chapter 6 is:
O shabti, if [the deceased] is counted off to do any of the work which has to be done in the god's land - to make arable the fields, to irrigate the riparian lands, to transport by boat the sand of the East to the West - now indeed obstacles are implanted for him therewith as a man at his duty. If one calls you at any time "Here I am" you shall say, "I shall do it"
Shabtis are first found in the Middle Kingdom where a single figurine would be buried with the deceased, perhaps in a coffin of its own. The earliest are small naked figures, and later they are generally mummiform and resemble the transfigured deceased - possibly acting as a substitute (should anything happen to the actual body of the deceased). They also took on the role previously played by models of servants performing various tasks that are found in Old Kingdom tombs, and by the New Kingdom are frequently depicted with agricultural tools (or provided with model tools). During the New Kingdom, and into the Late Period, greater numbers of shabtis start to be found in each tomb, some of which are no longer mummiform but wore festive costume.
Initially shabtis were only found in private tombs, but from Ahmose I in the 18th Dynasty onwards they were also found in royal burials. Later in the 18th Dynasty a typical private burial would still only contain a few shabtis but royal burials were provided with large numbers. The late 18th Dynasty Pharaoh Tutankhamun's tomb was found to contain 413 shabtis of which 365 were labourers, one for each day of the year. 36 were foremen, one for each 10-day week, and there were 12 overseers (one for each month). A few of these were donated by prominent officials in his court, to indicate their desire to carry on serving him even after his death. In the Late Period even private burials might have this many shabtis, and were sometimes accompanied by a receipt or certificate showing that they did belong to the deceased who had purchased them and thus they should work for him or her. The use of shabtis in burials died out in the Greek period.
Note all pictures except first link through to a larger size.
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