The ancient Egyptians’ incredible preoccupation with sustaining the deceased’s existence in the afterlife is very apparent in their statuary. Although larger statues, such as colossal stone sphinxes, may come more readily to mind when one tries to envision Egyptian statues, figurines known as shabtis also played an essential role in funerary equipment. Artists and craftsmen carved these mummiform statuettes, depending on the time period, from stone, wax, glass, bronze, wood, pottery, and faience. Beginning in the Middle Kingdom, shabtis, which sculptors likely produced in workshops attached to temples and palaces, were deposited in the tombs of elite and royal individuals. This practice may have derived from a much earlier one of sacrificing and burying real-life servants near the deceased during the First Dynasty, which, in turn, may have been replaced by the burial of statuettes of servants and workers from the Old Kingdom through the early Middle Kingdom. Unlike servant statuettes, however, shabtis represented the deceased and could, therefore, serve as additional houses of their owners’ kas to receive offerings and nourishment in the afterlife. Shabtis did not represent the subject’s physical likeness but were idealized depictions of the deceased in their transfigured state.
The ancient Egyptians believed that if the king required his subjects to carry out agrarian and manual labor on Earth, then Osiris must have called upon everyone, including even royal and elite individuals, to do so in his fields in the afterlife. Indeed, by either the New Kingdom or the Late Period, shabtis, which magically performed this labor for the deceased, had come to be known as ushebtis/ushabtis—answerers. Specifically, the most important role of the shabti was to alleviate its subject of the more difficult elements of food production, such as tilling and watering the earth and moving it with sand—the duties from which they most wanted escape, as revealed in the omission of these scenes in tombs and on papyri that focus instead on the less onerous tasks of plowing, sowing and reaping. Like the materials from which they were made, the iconography of shabtis varied according to time period. Such developments in iconography reflect the changing role of the shabti from its inception in the Middle Kingdom to its disappearance in the Ptolemaic Period.
This shabti is in excellent condition, aside from a small chip on the nose and what appears to be residue on the dorsal pillar and plaster on the trapezoidal base (perhaps from being erected in a previous exhibition). A sculptor made it out of blue faience, a material created from fictile silica-rich paste that produced a glazed surface similar to enamel when fired; by heating the copper in this paste, craftsmen frequently rendered shabtis a turquoise color that symbolized birth and regeneration.
The basket and hoe, suspended behind the left shoulder, would be used in the afterlife to carry seeds or grain and to till the ground, respectively. The basket’s small size and position, which is a result of the advent of the dorsal pillar, suggests that this shabti was carved in the Late Period. Indeed, a dorsal pillar and trapezoidal base were common elements of shabtis of this time, which were, like this shabti, generally made from faience in two-piece pottery moulds. The fine inscriptions around ECM 1569’s body and legs, which incorporate the name and title of the owner and a Book of the Dead spell that stipulates the shabtis’ agricultural responsibilities and emphasizes its role as a servant in the afterlife, were thus likely incised with a finely pointed tool before firing. During the 25th Dynasty, the Kushite rulers who dominated Egypt fostered a revival of art, architecture, and literature. One way in which this manifested was the return of the use of the unabbreviated, now archaized shabti spell. Although shabtis during this period were somewhat simple, they grew more complex during the Late Period following this initial renaissance. It is evident that this shabti was fashioned very carefully because of its high level of detail. This would then further support a Late Period date. If this date is correct, this shabti likely would have been originally stored in a wooden box, which could have been placed in a niche in the tomb’s walls, or arranged standing in a row with other shabtis around the tomb chamber, as were other Late Period shabtis. The majority of Late Period shabtis have been found at sites in the north of Egypt; the few specimens from Thebes are of lower quality workmanship, which may parallel a decline in the city’s political significance following the country’s reunification after the Third Intermediate Period. Therefore, it seems likely that this shabti is from Lower Egypt.
This object arguably comes from the period of the highest quality workmanship for shabtis. Although scarce evidence often hinders our understanding of the intention and function of many kinds of ancient Egyptian statuary, numerous shabtis remain preserved, which allows us to study their treatment and trace their development. Thus it is clear that shabtis served as a standard and integral element of funeral equipment and burials for nearly two thousand years.
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