Shabtis and  ancient Egypt
The Shabti Collections
The Amasis Collection
SHABTIS A Private View
Glenn Janes
Tools and adornments

Burials containing shabtis during the late Middle Kingdom are perhaps likely to have contained model tools usually made from bronze and wood as part of the funerary equipment [170] although there seems to be a lack of recorded evidence to support this suggestion. The reason for this proposal is that shabtis at this time were gradually beginning to be inscribed with the shabti spell, Chapter 6 of the Book of the Dead. However, the tools needed to undertake the tasks, which were of an agricultural nature, were not yet modelled on the shabtis, so the inclusion of model tools seems to be likely. It was in the New Kingdom, during the reign of Thutmose IV (1419-1386 BC), that tools became a feature modelled or painted on shabtis to enable the figures to carry out the specific tasks specified in the shabti spell.

The most commonly shown agricultural implements on worker shabtis are hoes of which, in everyday life, there were two types, the broad-bladed and the narrow-bladed hoe. These were made from wood and were in use from the earliest times in ancient Egypt [171]. On shabtis the differences between the two types is indicated on New Kingdom examples [172] but during the Third Intermediate Period they became very stylised representations being simply painted or modelled in raised relief and painted [173]-[174] as the overall quality and refinement of the shabtis declined. Pairs of hoes were indicated right through until the Late Period when the broad-bladed hoe was replaced by a pick [175]. Unlike the wooden hoes, the pick had a metal blade in real life.

A basket is also commonly found shabtis. It is generally considered that these were used for carrying grain or seeds. In everyday life, bags were also used for carrying ears of wheat as the crop was picked. The baskets were usually made using native plants such as reeds or rushes, although string was sometimes used [176]. Several tomb scenes show bags of the same type as those found on shabtis and being used for such tasks. This is most evident in the Field of Reeds scene that is found in funerary papyri as well as in tomb decoration. When sowing or gathering crops the bag would have been held in one hand [177]. Some shabtis, made during the reign of Thutmose IV in the early New Kingdom, carry a pair of bags in front of the body [178]-[179]. The baskets are bag-shaped with a characteristic widening at the bottom, a form that dates back to the earliest times. This trapezoidal shape of basket is by far the most common shown on shabtis. The baskets gradually moved to be being shown on the back of shabti with two being carried behind each shoulder, and then a single basket becomes more common, either carried behind one shoulder or more commonly positioned centrally below the rear lappet of the wig [180]-[182]. By the Third Intermediate Period the basket is nearly always shown in the middle of the back and worn rather like a modern rucksack with carrying straps [183]-[184]. By the Late Period the basket appears much smaller in size and slung behind one shoulder again and usually held by a twisted rope [185]-[186]. The positioning of the basket was due to the dorsal pillar that, together with a trapezoidal base, became additional features on shabtis of this date.

During the New Kingdom brick moulds were sometimes shown on the back of shabtis [187]-[188]. Brick manufacture was occasionally stipulated as part of the shabti spell. Water pots carried on a yoke, supported on the shoulders, were also shown on some New Kingdom shabtis [189]-[190]. The availability of water was obviously a necessity for the making of mud bricks. The technique for making bricks, either by mixing mud with chopped straw or sand and animal dung is still employed in Egypt today although this is a tradition that appears to be dying out in favour of modern building materials. Brick moulds and water pots are not shown on shabtis after the New Kingdom.

‘Overseer’ figures that gradually developed from shabtis wearing the dress of daily life in the late New Kingdom and became incorporated as part of shabti gangs right through until the end of the Third Intermediate Period carried none of the above-mentioned equipment but instead, they carry a whip, sometimes two, with which to keep the workers in order [191]-[192].

Some New Kingdom shabtis incorporate a ba-bird spreading its wings across the chest of the figure in a gesture of protection [193].

An attribute found on many shabtis of the Third Intermediate Period is the seshed headband worn around the wig and tied at the back. It is regarded as being a symbol of divine resurrection. The headband perhaps evolved from seshed diadems, two of which are known from royal burials dating from the Second Intermediate Period [194]. Both are made of silver and, being royal, wear sacred cobras (uraei) at the front. The simpler seshed headband as found on shabtis first occur, albeit rarely, in the New Kingdom [195] before becoming very common in the Third Intermediate Period [196]. In real life they would have been made of material and commonly worn by workmen.

[170] Bronze and wood model tools, Middle Kingdom or later? (Collection K)
[171] London (BM EA 6224)
[172] Huy (Collection K)
[173]-[174] Nestanebttawy; Shaksha (Collection K)
[175] Nepherites (Collection B)
[176] Liverpool (WM unknown)
[177] Fragments from the Field of Reeds scene from a funerary papyrus for PashcherienKhonsu (Houston Museum of Natural Science)
[178]-[179] Amenemhat (Brooklyn. BRM 50.128); Nebwaib(?) (New York, MMA 37.5.1)
[180]-[182] SherytRe (Liverpool, WM M13586); Ramessu[hesy] (Liverpool, WM 56.20.520); Ramose (Manchester, MM 6964)
[183]-[184] Pahermer (Liverpool, WM 67.195.14); Gautseshen(Liverpool, WM 67.195.14)
[185]-[186] Psamtek (Liverpool, WM 56.21.99); Ahmose (Manchester, MM 11107)
[187]-[188] Hori II (Collection A); Mery(y)Re (Manchester, MM 1445)
[189]-[190] Hori (Manchester, MM 6653); Taemwadjet (Manchester, MM 4037)
[191]-[192] Henuttawy (Collection A) - a modified worker shabti carrying two whips; Iset (Liverpool, WM
[193] Djehutymose (art market, New York) - also with djed and tyet amulets
[194] Silver royal seshed-diadem (London, BM AESOLoan 1)
[195] SerAmen (Naples, photo DvB)
[196] Khonsu (Liverpool, WM M14015) - with very long strands from the tie