Shabtis and  ancient Egypt
The Shabti Collections
The Amasis Collection
SHABTIS A Private View
Glenn Janes
Shabtis and ancient Egypt
Death and the obsessive preoccupation with life thereafter provided Egypt with one of its greatest industries. The manufacture of funerary statuettes was a small but nonetheless essential part of it. They are usually small mummy-shaped figures with the more important ones invariably inscribed with the titles and names, sometimes including the parentage, of the persons who had them made as part of his or her funerary equipment. Important private persons, both male and female, as well as royalty, included shabtis among their burial equipment.

The statuettes vary in height from just a few centimetres to larger statuettes nearly 60 cm. tall but the majority are between 10 and 20 cm. Depending on the period in which they were made, they were called shabtis, shawabtis or ushabtis. However, for the sake of generalisation they are more generally known as shabtis.

Their use and production had a very long time-span of around 2,000 years. Probably evolving from miniature wax figures placed in coffins in the First Intermediate Period, shabtis were made until the end of the Ptolemaic Period. Because of the sheer volume produced they are among the most numerous of Egyptian antiquities. Every museum with an Egyptian collection has shabtis on display as well as in reserve collections. The Cairo Museum has more than 40,000 shabtis in its collections.

Shabtis were made in a wide range of materials. Stone - including limestone, sandstone, schist, alabaster, serpentine, granite, greywacke, steatite and haematite was used from the Middle Kingdom right through to the end of the New Kingdom: see [1 ]- [9] below. There was a brief reappearance of stone being used in the 25th Dynasty of the Third Intermediate Period [10] - [12]. There are shabtis made of wood that was also used from the Middle Kingdom to the end of the New Kingdom, although one example is known to me that dates from the early Third Intermediate Period for a certain Tent–shed–Mut. The woods used include tamarisk, sycamore, cedar, acacia, ebony, juniper and persea but they can be difficult to identify [13] - [18]. Many are covered in a thin layer of gesso and painted - some are even gilded [19] - [21]. Pottery, including sun–baked clay, was used in the New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period – sometimes these shabtis were painted in a white, pale blue, yellow or a green coloured wash upon which details and inscriptions were added [22] - [26].

Faience was the most widely used material for making shabtis from the New Kingdom right through to the end of the Ptolemaic Period. From the Late Period onwards its use was exclusive. Faience is a glazed composition, the basic material of which is sand or crushed quartz, the latter having fewer impurities. It was mixed with water to make a paste with small amounts of lime and either natron or ash from plants together with a colourant such as cobalt or copper.

For the making of shabtis the paste was put in pottery mould and then fired in a kiln to produce a coloured glaze with white and other colours being found in the New Kingdom when faience manufacture reached its peak. Blue glazed faience became the most common especially during the Third Intermediate Period and Late Period [27]- [31]. The blue glaze has in many cases been degraded to various shades of green, brown, and occasionally even black because of environmental conditions such as dampness in a tomb. This is most notable in tombs in the Nile delta regions, but exposure to outside elements also causes the glaze to degrade
[32] - [33]. There are also bi–chrome glazed shabtis and even polychrome ones that are often spectacular [34] - [36]. There are also shabtis that were made of bronze although it was quite rarely used and only in the New Kingdom and the Third Intermediate Period. There are also shabtis made of glass although examples are extremely rare and only known from the New Kingdom. Wax was also used in the Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom, but examples are once again extremely rare [37] - [41].

Shabtis are thought to have been made in workshops, perhaps attached to temples and palaces where other objects of funerary equipment were made. There surely must have been private workshops too judging by the vast numbers of shabtis that were produced. It is also possible that the manufacture of shabtis was part of a cottage industry and thus made in an individual's home using the household oven. This certainly seems very likely especially with the simpler and cruder shabtis of which there are plenty. Amulets and other small objects may have also been made as part of this cottage industry.
Select any group to enlarge
[1] Limestone: Piw, Middle Kingdom (Chiddingstone Castle, EDECC:01.0322)
[2] Sandstone: Akhenaten, New Kingdom (Brooklyn, MFA 37.545)
[3] Schist: Ania, New Kingdom (Christie's, London)
[4] Alabaster: SiPtah, New Kingdom (New York, MMA 14.6.180)
[5] Serpentine: Amenhotep III, New Kingdom (Collection K)
[6] Quartzite: Akhenaten, New Kingdom (Collection A)
[7] Greywacke: SehetepibRe, Middle Kingdom (Collection K)
[8] Steatite: Seniu, New Kingdom (New York, MMA 19.3.206)
[9] Haematite: Name missing, Middle Kingdom (Cleveland, CMA 1980.42)

[10] Montuemhat, Third Intermediate Period (Brooklyn, MFA 60.182)
[11] Padiamenemope, Third Intermediate Period (Sotheby's, London)
[12] Harwa, Third Intermediate Period (Art market)

[13] Tamarisk: Nebseni, New Kingdom (Chicago Art Institute, 1892.28)
[14] Sycamore: Tanefert[t], Second Intermediate Period (Liverpool, WM 1973.1.469)
[15] Cedar: Yuya, New Kingdom, New Kingdom (New York, MMA 30.8.58)
[16] Acacia: Merymery, New Kingdom (Art market)
[17] Ebony (with coloured glass and paste inlays):
……Amenhotep III, New Kingdom (New York, MMA 15.2.10)
[18] Juniper: Seti I (Liverpool, WM M13580)

[19] Ramose (Manchester, MM 6966)
[20] Wahneferhotep (New York, MMA 14.3.70)
[21] Tutankhamen (Cairo, inventory number unknown)

[22] Khonsu, New Kingdom (Manchester, MM 3835)
[23] DkedMaatiwesankh, Third Intermediate Period (Rochdale, 920.1)
[24] DjedIset, Third Intermediate Period (Manchester, MM 1815)
[25] TentAmen, Third Intermediate Period (Manchester, MM 5951.1)
[26] PauserAmen, Third Intermediate Period (Rochdale, 18.11.3)

[27] Pottery shabti mould, Late Period (art market, France)
[28] Inheret, New Kingdom (Manchester, MM 10784)
[29] Hor(em)Khebit, Third Intermediate Period (Liverpool, WM 14020)
[30] NeferibRe, Late Period (Liverpool, WM M13893)
[31] HorsaIset, Ptolemaic Period (Manchester, MM 2133b)
[32] Horudja, Late Period (Manchester, MM 3731.18)
[33] Pet, Late Period (Florence, 1880 & 1877)

[34] PetOsiris,  Ptolemaic Period (Manchester, MM 1177c)
[35] Any,  New Kingdom (Chiddingstone, EDECC 01.0323)
[36] Saty, New Kingdom (Brooklyn, MFA 37.123E)

[37] Nakhthirkhepeshef, New Kingdom (Warrington, RA 246)
[38] Wendjebauendjed, Third Intermediate Period (Collection A)
[39] Anonymous, New Kingdom (Cairo, ?7687)
[40] [Neferu II], Middle Kingdom (Boston, MFA 37.550a)
[41] Anonymous, New Kingdom (art market France)