August 9, 2011

Egyptology – Funerary Shabtis of Ancient Egypt

The origin of the shabti in ancient Egyptian civilization is a debated issue. Nevertheless, by the time of Dynasty XII of the Middle Kingdom (about 1991–1782 BC), shabtis gradually become a fixed feature of the funerary panoply of elite members of Egyptian society.

“Contrary to popular opinion, these statuettes were not anciently regarded as servants who might magically attend to every whim of their owners. Rather, they were intended to serve as surrogates for both aristocrats and pharaohs of both sexes who were expected to respond to the roll call in the hereafter,” illuminates Samuel Merrin of the Merrin Gallery in New York.

Also known as an ushabti, the word “shabti” derives from the ancient Egyptian word for “the responder”. They were to perform specific work of an enigmatic nature which primarily entailed the cultivation of fields, the irrigation of the river banks, and “the ferrying of sand of the east to the west and vice-versa”.

Almost all books published in English on shabtis deal with inscribed examples, with the result that parallels for the shabti in question, shown in the image above, are not readily available. Nevertheless, there are close parallels for this shabti (previously sold by the Merrin Gallery) both in New York, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and in Cambridge, UK, at the Fitzwilliam Museum.

“The example in New York is somewhat closer: with regard to the modeling of the mummiform body and in the exaggerated, disproportionately large size of the ears — a feature commonly encountered in sculpture of Middle Kingdom date in general;” explains Mr. Merrin as he describes the parallels between shabti at the Merrin Gallery and that at the Met, “the expressive quality of the face is likewise consistent with the sculptural tenets of the art of certain phases of the Middle Kingdom and imparts a Eurocentric portrait-like sensibility to the shabti’s countenance.”

Mr. Merrin concludes with an estimate for the shabti’s year of origin: “The almond-shaped, so-called button hole eyes with their somewhat heavy lids (set into the skull under naturalistically modeled brows) and the horizontally aligned mouth with its wide lips (set above a somewhat projecting chin) recall stylistic characteristics common to the second half of Dynasty XII, into which period one can place this shabti.”

Shabtis of Dynasty XXVI, like that of Neferibresaneith at the Merrin Gallery, are regarded as the most beautiful.


  • A convenient summary of the issues surrounding shabti origins: Egyptian Shabtis, 1995, Harry M. Stewart, Buckinghamshire, pp. 8–13.
  • The New York shabti: William C. Hayes, 1953, The Scepter of Egypt I, New York, p. 328, fig. 216.
  • The Cambridge shabti: Janine Bourriau, 1988, Pharaohs and Mortals: Egyptian Art in the Middle Kingdom, Cambridge, p. 99, cat. no. 82.

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