Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Pharoah’s Mummy and His Shabti

The Names of Funerary Figurines. Funerary figurines known as shabtis, shawabtis, and ushebtis appeared in ancient Egyptian burials from the 12th Dynasty (about 1938-1759 B.C.) to the end of the Ptolemaic Period, or 30 B.C. (Schneider 16-7). The statuettes were most commonly called shabtis until the end of the New Kingdom (about 1075 B.C.), but villagers at Deir el-Medina (the settlement inhabited by the workmen who built and decorated the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings from about 1539 to 1075 B.C.) preferred shawabti. Throughout the Third Intermediate, Late, and Ptolemaic Periods (about 1075-30 B.C.), ushebti was the standard term (Spanel 1986, 249). Like most catalogues, this website disregards shawabti and refers to the funerary figurines as shabtis or ushebtis.

Etymology. Scholars have proposed different theories regarding the etymology of shabti. According to Birch (1864-5) and Newberry (1908), shabti derives from the ancient word swb, meaning “persea tree.” Both claim that shabtis were originally made of this wood. According to Schneider (233), sycamore, tamarisk, acacia, and to a lesser extent, ebony and coniferous woods were used. He suggests that shabti may stem from the verb wsb, meaning “answer” or “respond,” or from words for “food” and “meal” such as s3bw, in reference to shabtis as procurers of food. (Olson [69] notes that while shabti tasks are related to agriculture, shabti texts lack chores associated specifically with the harvest: “The work performed by the funerary figurines was of a preparatory nature, and ended with the planting of the crops.”)

Inscriptions and function. Some shabtis are uninscribed, but most bear a text from Chapter 6 of The Book of the Dead. This spell magically brought to life shabtis to act as substitutes for the deceased and perform his or her obligatory agricultural and other civil service tasks in the Underworld. Some were inscribed with simply the name of the deceased and possibly a funerary formula summoning Osiris, god of the Underworld, on the deceased’s behalf (Scepter I 327). Others, supplied by relatives, included a dedication formula and shabti spell “to cause [both] their names to live” in the Underworld and continue their earthly relationship (Schneider 46; Stewart 8, 12). Some shabtis of the 13th Dynasty (about 1759-1630 B.C.) include hieroglyphs of reptiles, birds, and humans that the artists mutilated fearing that the signs were potentially harmful to the deceased (Stewart 15).

History of Development. Shabtis replaced small, uninscribed wax and clay figurines of the First Intermediate Period (about 2130-1980 B.C.) and varied widely from the 12th Dynasty to the end of the Ptolemaic Period (Scepter I 327). Initially made of wood or stone, shabtis of alabaster (calcite), faience (a glazed ceramic), terra cotta, and occasionally bronze, ebony, and glass began to appear at the beginning of the 18th Dynasty (about 1539-1295/92 B.C.), the most innovative phase in the development of shabtis (Spanel 1989/90, 148). Rare forms include double shabtis and milling servants. Other forms, such as shabtis in costumes of daily life and overseer shabtis wearing projected kilts and holding whips, appeared throughout the 19th Dynasty (about 1292-1190 B.C.) and later (Schneider 260). Worker shabtis in “Osirian pose” (mummiform with arms crossed under their wrappings) carried agricultural equipment including baskets, hoes, and picks (Stewart 37-9). In the Third Intermediate Period (about 1075-656 B.C.), workers wore black bands (fillets) around their heads, and ushebtis of later periods (664-30 B.C.) were always made of faience and had false beards (Schneider 321; Stewart 29).

Numbers of Shabtis. The owner’s economic status and master/servant relationship determined how many shabtis were buried in the tomb. From the Middle Kingdom until the late 18th Dynasty (about 1980-1295/92 B.C.), burials rarely exceeded five shabtis per owner, directly corresponding to the number of former servants owned by the master. Royalty from the 18th Dynasty onwards, who included shabti gangs varying from a few dozen to some hundreds, are an exception. Throughout the 19th and 20th Dynasties (about 1292-1075 B.C.) owners, no longer associating shabtis with individual servants, bought numerous figurines of various materials and quality (Schneider 46, 266-7). By the end of the 21st Dynasty (about 1075-945 B.C.), the number of ushebtis for one owner increased considerably. One burial could contain an “ushebti gang” of 401, with one worker for each day of the year and one overseer for each group of ten workers (Schneider 320). No longer directly associated with individual servants, the figurine’s function altered from substitute to slave. Large numbers of ushebtis circulated throughout the Third Intermediate and Late Periods (about 1075-332 B.C.) and were often made of unfired clay, a cheap substitute for faience (Stewart 44-5).

In Nubia, funerary figurines have been found only in royal tombs. Taharqa, a king of the late 25th Dynasty (about 690-664 B.C.), included more than 1,000ushebtis placed in rows around the walls of his burial chamber (Fazzini 110; Silverman 309; Spanel 1988, 111).

Cost and Distribution. New Kingdom shabtis were relatively inexpensive, costing one to three deben each (Olson 25). In comparison, baskets, workers’ aprons, and simple amulets each cost one deben while footstools and leather sacks were priced two deben each (Gutgesell 372). Simple laborers had around 200 deben (around 30 months’ pay) to spend on their burials (Gutgesell 372). Yet within three New Kingdom cemeteries containing tombs belonging to owners of differing social ranks (“wealthy and less-wealthy”), only a few tombs at each site included shabtis—and not all high-status tombs contained funerary figurines (Olson 303). Because shabtis could be manufactured from materials such as pottery or faience, they were readily available, indicating that expense does not explain the shabtis’ limited distribution (Olson 20, 305). The restricted use of shabtis may suggest some type of divine approval was required or reflect social practices not yet understood.

Stewart (31-2) asserts that clay funerary figurines continued to be made for “commoners” even after the production of royal Egyptian ushebtis ceased with the last pharaoh of the 30th Dynasty, Nectanebo II (362-343 B.C.). According to Schneider (9, 62) shabtis from the 12th Dynasty onwards were produced for privileged citizens and royalty only.

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