Coming Soon: Shabti Display

May 23, 2012

The Penn Museum’s Egyptian Mummy exhibition will soon include a new display highlighting the museum’s shabti collection.

Shabtis – small, funerary figurines, either mummiform or in civilian dress – were important components of Egyptian funerary culture from the New Kingdom (ca. 1550 – 1070) onwards. Shabtis were believed to help perform labor for the tomb occupant in the afterlife and were made out of wood, stone, bronze, and frequently out of faience,[1] a non-clay ceramic material consisting primarily of crushed quartz or sand.[2]

The precedent for the inclusion of miniature tomb figurines in tombs began in Dynasty XII with the introduction of stone mummiform figures into Egyptian funerary culture.[3] These “proto-shabti” were similar to shabtis in form, but were inscribed with texts that only included the title and names of the tomb occupant.[4] The purpose of these proto-shabti is unknown, but scholars suggest perhaps they were meant to act as substitute recipients of harm that might befall the mummified body.[5]

The shabti emerged as a conventional object of funerary culture only later in Egyptian funerary practices with the first shabti dating to Dynasty XIII, ca. 1750 BCE. [6] Beginning in the New Kingdom, it was believed that the deceased would need to partake in agricultural duties in the “Field of Reeds” throughout the afterlife.[7] Inscribed with magical texts that allowed the deceased to call them into service and depicted carrying agricultural implements, shabtis were created for the purpose of performing the agricultural labor assigned to the tomb occupant in the afterlife.[8]

In Dynasty XIII, single shabti were often entombed and this number increased to approximately two shabti per tomb by Dynasty XVIII.[9]  By the Third Intermediate Period (1069 – 850), shabti in elite burials were often entombed in groups of four hundred one – one shabti to work for each day of the three hundred sixty-five days of the years, and thirty-six other shabti overseers to keep order.[10]

As the practice of including shabti figurines in burials increased in popularity, there emerged a type of mass-produced shabti that was crudely made out of mud and which were not inscribed with the shabti spell.[11]


[1]  Clayton, Peter A. “Royal Bronze Shawabti Figures” in The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Vol. 58, August, 1972. 167

[2] http://www.digitalegypt.ucl.ac.uk/faience/index.html

[3] Cooney, John D. “Some Late Egyptian Antiquities” in The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Vol. 62, No. 7 (September, 1975) 230

[4] Cooney (1975) 230

[5] Cooney (1975) 230

[6] Cooney (1975) 230.

[8] Cooney (1975) 229 – 230.

[9] Cooney (1975) 230.

[11] Walker, Susan. Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. 12