The Predynastic and Early Dynastic Period
In the predynastic and early dynastic period, we find a few examples of what appears to have been sacrificial burials in Egypt, where apparently rulers took to the grave various servants upon their death. However, this barbaric practice was soon replaced with symbolic figures of one nature or another. At first, they took the form of servant statuettes and tomb paintings and reliefs of laborers on the walls of tombs.
The earliest examples of small figurines were wax prototypes that first appeared at Saqqara during the Herakleopolian period and in the 11th Dynasty complex of Nebhepetre Montuhotep I at Deir el-Bahri in Thebes, where they were shaped as humans, wrapped in linen as miniature mummies and deposited in coffins. These earliest examples had no spells inscribed or other specific words for their purpose, but were nevertheless expected to perform work on behalf of the dead. Model stone statuettes of workers in various professions were commonly placed in tombs during the Middle Kingdom (though in small numbers), and their use was also known from many periods.
Later, many of these figures buried with the dead began to be called Ushabti (ushabty), shabti (shabty) or shawabti. These figures were made from various materials, including wax, clay, wood, stone, terracotta and rarely bronze or glass, but the most common material was faience. Specifically, their primary tasks appear to have been agricultural work in the afterlife. In the Egyptian netherworld, each hour of the night was associated with a geographic region. These regions were organized just as on earth and consisted of lands donated by the sun god Re to the blessed dead to be farmed for their nourishment. Those owners of tombs of any importance were accustomed to having laborers perform menial work for them while living, and they expected to continue this privilege in death.
Initially, these magical figures were believed to act as a substitute for the deceased himself, although later they came to be regarded as mere servants in the afterlife. Hence, at first they were sometimes fashioned either as mummies or as living persons dressed in fine linen garb, but in later periods their appearance changed more to that of servants. A spell for this purpose appeared in the Middle Kingdom Coffin Texts, and from the New Kingdom the figures were inscribed with Chapter six of the Book of the Dead that reads:
"Oh Ushabi, allotted to me, if I be summoned or if I be detailed to do any work which has to be done in the realm of the dead; if indeed obstacles are implanted for you therewith a man at his duties, you shall detail yourself for me on every occasion of making arable the fields, of flooding the banks or of conveying sand from east to west; 'Here am I', you shall say."
Though various spelling is used to designate these figures, there are basically three uses (ushabti, shabti and shawbti), and while all three are often indiscriminately and incorrectly used, each designation has historical limits to its usage, and in particular, shawabti was restricted geographically to Deir el-Medina and other areas of Thebes. They derived their name from the usage in the Book of the Dead. However, in many cases, only the title and name of the deceased was inscribed upon these figures and therefore referring to all such figures as ushabti, shabti or shawbti is wrong. Hence, the designation of "funerary figurines" is at least accurate for all types in all periods.
Both the spellings of shabti and shawabti appear in early versions of these figures, but the latter term was restricted to the strange stick figures from the Theban area. However, it is probably a dialectical variant and is the least preferable of the three spellings for the general references to these figures.
During the reign of Tuthmosis IV, a considerable innovation occurred in these funerary figures which changed them forever. Until that period, the figurines had almost always taken the form of mummies, but now they began to be fashioned with baskets, sacks and hoes or mattocks held in their hands, on the chest or waist. Some had separate models of agricultural tools, which might include model hoes, adzes, wooden yoke poles with bronze bags to hand across the servant's shoulders, and even mudbrick molds. Once this practice was established it became a permanent standard for these figurines. Also, at the end of the 18th Dynasty or the beginning of the 19th Dynasty, the figures were represented in the clothing of the leaving, usually rendered in the garments of the elite, with loose folds and tight pleats.
Chapter six of the book of the Dead also became more elaborate, though many of the figurines continued to have inscribed only the name and title of the deceased. Beginning in the 21st Dynasty, we first see the spelling of ushebti as the standard spelling in Chapter six, which continued into the Ptolemaic period when the last of these figurines were made. This spelling may have derived from a verb (wesheb) meaning, to answer, since the spell addresses the figure and tells it to respond when the deceased is called to perform labor in the afterlife.
The number of figures buried with the deceased could vary considerably, and their number also increased over time until. While in earlier periods there might be very few buried with the deceased, eventually in the 21st Dynasty there might be as many as 401, consisting of 365 workers for each day of the year, and 36 overseers, provided in boxes These overseers would even be equipped with triangular kilts traditionally worn by higher officials and whips. The ancient Egyptians identified the length of the year and through of the night by observing 36 groups of stars that changed every ten days, so the arrangement of 365 workers and 36 overseers was all astronomically calculated.
However, with that sort of demand for these figures, they became mostly mass produced in terracotta and faience from a mold with indistinguishable features. So many of these funerary figurines were produced that, apart from scarabs and amulets, they are the most numerous of all ancient Egyptian antiquities.
From the 21st Dynasty through at least the end of the Third Intermediate Period, ushebtis were consistently made of blue faience with details in black. During the Late Period, while still made of faience, they were rendered in pastel tones of green or blue.
During the Ptolemaic (Greek) era, a transition of ushebtis resulted in a return to earlier forms, with numerous figurines fashioned once again in mummiform so that once again, those dressed as the living are rare if at all existent.
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