Joshua J. Mark
published on 18 January 2012
Shabti dolls (also known as `shawbti’ and `ushabti’) were funerary figures in ancient Egypt who accompanied the deceased to the after-life. Their name is derived from the Egyptian `swb’ for stick but also corresponds to the word for `answer’ (`wSb’) and so the Shabtis were known as `The Answerers’.
The figures, shaped as adult male or female mummies, appear in tombs early on (when they represented the deceased) and, by the time of the New Kingdom (1550-1069 BCE) were made of stone or wood (in the Late Period they were composed of faience) and represented an anonymous `worker’. Each doll was inscribed with a `spell’ (known as the Shabti formula) which specified the function of that particular figure. In ancient Egypt, citizens were obligated to devote part of their time each year to labor for the state on the many public works projects the pharaoh had decreed. If, whether from sickness, personal obligation or simply lack of desire to comply, one could not fulfill this obligation, one could send someone else to work in one’s place - but could only do so once. As the Egyptians considered the after-life a continuation of one’s earthly existence (only better in that it included neither sickness nor, of course, death) it was thought that the god of the dead, Osiris, would have his own public works projects underway and the purpose of the Shabti, then, was to `answer’ for the deceased when called upon for work.
Every Shabti doll was hand-carved to express the task the Shabti formula described and so there were dolls with baskets in their hands or hoes or mattocks, chisels, depending on what job was to be done. The dolls were purchased from temple workshops and the more Shabti dolls one could afford corresponded to one’s personal wealth. In modern times, therefore, the number of dolls found in excavated tombs has helped archaeologists determine the status of the tomb’s owner. The poorest of tombs contain no Shabtis but even those of modest size contain one or two and there have been tombs containing a Shabti for every day of the year. In the Third Intermediate Period (1069-850 BCE) there appeared a special Shabti with one hand at the side and the other holding a whip; this was the overseer doll. During this period the Shabti seem to have been regarded less as replacement workers or servants for the deceased and more as slaves. The overseer was in charge of keeping ten Shabtis at work and, in the most elaborate tombs, there were thirty-six overseer figures for the 365 `worker’ dolls. In the Late Period the Shabtis continued to be placed in tombs but the overseer figure no longer appeared. It is not known exactly what shift took place to render the overseer figure obsolete but, whatever it was, Shabti dolls regained their former status as workers and continued to be placed in tombs to carry out their owner’s duties in the after-life.