Tag Archives: shabtis

The Inspiration of Shabtis – an Artist’s Perspective

shabts2A blog from artist Linda Livesey about how our mass display of shabtis inspired her work.

I am a mature student at Manchester School of Art, studying Creative Practice, a part time studio degree programme.  Ceramics is my speciality within Creative Practice, for my current project I have taken on an Egyptian theme. I feel I have joined the many people that must have looked at and photographed the display of Shabtis in the Exploring Objects Gallery and gone Ah! or Wow!. The colours, mass, all wonderful, I felt that I had to respond to it somehow. For me, the starting point for my project had to be the Shabtis. I was fascinated by the fact that the optimum number to be placed in a burial was 401.

Linda's shabti army

Linda’s shabti army

They were there as servants in the afterlife, to be called upon to do any work the deceased required. I thought about this, I don’t want servants in the afterlife, I could do with them now. (Not really, I don’t believe in slavery). So I decided to make my own Shabtis, only 101 though, as I seem to have 101 things to do at the moment, I could do with some help with cooking, cleaning, shopping, etc.  etc. …… as I suppose many people could. I made my own plaster moulds, 15 different Shabti shapes, ready to press mould my collection using stoneware and crank clay also developing several glazes to try and interpret the colours seen in the museum. I feel my final collection works well, I am pleased with them and I am sure they will serve me well.

Thanks to Campbell Price for assisting me in my research for this project.

Our shabtis on display (photo: Paul Cliff)

Our shabtis on display (photo: Paul Cliff)

Read more about the ancient function of shabtis, as made clear in their inscriptions, and why they have been so collectable.

 

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Object biography #12: A wooden shabti of King Seti I (Acc. no. 13906)

Seti I shabti

Acc. no. 13906. © Glenn Janes

Shabti figures are very popular, especially when they depict royal personages. Some of the most common royal shabtis you are likely to encounter are those of King Seti I (c. 1294-79 BC). Estimates vary, but it is probable that Seti had over 1000 shabtis – the largest number of any New Kingdom king. Materials for the shabtis varied, and included faience, alabaster and steatite – but the most common material was wood.

After his 1817 discovery of the tomb of Seti I in the Valley of the Kings (KV 17), the strongman explorer Giovanni Belzoni gave an account of its contents. He described “scattered in various places, an immense quantity of small wooden figures of mummies six or eight inches long, and covered with asphaltum to preserve them.” Modern analysis has identified the species of wood as juniper. It is said that  many of these resin-coated wooden shabtis – as a convenient, combustible material – were set alight and used as torches by visitors to the tomb! Fortunately, many survived and Egyptian collections across the world now frequently boast one or two examples.

Seti’s assemblage must originally have represented the most elaborate provision of royal shabtis, varying considerably in quality of craftsmanship. But why would a pharaoh need actually need shabtis? As a god king, among other gods in the afterlife, it seems unlikely that the deceased pharaoh would be obliged to actually do any work in the Fields of Reeds.

Shabti of Set I in 'Pharaoh' exhibition

Fine faience shabti of Seti I now in the British Museum. BM EA 22818.

Like many of the objects placed in the royal tomb, they represented an insurance policy for any eventuality. Shabtis had been a standard part of private burial equipment since the Middle Kingdom, and the Egyptians were perhaps inclined to retain the custom rather than do away with it – just in case the king happened to need extra help in the afterlife. By their sheer number, Seti’s army of shabtis seems to echo the large numbers of people the king could command in life. By the New Kingdom, shabtis were conceptualised as servants rather than substitutes for the deceased – so perhaps it was fitting for the pharaoh to have labour at his disposal.

I have a particular fondness for the wooden shabtis of Seti I for another reason. When I was still at school, and already keen to pursue a career in Egyptology and museums, I volunteered at the Burrell Collection in Glasgow. Whilst there, I was privileged to be able to help the curator update catalogue records – focussing on an extensive collection of shabtis. Whilst we were going through the collection, I noticed that one dark wooden example bore a cartouche – though a royal name was not noted on the catalogue card. Upon closer inspection the hieroglyphic elements proved to be ‘Men-maat-Re’ – the Prenomen, or Throne name of Seti I. After consulting a reference book I was very excited to discover one of Seti I’s shabtis in Glasgow… only to discover that there were hundreds all over the world!

I remember wondering why the king took so many shabtis to the grave. Now, I would say without hesitation that the general Pharaonic funerary belief applies: better safe than sorry!

This post is based on part of a chapter that will appear in the Oxford Handbook to the Valley of the Kings, edited by Kent Weeks and Richard Wilkinson.

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100 years of Egypt on display at Manchester: Ancient Worlds are open!

On 30th October 1912 a group of dignitaries assembled for the opening of a new building in the Manchester Museum, designed to house the important Egyptology collections. Exactly one hundred years later, we have now opened our new ‘Ancient Worlds’ galleries – and they are already proving very popular.

The new galleries consist of three main parts. The first gallery (previously the rather claustrophobic ‘Egyptian Daily Life’) introduces archaeological methods and explains how we know about the past, through a number of guides related to the field. This section, for example, explains Manchester’s unique contribution to facial reconstruction of ancient peoples, and Flinders Petrie’s ‘sequence dating’ based on pottery typology. Further digital content – including text, images, audio commentary, and 360 degree photography – can be downloaded using codes that appear on object labels. A visitor services assistant can unlock this information for those without a smart phone. This information can also be viewed online, at www.ancientworlds.co.uk.

The second space – formerly the Egyptian Afterlife gallery – is now Egyptian Worlds. Objects are arranged chronologically, with a timeline running around the top of the wall cases – making clear to visitors when, relative to main ‘periods’ of Egyptian history, material is situated. This timeline is illustrated with pots, to show changes in ceramic styles over time. Within this chronological framework individual themes are developed, such as the importance of writing in the Old Kingdom and Manchester’s unique evidence for magical practice in the Middle Kingdom. A smaller adjoining space now houses our rich collection of painted mummy portraits from Roman Egypt, including two of the rare examples of mummies with portraits still in place.

Finally, in our third gallery ‘Exploring Objects’ – what previously housed Mediterranean Archaeology – we present dense displays of several categories of artefacts found in abundance in museum collections, such as Roman glass, pottery lamps, or Egyptian stone vessels. One section that has already proved popular is our case packed with shabti figures, arranged roughly in chronological order to show changes in colour with time. The reason behind creating these densely-filled cases was simple: museum visitors expressed an interest in seeing more material on display. More objects than ever before are now on view in all three galleries, many for the first time in over 50 years. With around a thousand whole and fragmentary shabtis in storage, we wanted to show many more than the dozen or so examples that had been on display in the old galleries. The result is an aesthetically striking display – as evidenced by the popularity of this case with photographers!

In the year since I arrived at the Museum, ‘Ancient Worlds’ has dominated almost every aspect of life. It has been a wonderful opportunity to bring objects from one of Britain’s (and, indeed, Europe’s) great collections from Egypt and Sudan to a new audience. Yet, it has also been very satisfying to hear people express surprise as seeing an object from the old galleries in a new context – in this way many familiar pieces are getting a second look.

This photo from the 1912 opening shows the gallery’s major benefactor Jesse Haworth (standing in the picture), archaeologist William Flinders Petrie (seated third from right), the museum’s first curator William Boyd Dawkins (first on right), and anatomist Grafton Elliot Smith.

A project of this size obviously runs into its fair share of challenges. Yet even when things didn’t go quite according to plan, solutions were found – and the results, we hope, speak for themselves. It was a particular pleasure to work so closely with a team of such tireless, talented, and enthusiastic people at the Museum. We all hope that our new galleries bring Ancient Worlds to life in new and exciting ways for our visitors.

You can see all of Paul Cliff’s photos from the opening at the Museum’s Flickr page.

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Catalogue of the Manchester shabti collection published

Announcing the publication of The Shabti Collections 5. A selection from the Manchester Museum by Glenn Janes, with a Foreword by Campbell Price.

Published by Olicar House. 520 pp. £95 RRP – with discounts in the Museum until 1 st December. More info here.

The new dense display of shabtis in our ‘Exploring Objects’ gallery

The publication of this volume coincides withe the opening of our new Ancient Worlds galleries, in which more shabtis than ever before are on display. This sumptuous, full-colour volume is surely the largest, most comprehensive catalogue of one of the largest collections of shabti figurines in Europe.

Despite the author’s modest claims to the contrary, this is a work of real and valuable sholarship. Glenn’s knowledge of his subject and painstaking research will no doubt ensure that this is a future reference work.

 

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Why do museums collect… shabtis?

Acc. no. 11272, shabti of Nes-per-nebu, from the second Deir El-Bahri cache. Donated by Max Robinow.

Acc. no. 11272, shabti of Nes-per-nebu, from the second Deir El-Bahri cache. Donated by Max Robinow.

One of the most popular and ubiquitous items of ancient Egyptian funerary equipment is the small servant figurine – or shabti. Most museums with an Egyptian collection, however small, include at least one or two of these figurines. At the Manchester Museum, we have over 1000 complete and fragmentary examples. These are currently being studied by shabti expert Glenn Janes in preparation for a book in his series cataloguing the shabti collections of museums in the North West of England. So, why are shabtis so popular and why have so many of them ended up in museum collections?

A major reason is simply because so many shabtis were produced. The figurines first appeared in burials of the early Middle Kingdom (c. 2000 BC), when only one or two examples were buried with the deceased. They increased in number until the Late Period, when the optimum number of 401 examples was to be included in each burial. This included one ‘worker’ for each day of the year, plus an extra one ‘overseer’ shabti for every group of ten (365 + 36 = 401). Most of these later shabtis are small and crudely made, and the odd example can still be seen lying on the desert surface of large cemetery sites in Egypt. Shabtis continued to be produced well into the Ptolemaic period (310-30 BC). Given the importance of including worker figurines in burials over a span of two millennia, it is hardly surprising that so many examples have survived to find their way into countless museum and private collections.

Shabtis being prepared for display

Shabtis being prepared for display

Yet it is, perhaps, the shabti form itself that has proved so eminently collectable. Often brightly coloured, covered in hieroglyphs and in the quintessentially pharaonic shape of a mummy, shabtis are among the most easily recognisable and attractive Egyptian antiquities. Importantly, their small size makes them easily portable. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that shabtis were an early souvenir for tourists in Egypt, and among the first such objects to be forged: one of the earliest objects to enter the Ashmolean, for example, was a 17th Century AD ‘shabti’ – and we have several fake shabti figures of 19thCentury date in Manchester. Shabti figures still regularly appear in auctions of Egyptian antiquities, and on internet sites such as Ebay.

Shabti of Horudja. © Glenn Janes

Shabti of Horudja. © Glenn Janes

The Manchester Museum received a large number of its shabtis from private collectors, which mostly lack anything more than a vague provenance. However, we also hold many examples found in situ during excavations. An important group are those belonging to a Thirtieth Dynasty (380-343 BC) priest named Horudja, excavated by William Flinders Petrie from a tomb at Hawara at the end of the 19th Century. Petrie records finding 299 shabtis in two compartments at both ends of Horudja’s sarcophagus, which had unfortunately been damaged by flooding in the tomb. 59 of Horudja’s shabtis are now in Manchester and many will appear in our new Egyptian World gallery.

In order to highlight the collectable nature of this type of object, another display space in our Ancient Worlds galleries will be devoted to showing several hundred shabtis – many more than have ever been on display before. They will be arranged roughly chronologically, to illustrate changes in colour, texture and form in shabti production between 1800 and 300 BC. Glenn Janes’ full-colour catalogue of the Manchester shabtis will be published to accompany the redisplay of this material. This will be his largest volume to date, and will provide new insights into our large shabti collection – including parallels in other collections, provenance information and data on the owners of the shabtis identified by their inscriptions. Updates on this important publication will appear here soon.

Enquiries to the Museum about objects from Egypt often include shabtis – genuine or otherwise. We are always keen to see more examples, to hear the histories behind these objects and to find out how they have come to the UK. Do you own a shabti, or would you like an object that sounds like it might be one to be identified? Perhaps you actively collect shabtis yourself? We’d love to hear from you!

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