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.
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.
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!