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!


Filed under Egypt gallery redevelopment, Why collect...?

6 responses to “Why do museums collect… shabtis?

  1. Campbell@Manchester

    Reblogged this on AncientWorldsManchester and commented:

    More shabtis than ever before will be displayed in our Gallery 3 ‘exploring objects’ space. Here’s why.

  2. chris simons

    I have a very small collection of shabtis would love to see Manchesters collection My favorite is ones from T .I.P They are mostly dark blue with black writing on them, Each one has its own personality My favorite in the collection I have is small white shabti with the biggest smile Chris

  3. Shabtis aren’t really a major focus of my Egyptian collection, but I have a couple. I currently have two shabtis in my collection, a very small (50 mm) very crude, late one, which really isn’t much to speak of, and a larger (110 mm) one, probably from the XXVI dynasty. I’d love your comments on this one.

    It’s from the personal collection of Egyptologist Pamela Drinkall, and bears a label reading “XXVI Dyn. Tiera-al-Gabal, Fouad I Univ. Excav. 1936”. I can’t find a “Tiera-al-Gabal”, but I suppose this could be a corruption of “Tuna al-Gebel”, where Fouad I University does indeed appear to have conducted excavations in 1936.

    There are no legible hieroglyphics on it, but you can see the traces of them (and two flanking vertical lines) in the glaze on the front. The same auction contained another Dynasty XXVI shabti from the same collection with the same label for some one named Tjainhesu, so I suppose there’s a chance this belongs to the same person.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/sivancat/7259535452/ (Front)
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/sivancat/7259542588/ (Back)
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/sivancat/7259540572/ (Left)
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/sivancat/7259538088/ (Right)

    I would love your opinions on this shabti, particularly as to the excavation where it was found.

    I’m really enjoying the blog, by the way—keep up the fine work!

  4. Anat

    So they can one day put the employees out of work!

  5. Hello there,

    I’m a student from Berkshire, England and my little brother and I were left a ushabti from our mother after she passed away a few years ago. My grandparents tell me that she got it on holiday with them when she was a little girl in Egypt. They told me it could be worth something so I thought I’d find out a little more about it.

    I took some photos of the ushabti today and created a 3D rotatable image: http://www.brightpixelstudios.com/Ushabti%20Verticle/index.html

    It’s about 12cm long.

    I was wondering if you’d be kind enough to tell me:

    Is it real?
    How much could it be worth?
    Where / who could I sell it to?

    It’s been locked away in the cupboard for years so I thought it’d be a real shame if it stayed there / got thrown away.

    Thank you for taking the time to read this email. Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

    Kind Regards,

    Will Whitehead

    • Campbell@Manchester

      Dear Will, thanks for your message. Could you email this to campbell.price AT manchester.ac.uk ? I will reply to you from there.
      Best wishes,

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