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.
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.