Although among the rather less prepossessing artefacts in the Manchester collection, this crudely carved wooden figurine holds significant interest. Often called a ‘stick shabti’, the figurine may in fact not really be a shabti – in the conventional Egyptological sense of a ‘servant’ – at all.
Acc. no. 6038. Photo by Glenn Janes.
Often described as ‘mummiform’ in shape, several examples of similar crude wooden figurines have been found in small wooden coffins and/or wrapped in linen. They apparently all date to the late Second Intermediate Period and early New Kingdom. A recent find by an Egyptian-Spanish team at Dra Abu el-Naga consisted of several such figurines wrapped in linen, some within a small wooden coffin. These were uncovered underneath the outer courtyard of the tomb of Djehuty (TT 11, reign of Hatshepsut) and appear to have been left there by a donor some time after the funeral – perhaps on the occasion of the ‘Beautiful Festival of the Valley’, when friends and family of the deceased would visit the tomb chapel.
Indeed, unlike most shabtis, which were buried close to the deceased in the inaccessible parts of the tomb, stick shabtis are mainly recorded as being found buried in the outer, open areas of tomb chapels – often in significant numbers. Texts are usually inked onto the wood but rather than the standard ‘shabti spell’ (Chapter 6 of the Book of the Dead) these consist of names, titles and perhaps an offering formula, suggesting a different function to most shabtis.
The fact that these figurines are ‘crude’ to our eyes need not imply they were created or dedicated by less well-off people – several seems to have been commissioned by wealthy and important members of society. The choice of wood may represent a deliberate means of employing reworked detritus from coffin manufacture, imbued with a special power and connection to the deceased. There is also an intriguing suggestion that the use of the figurines in contexts such as the ‘Beautiful Festival of the Valley’ influenced the later perception recorded in Herodotus and Plutarch that a figure of the mummy was sometimes exhibited at Egyptian feasts.
Aerial view of Dra Abu el-Naga, 2011, by J. Latona/©Proyecto Djehuty
This example is dedicated to (rather than by) a man called Teti-sa-Intef (meaning ‘Teti son of Intef’, Intef being a name of some significance at Dra Abu el Naga from the Middle Kingdom onwards). Several other figurines are known donated in honour of this individual, known to come from the tomb of the mayor of Thebes Tetiky (TT 15, a monument from which parts of relief had been stolen) from the very beginning of the Eighteenth Dynasty and excavated by a team working for Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon in 1908. The Manchester example, although its precise find spot is not recorded, probably derived from the same area.
Label of Djer (6763a)
This small (1.8 x 1.9 cm) piece of incised bone doesn’t look like much, but it comes from one of Pharaonic Egypt’s most hallowed places. The Umm el-Qaab (Arabic for ‘Mother of Pots’) area of Abydos was the burial place of the first kings of Egypt. Abydos was sacred to later Egyptians as the cult centre of the Osiris, the god of the dead and of rebirth. Many hoped to make a pilgrimage to the site and those that did left offerings, evidenced by millions of pottery vessels – giving the area its modern Arabic name.
From as early as the Middle Kingdom (c. 2055-1650 BC), one of the early royal tombs was believed to be the actual burial place of Osiris. This tomb in fact belonged to Djer, probably the third king of the First Dynasty (c. 3000 BC). When the tomb was first excavated – albeit rather hastily – by Frenchman Emile Amélineau (1850-1915) in 1898 the central chamber was found to contain a basalt image of Osiris lying on a funerary bed. This monument was dedicated by a king during the Second Intermediate Period (c. 1650-1550 BC) as a way of demonstrating his piety towards Osiris.
Amélineau’s excavations at Abydos were taken over by the British Egyptologist William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853-1942), whose finds form a large part of the Manchester collection. Petrie’s careful work brought to light much that his French counterpart had either overlooked or discarded – including this small bone tag naming king Djer, the owner of the tomb.
Djer’s was the first royal tomb purpose-built to house plentiful supplies for the king’s use in the afterlife – including his servants, who appear to have been killed and buried in subsidiary graves to serve their king in the afterlife. Storage chambers contained pots, as well as model tools and weapons. Inscribed animal bone tags were used to label bags or other containers of food and drink. Examples such as our tag simply give the king’s name, framed inside a serekh and topped by a falcon representing Horus – god of kingship. The royal name is written with a single sign – a hieroglyph with the phonetic value djer – identifying to whom the contents belonged.
Early and later hieroglyph 'djer'
Petrie’s excavations revealed that the tomb’s extensive wooden elements had been damaged by fire. This perhaps occurred during the First Intermediate Period, as implied by the mention of desecration of the Abydos royal tombs in the literary text ‘The Instruction for King Merikare’.
When Djer’s tomb was reinterpreted as the ‘tomb of Osiris’ some time during the Middle Kingdom, evidence – such as our little bone tag – remained to identify the grave’s original occupant. Maybe these fragments of Egypt’s (already very ancient) history were never recognised… or perhaps they were deliberately ignored in favour of the association with Osiris, whose burial place attracted so many pilgrims.