Ushabti

Ushabti, shabti or shawabti: these two little chaps answer to a variety of names. But whatever you choose to call them, they were destined for a life of hard labour.

Little figurines like this – they’re around 4-in and 6-in high – were placed in the tombs of wealthy Ancient Egyptians, and acted as substitutes for the deceased, should he or she ever be called upon to do manual labor in the afterlife. They were used from the Middle Kingdom (around 1900 BC) until the end of the Ptolemaic Period nearly 2000 years later.

One ancient text has a scribe called Nebseni, a draughtsman in the Temple of Ptah, commanding: “Oh you shabti figure of the scribe Nebseni, son of the scribe Thena, and of the lady of the house Muthrestha, if I be called, or if I be judged to do any work whatever of the labours which are to be done in the underworld – behold, for your opposition will there be set aside – by a man in his turn, let the judgment fall upon you instead of upon me always, in the matter of sowing the fields, of filling the water-courses with water, and of bringing the sands of the east to the west.”

The shabti figure replies: “I am here and will come wherever you bid me.”

Most ushabtis were small, and produced in large quantities – a single tomb might contain hundreds or even thousands, covering the floor around the sarcophagus. 

Because they were common through such a long period of Egyptian history, and produced in such huge numbers, many survive, and they’re a common sight in many museums’ Egyptology displays. 

The two pictured are part of a collection of antiquities called the Linton collection, donated to the Borough of Scarborough in the 50s. The smaller figure is glazed with a turquoise colour very much associated with Egyptian artefacts and known as Egyptian faience. The Egyptians called it as ‘tjehnet’ or ‘khshdj’, the same word used for lapis lazuli. Both words roughly translate as  ‘shining’, ‘gleaming’ or ‘dazzling’. Faience was thought to glisten with a light symbolic of life, rebirth and immortality.