Shawabti, ‘substitute of the dead’, Dyn.12

Shawabti, ‘substitute of the dead’, Dyn.12
Period:Egypt, Middle Kingdom, Dynasty 12
Dating:1991 BC–1782 BC
Origin:Egypt, Upper Egypt
Material:Faience (all types)
Physical:17.5cm. (6.8 in.) - 230 g. (8.1 oz.)

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Links to others from Dynasty 12

Bronze mirror, double Horus, Dyn. 12
Bronze of Goddess Nebethetepet, Dyn. 12
Ka statue of King Amenemhet III, Dyn. 12
King as Horus-the-Child, Dyn. 12
Limestone shawabti, Dyn. 12
Limestone shawabti, Dyn. 12
New year flask, royal gift of sacred water
Panel from outer wooden coffin, Dyn. 12
Queen as Isis nursing, Dyn. 12
Scarab of Senusret I, Dyn. 12
Scarab with Lord Ptah, Dyn. 12
Scarab with Ra and four cobras, Dyn. 12
Scarab with Thot Ka Ra, Dyn. 12
Shawabti of Im-Neferw-Neb, Dyn. 12
Shawabti ‘substitute of the dead’, Dyn.12
Stone head of a king, Dyn. 12
Wood statue of Amenemhat II, Dyn. 12

Links to others of type Shabti-substitute

Limestone shawabti, Dyn. 12
Limestone shawabti, Dyn. 12
Shawabti ‘substitute of the dead’, Dyn.12
  This faience shawabti from Dynasty 12 was a ‘substitute of the dead’. The original blue enamel has all but worn off, but is still evident here and there.

Funerary Statuettes
The anthropomorphic statuettes sometimes found in Egyptian tombs fulfilled a variety of roles. Some were carved to help the defunct attain eternal life by preserving the integrity of the four parts of a person. Some served as deputies of the defunct, to discharge unwelcome obligations of his afterlife. Some were made to provide the defunct with a staff to enhance his “after-lifestyle.” As often with the fluid nature of Egyptian thought, combinations and compromises between these seemingly irreconcilable aspirations often occurred.

Consequently, this thematic overview of 3000 years of funerary statuettes presents a somewhat artificial, anachronistic perspective which, although useful, imparts discontinuities to the narrative. Please bear with us.

Preserving Integrity
The goal of Egyptian funerary practices was to help the defunct reach the stage of Akh, that of the blessed dead that would continue to exist for all eternity in the other world. But any hope of attaining this eternal bliss was absolutely predicated upon preservation of the defunct’s physical body, name, Ba, and Ka.

Starting with the late predynastic, or at least the early dynastic, we find near the mummy wooden figures that we believe to represent the Ka of the defunct. The Ka was the “spark of life,” this tenuous but infinitely important difference between a corpse and a living person. Ka statuettes are anthropomorphic. They sometimes wear atop their heads the hieroglyphic sign for Ka—a pair of outstretched arms.

Tombs from Dynasty 4 high dignitaries sometimes contained “reserve heads.” These were clearly faithful portraits of the defunct, presumably intended to preserve his physical appearance for eternity.

Delegation of Labor
The Egyptian state apparatus relied on a sophisticated system of civil service draft that was demanded of all Egyptians. Every citizen had to work for the state for a few weeks a year (Kemp 2000:129). Egyptians naturally assumed that such a system had to exist in the kingdom of the dead.

During Dynasty 12 of the Middle Kingdom (circa 1800 BC), a new class of funerary statuettes appeared. Streamlined, almost minimalist, most often made of highly polished stone, a single statuette was placed in the tomb, representing the defunct, with his arms, his legs, his whole body shrouded in mummy trappings, up to his head. These would come to be known as shawabtis and ultimately become one of the most emblematic of Egyptian artifacts.

Shawabtis had a clear mission: to take over for the defunct whenever he was called to serve his tour of duty in the kingdom of the dead. Although these early shawabtis were most often uninscribed, some bore the name of the defunct, and a few—such as that of Renseneb (British Museum #49343)—were inscribed with chapter 6 of the Book of the Dead, which makes the role of shawabtis very explicit by spelling out their duty.

O Shawabti!
If the Osiris [name of defunct] is summoned
To do any work that has to be done in the other world
Or an obstacle/unpleasant task is imposed on him there
To cultivate the fields,
To irrigate the land
To move sand from East to West, and back
In the place of the man at his duty
Here I am, you shall say

These shawabtis of the Middle Kingdom and the beginning of the Second Intermediary Period were all made for high dignitaries. No royal shawabti from this time has ever been found. One could reasonably argue that kings did not need shawabtis, because they expected to be exempt from any labor conscription in the kingdom of the dead (and they certainly had no compelling need for a funerary statuette immortalizing their physical appearance, as it was already well documented in a variety of media).

By the middle of the Second Intermediary Period (c.1650 BC), shawabtis had fallen into disuse. They are virtually unknown during the Hyksos period (c. 1650-1550 BC)

Staff for the After Life
In all civilizations, men would rather envision a vibrant afterlife. For Egyptians, who were steeped in a culture that glorified continuity and stability in all things, this afterlife would much resemble their current existence. Rich Egyptians expected to continue enjoying their material comfort, supported by their retinue of servants. Funerary practices reinforced and perhaps were thought to make this vision possible.

During part of Predynastic Egypt, evidence suggests that the King (or reigning queen) ensured good service in the after life by the gruesome practice of having his servants and administrators buried with him-perhaps alive. This practice appears to have died with the reign of King Ra-Neb.

A thousand years later, at the end of the Old Kingdom, this concept was brought back in a much more civilized form. Tombs were furnished with highly detailed models of servants hard at work for their master. These models, sometimes marvelously full of life, contributed a great deal to our understanding of daily life in Egypt. Unfortunately for archeologists, this practice also fell into disuse by the end of the First Intermediate Period (circa 2000 BC).

Some four hundred years later, towards the end of the Second Intermediate Period, the shawabti statuettes started reappearing in tombs. Initially there were "stick shabtis"—crude items that bore little resemblance to Middle Kingdom shawabtis. As the New Kingdom unfolded, these were replaced by increasingly refined shawabtis. Although they were still shawabtis, as the ritual text from the Book of the Dead indicates, their relationship to the defunct had changed in subtle but profound ways. Their gender no longer necessarily matched the defunct. Starting with King Ahmose, they were also placed in royal tombs. More importantly, they were no longer unique. In fact, as time went on, they became more and more numerous. The tomb of Tutankhamun, for instance, held 413 shawabtis (Stewart 1995:19), and that of Seti I some 700 statuettes. To keep this veritable army of workers productive, a formal hierarchy was introduced amongst shawabtis, with the emergence of “overseers” or reisshawabtis during the Ramesside period. Usually provided in the ratio of one to ten, these overseer shawabtis are very distinctive, wielding a whip and donning a projecting pleated kilt. Eventually, the number of royal shawabtis settled around 401, one for every day of the year, plus 36 overseers. Clearly, the original significance of the shawabti as the "substitute of the defunct in his labor duty" had evolved. Could it be that these later shawabtis were really substitutes, not for the defunct, but instead for his retinue of servants, so that they would not be called away from their duty to their master. This would account for the need for shawabtis in a royal tomb, and tie into the ancient tradition of keeping one’s servants in the other world.

In a highly ritualized society, where constancy is highly valued and every change in hand placement or accessory in a religious representation can have profound meaning, the rapid stylistic evolution of shawabtis was an exceptional phenomenon. Interestingly, these changes often mirrored the vagrancies of Egyptian society and economy. In times of order and wealth, shawabtis were proud reflections of a refined society, while in times of political uncertainty and economic frailty, they displayed a lack of care betraying more immediate preoccupations.

In the sleek, sober Dynasty 12 statuettes, the hands were often completely shrouded under the mummy wrapping. By Dynasty 13, the hands more commonly emerged from the wrapping, crossed against the chest, and holding ritual objects such as the Ankh and an offering vase. When shawabtis returned during Dynasty 17 as stick shabtis, they looked like a grotesque Pez dispenser in a cocoon. But with Dynasty 18, they once again were elegant works of art. By the middle of Dynasty 18, we see both mummyform shawabtis portraying the subject after death, and shawabtis donning the sophisticated pleated robes of the living. This is also when most shawabtis started holding agricultural implements (generally hoes), and carrying bags (presumably holding seeds). Some were also burdened with water pots hanging from a yoke. Dynasty 19 brought very distinctive overseers shawabtis with their projecting pleated skirts, and the establishment of Egyptian faience as the material of choice for the manufacture of shawabtis. The Theban priesthood of the Third Intermediate Period contributed a style of faience shawabtis who despite their ungainly appearance, dazzle us with their spectacularly intense cobalt blue glaze. The Kushite kings of Dynasty 25 brought back the elegant simplicity of the Middle Kingdom shawabtis. Then, the Saites (Dynasty 26) abolished the distinction between overseer and common worker, and returned to a strict mummyform appearance, with a male subject wearing a pleated beard, holding a hoe in one hand and a pick in the other, and resting against with a back pillar. Shawabtis would change very little after that, but for their name which evolved into the variant Ushebti. "Although the production of royal shabtis ceased with Nectabo II, the last pharaoh of the Thirtieth Dynasty, the figurines continued to be made for commoners. The final demise of the type came at the end of the Ptolemaic period." (Stewart 1995:32)

Bibliography (for this item)

Aubert, Jacques-F., and Liliane Aubert
1974 Statuettes égyptiennes: chaouabtis, ouchebtis. Librairie d’Amerique et d’ Orient, Paris, France.

Khalil, Hassan M.
1976 Preliminary Studies on the Sanusret Collection. Manuscript, Musée l’Egypte et le Monde Antique, Monaco-Ville, Monaco. ((III) 167)

Bibliography (on Funerary Statuettes)

Aubert, Jacques-F., and Liliane Aubert
1974 Statuettes égyptiennes: chaouabtis, ouchebtis. Librairie d’Amerique et d’ Orient, Paris, France.

Stewart, Harry M.
1995 Egyptian Shabtis. Shire Publications, Buckinghamshire, United Kingdom.

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