Ancient Egyptian arts, the Shabtis and boxes of Tutankhamun

Ancient Egyptian arts

The Shabtis and boxes are among the beautiful artifacts which belong to the ancient Egyptian arts.

Egypt art: Shabtis or Shawabtis later Ushabtis

The meaning of the term and its development:

Ancient Egypt art
Egyptian art, the Ushabtis

The etymology (origin) of the term “Shabti” that was generally used for these figures prior to the Twenty-first dynasty is unknown, as is the variant Shawabti, which was used during the New Kingdom.

According to some “Shawabti” is probably referring to the word “Shawab” for wood. By the late period, the term used for these figures was changed to Ushabti meaning “Answerer”.

The purpose of the Shabtis and their usage

Art of ancient Egyptian
Ancient Egypt art, the Ushabtis

First appearing in tombs of the Middle Kingdom as substitutes for deceased.

By the 18th dynasty, the Shabti had become the dead man’s deputy, charged with working on his behalf in the next world on any basic agricultural tasks that needed to be carried out.

This new role was reflected in the tools (a pick, a hoe, and one or more baskets) with which, from mid-eighteenth dynasty on, such figures are commonly provided. Shabtis are generally inscribed with hieroglyphs that give the owner’s name and title.

In most cases, they were also decorated with magical spells that were thought to bring the figurine to life (often with spell 472 of the coffin texts or parts of chapter six of the books of the dead which is known as the Shabti Chapter.

The extract from chapter 6 of the book of the dead, which often appears painted or incised on the figure, is clearly reflecting the shabti’s function:

O shabti allotted to me (i.e. the owner) if I be summoned of if I be detailed to do any work which has to be done in the realm of the dead you shall detail yourself for me on every occasion of making arable the fields, of flooding the banks, or of conveying sand from east to west: Here am I, you shall say.

Most social classes in ancient Egypt had Shabti figurines buried with them, the difference being in their craftsmanship, material, and numbers.

Regarding the material, the figures could be made of wood, stone, pottery, glass, bronze, copper or most commonly faience, which is an ancient Egyptian material that shares many characteristics with glass.

Also the number of figures buried with the deceased varied considerably.

Initially the deceased was provided with only one Shabti, but by the New Kingdom the numbers had increased significantly so that there might be hundreds of them is a single burial.

The increasing number of Shabtis led to the manufacture of special containers now known as shabti boxes.

Ancient Egyptian art: the Shabti figures of king Tutankhamen

Egypt art
The Ushabti of Tutankhamun

Buried with the boy-king Tutankhamen was 413 shabti figures, a total which has been divided into 365 workmen (one for each day of the year): 26 overseers (one for each 10 day week); and a supplementary series of 12 monthly overseers.

Of the total number of figures found, only 29 were inscribed with a more or less full version of the shabti formula, the remaining 384 carried little more than the king’s name and title.

Only one Shabti came from the Antechamber, compared with 176 found in the treasury and a further 236 found in the Annex.

The material employed were of several sorts; wood (carved, painted and gesso gilt), quartzite, calcite, limestone (white and yellow colored), black granite, and a range of colored faience.

The figures were represented with eight different types of headdresses and or crowns, with and without uraeus. Carter also noted eight different variations in the objects held in the figure’s hands.

Among the most interesting of Tutankhamen’s 413 Shabti figures are six of the larger examples finely carved in wood, which according to their hieroglyphic inscriptions had been presented to the king’s burial by the high officials (Nakhtmin and Maya).

The Shabti figures had been housed originally in 24 boxes: 10 boxes recovered from the northeast corner of the treasury and fourteen from the annex.

Twenty-three of these boxes were resin-painted, sloping-roofed kiosks resting on sleds. The remaining one was a lime-washed rectangular box.

The lids of the Shabti boxes were originally tied down by means of a cord wrapped around the knobs protruding at top and side and sealed with the simple jackal and nine captives’ motif.

Associated with the Shabtis were 1866 miniature agricultural tools (hoes, picks, yokes, and baskets), made of copper, faience, and wood. Of these tools, 793 were found in the treasury and 1073 in the annex.

Art of ancient Egyptians
Ancient Egyptian art, the Shabtis or Shawabti

Egyptian art: Boxes and chests

Ancient Egypt art
The boxes of king Tutankhamun

Apart from the shabti boxes, the shrines containing ritual figures, the game boxes, the boxed provisions, and the chest containing the two mummified fetuses of Tutankhamen, the tomb of Tutankhamen contained more than 50 boxes and chests.

All of the boxes had been ransacked (plundered) at the time of the thefts. The boxes range in size from the smallest and most delicate for cosmetics or jewelry to large and functional carrying chests fitted with removable pole handles.

Boxes with rectangular form predominate, with sloping gabled or flat lids. Four boxes are cartouche shaped and one semicircular in shape.

Many boxes have secondary internal lids. Also, the interior of many of the boxes is fitted with wooden divisions as if to receive specific objects or vessels.

The material and quality also vary from the beautifully finished calcite box to the yellow painted wooden box, the common color of the boxes in the ancient Egyptian arts.

The majority of the boxes had been closed by means of cord wrapped around the knobs on the movable lid and end, to which a seal was attached. Some boxes were provided with gilded copper side staples.

Such boxes were probably intended to be used for traveling purposes and were probably strapped over the shoulder of a slave or on the back of an animal.

Like other objects from the tomb of Tutankhamen, some boxes were prepared during previous reigns. For example, a number of boxes were inscribed with the names of Akhenaton, Nefertiti, and Meritaten.

Egyptian art
Egypt art, one of king Tutankhamun’s boxes

Although the earlier names were sometimes erased and written over with those of Tutankhamen and his consort, there are cases, where there had been no attempt to alter these names.

The two finest boxes from the tomb are the painted box which was found in the antechamber which, as described by breasted, is the work of a master artist of all time. And the ivory coated box from the annex.

Ancient Egyptian arts include a lot of statues, temples, and masterpieces and the Shabtis and boxes are among them.