Tunbridge Wells Museum & Art Gallery - August 2016

Ancient Egyptian Ushabti


August's Object of the Month has been chosen by our archaeology volunteer Geraldine Ashby. The object in question is a funerary figurine of 137mm in height. This type of funerary statuette originated in Ancient Egypt. They are generally known as Shabtis, and, in later periods as Ushabtis. The name Ushabti, or “answerer”, has been used from the 21st Dynasty onwards in response to a change in the function of the statuettes; they were now expected to answer the owner’s command. They are sometimes called Shawabti but this seems to refer to the ones fabricated in Thebes during the New Kingdom.

They were originally placed in the tomb as a single magical figurine and used as substitutes for the deceased in order to perform manual labour in the afterlife. However, their ideal number slowly increased and finally reached in the richest tombs a staggering 401 (1 worker for every day of the year – 365 + 36 overseers). They subsequently became mass-produced objects. The production of Shabtis started around the end of the Middle Kingdom (2055-1650 BC) as a replacement for the wooden tomb models of servants whose function was to produce food in the afterlife. They were at first made of wax or mud and then wood (stick shabti) before the pottery and faience examples we have here.

We do not have much information about this particular object and our records do not indicate how it came to the museum or by whom it was donated. Therefore, we will have to examine the object itself more closely in order to see if we can acquire more information about it. It is represented standing in mummiform shape, that is, with the body tightly shrouded to resemble a mummy (the deceased), or even Osiris the god of regeneration and rebirth. It holds tools in its hands which often gives clues to its role in the afterlife. The implements and certain features of the statuettes can be used as a guide to dating the objects. This particular figurine has a back pillar with two columns of hieroglyphic inscription and a trapezoidal pedestal. It also has a long Osirian false beard, a tripartite wig, and the arms are folded in a parallel position over the chest. A hoe is held in the right hand and a pick in the left hand. The tools indicate that this particular figurine was to perform agricultural work for the tomb’s owner. Furthermore, the hands are modelled in relief and the pale-green or blue-green glazes are typical of later periods. These characteristics date the statuette to the Late Period onwards, possibly the 26th Dynasty (Saite Period 664-525 BC).

The back pillar is inscribed with a shorter version of the spell 6 of the Book of the Dead which magically turns the figurines into, for example, farm labourers to work in place of the deceased. The inscription is composed of two vertical columns and reads:

“O! [these] Ushabtis, if the Osiris Padipepet, born of Bastetiridis, is asked, you shall say: Here [I am], true of voice”.

With this information in hand, it is now possible to name the person for whom the statuette was made, Padipepet, and his mother’s name Bastetiridis. Once the name of the owner was known, it was quite easy to locate other Ushabtis made for Padipepet. For example, three identical ones are held by the British Museum: EA37570; EA53984; EA53895. They apparently came from the tomb of Padipepet in Saqqara which was found in 1893. The tomb is supposed to be west of the pyramid of Teti. Unfortunately, no other information could be found regarding the tomb or the tomb’s owner himself (there is also some confusion whether he lived in the 26th or 30th dynasty). However, solely based on the position of the tomb and its close proximity to the pyramid of a king, Padipepet must have enjoyed a high position in society. It appears that the funerary figurines were sold as tourist souvenirs soon after the discovery of the tomb.

Geraldine says: “I selected this object not only because of its aesthetic values but because of the possibilities encapsulated within the few lines of text engraved on it. Such inscriptions often contain the name of the deceased and their affiliation such as their mother or father’s names. By acquiring these, one may possibly locate the tomb where the statuette originally came from and retrace the biography of the object; which is rare. It may also give an indication as to the date when the object was made.  Luckily, the statuette in the Tunbridge Wells Museum is well preserved and the hieroglyphs still legible which made the translation quite fun”.

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