Working for the Man in the Afterlife

By David Parkhill Assistant Collection Manager, Queensland Museum South Bank

The Queensland Museum holds twenty shabti, or shabti related objects in its Archaeology collection.  Here is a closer look at one of them.

The afterlife

Ancient Egyptians, along with many other cultures, held a strong belief in the afterlife.  Also in keeping with other civilisations, they would include grave goods such as perfume bottles or cooking pots in with the burial.  However, the Egyptians, realising that to continue enjoying their earthly standard of living in the afterlife, believed it would also be necessary to uphold their agricultural practices.  In order to relieve the deceased of this duty, figurines, known as shabtis, were included in the tomb, along with the deceased, to carry out these tasks.

I have the power

In order for the shabti to accomplish the tasks required, “magical” text would be written on each  figurine.  Queensland Museum has a very nice example of a shabti with such text on the front and wrapping around both sides – in the form of hieroglyphs.  Object E40224 (pictured below), was made around the 26th to 27th Dynasty (7th and 4th century BCE (Before Common Era)) for an important Egyptian Official of the Pharaoh, and, made from faience, a type of glazed ceramic, and stands approximately 240mm tall.  The magical text or spell that would galvanise the figurine into carrying out their responsibilities has been translated and reads:

1. The Illuminated One, the Osiris, the Royal (titles and names obscured) born of

2. Nefernub, he says: O! these ushabtis, if

3. one counts off the Osiris, justified to do all of the work which is done there in necropolis/god’s land-

4. Now indeed obstacles are implanted therewith – as a man at

5. his duties “here I am” you (shall say)

6. (you are counted from off at any time to serve there to make arable the land/fields)

7. to irrigate the land/fields, to transport by boat the sand

8. of the West to the East and vice versa9. “here I am” you shall say.

Give me the tools

However, not even statutes imbued with magical powers are able to work without tools, and the British Museum holds a collection of miniature bronze tools, such as hoes and baskets, found in one of the tombs at Abydos.  These tools were to be used by the shabti in the afterlife.  The usual practice was to depict the figurine holding the necessary implements. 

As you can see in the photos below, Queensland Museum example can clearly be seen holding farming implements.  Of course, if one has shabti to carry out the manual work, it stands to reason that there would be need of a foreman or supervisor, to ensure the work was carried out in a timely manner.  To this end, some shabtis held the position of overseer, and were depicted carrying a whip, no doubt to spur on the labourer shabti, mirroring the agricultural practices of the living. It seemed even in the afterlife, some people have to do all the heavy lifting!

You can explore Queensland Museum’s shabti collection by visiting our Collections Online website.