Object: Ushabti

Faience ushabti
XXVI Dynasty (ca. 664-525 BCE)
Materials: faience

Ushabtis, also known as shabtis or shwabtis, are small figurines usually modeled out of Egyptian faience. These figurines are associated with burials and always show a human figure wrapped as a mummy with the traditional false beard and headdress of the pharaoh and the god Osirus. The arms of the figure are crossed and when the burial in question was royal, they would carry the crook and flail signifying kingship or divinity. Ushabtis were intended to function like servants for the deceased in the afterlife. Ancient Egyptians believed that after death the soul of the individual continued to live a similar existence to that on the physical earth. In order to assure that one could have a pleasant and relaxed afterlife, free from labor and discomfort, it was necessary to bring along servants in the form of ushabtis. The ushabtis were all inscribed with a verse from Chapter 6 of the Book of the Dead which asks the ushabti to take the place of the deceased whenever he is called upon to perform any task in the afterlife.

The ushabti in the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History is made of green Egyptian faience. Faience is a type of fired ceramic with a tin glaze, that was common in the Middle East and Europe. Unlike traditional faience, Egyptian faience is made by heating a mixture of sand and minerals. This mixture, when heated would essentially melt together into a solid stone-like material with a glassy finish. By combining different types and quantities of minerals different colors could be created.

A preliminary examination of the inscription on this ushabti indicates that this figurine belonged to a person named Ptah-ir-dy-es, and the museum’s records indicate that the figure dates from the XXVI Dynasty. The XXVI Dynasty, often called the Saite Dynasty, once again united both Upper and Lower Egypt under one king following the Third Intermediate Period. It begins just after the Assyrian invasion of Egypt and is brought to an end by the Persian invasion. This dynasty represents the end of native rule in ancient Egypt, as the power of kingship passed to their southern Kushite neighbors.

For more information on Egyptian funerary customs and grave materials see:

El-Shahawy, Abeer. The Funerary Art of Ancient Egypt: A Bridge to the Realm of the Hereafter. Cairo: Farid Atiya Press, 2005.

Smith, William S., and William K. Simpson. The Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

For more information on the XXVI Dynasty see:

Welsby, D.A. The Kingdom of Kush: The Napatan and Meroitic Empires. London: British Museum Press, 1996. [Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]


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Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.


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