image preview

Creation Date

Presumably from the Third Intermediate Period (1069–644 BCE)








2 5/16 x 11/16 in ( 5.9 x 1.7 cm )

Credit Line

Bequest of David P. Harris ('46), 2020

Accession Number





Details and surface are worn. Blue faience color has worn down to a tealish green color, the stone underneath is visible.


Shabtis (or shawabti, ushabti) are small carved or molded human figures from Ancient Egypt. The word from the New Kingdom “shebti” means to replace, and “ushebti” means answerer (Milde 2012). Shabtis are meant to conduct a deceased person’s labor in the afterlife, where the gods demand agriculture and irrigation-based work (Pinch 1994: 157–8). These figures appeared as early as the 21st century BCE and remained prevalent into the Ptolemaic Period (323–30 BCE), although their materials and associations changed over time (Pinch 1994: 97-98). The earliest shabtis were made from wax, mud, or dough and over time began to be made from wood, stone, or clay. (Milde 2012). Later shabtis were covered in a ceramic glaze called faience, its color ranging from blue to green. Faience is a ceramic glaze made from silica and alkaline salts, its bright blue color is iconic in Ancient Egypt (Riccardelli 2017). Faience pieces contain two parts, an inner core and an outer glaze (Riccardelli 2017). In the New Kingdom (1550–1069 BCE), shabtis were made from wood, stone, or faience (Smith 1960: 126). Those made of stone were reserved for the wealthy and noble, while materials like wood or faience were generally cheap and produced more widely (Smith 1960: 126).

These shabtis were believed to conduct labor within the Field of Reeds or Field of Turquoise, an idealized version of the Egyptian countryside that aimed to resume human activities (Pinch 1994: 157–8). While the pharaoh required agricultural labor on earth, the gods demanded the same in the afterlife (Pinch 1994: 157–8). Upon a person’s death, a “shabti spell” was required to spare the individual from their labor-related responsibilities, substituting the deceased for the shabti (Pinch 1994: 157–8).

Shabtis depicted small figures holding agricultural tools, a head with a wig protruding, and an inarticulate body (Quirke 2001). High numbers of shabtis were deposited in each grave during the New Kingdom, some placed within their own box or small sarcophagi made of wood, plaster, or stone (Howley, 2020).

Shabtis represent several perspectives and aspects of Egyptian culture, whether through cultural burial practices, religious beliefs, or economic status. Both poor and rich individuals were buried with some form of shabti, varying in size, number, and material. However, their cultural, ritual, and religious significance remain the same.

Our shabti is made of teal or green faience. The core is porous and is commonly made from angular quartz grains held together by a small amount of soda-lime-silicate glass (Riccardelli 2017). It is unclear whether it was done in the traditional and distinctive blue faience and eroded down into a green color, or if it had originally been done in green, as both colors were common during this period.

Our shabti, measuring just 5.9 cm, is represented with two crossed arms, a wig, and maintains an inarticulate body. At one point, agricultural tools may have been carved or painted onto the figure, however, it has been worn away over time. Comparing it to several shabtis from both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The British Museum, we can see that it is most similar to the faience shabtis from the Third Intermediate Period (1069–644 BCE) made from blue faience and measuring 4–7 cm. This Faience Ushabti (74.51.4495) at the Met, dated to 1090–900 BCE, appears to be the closest comparison, maintaining a similar surface texture and color, with a comparable height of 7.3 cm. However, I have found several shabtis from the fifth through the third centuries BCE that feature similar shapes, sizes, and colors.

Upon examining the shabti, I questioned whether it was an overseer type. These “overseers” would be placed within a tomb alongside several standard shabtis. The role of these overseers was to maintain control and direct the shabtis during their labor. They are recognizable by the one arm placed over the chest, and the other extended outward holding a whip to demonstrate their authority (Milde 2012). Generally, one overseer would be placed within a tomb for every 10–20 shabtis (Milde 2012). It is clear that our shabti would not have been an overseer. After examining the left side of the body — what I previously thought may be a break — I realized that the faience still remained on the worn surface where the break would have occurred. Since faience glaze would have been applied after the stone carving of the shabti, a break would have to be indicated by an absence of faience color.

Due to the condition and nature of our shabti in the Blick-Harris Study Collection, it is difficult to determine what its origin and significance would have been to the person who owned it. While we may be able to identify some key characteristics based on its material and shape, it is hard to pick out key defining characteristics. Without key information such as its provenance and findspot, these details become obscure. Artifacts such as these emphasize the importance of archaeological work and preventing the removal and exchange of looted/unprovenanced materials.

Some comparable faience shabtis:

Faience Ushebti, Third Intermediate Period, 1090–900 BCE. Materials, 7.3 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 74.51.4495

Overseer Shabti of Nauny, Third Intermediate Period, 1050 BCE, 9.5 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art,

Shabti-box, Third Intermediate Period, 1069-664 BCE. The British Museum, EA8525

Shabti, 30th Dynasty, 380-343 BCE, 5.25 cm. The British Museum, EA21754

Shabti, 30th Dynasty, 380-343 BCE, 4.29 cm. The British Museum, EA21744

Sources Consulted

Howley, Kathryn E. 2020. “The materiality of shabtis: Figurines over four millennia.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 30, no. 1: 123–140.

Milde, Henk. 2012. “Shabtis.” UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, edited by Willeke Wendrich. Los Angeles: University of California Los Angeles.

Pinch, Geraldine. 1994. Magic in Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press.

Smith, William S. 1960. Ancient Egypt. Boston, T.O. Metcalf Co., 1960.

Quirke, Stephen. 2001. “Shabtis.” Digital Egypt for Universities. University College London.

Riccardelli, Carolyn. 2017. “Egyptian Faience: Technology and Production.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.

2020.237b.JPG (4359 kB)
Reverse view

2020.237c.JPG (4686 kB)
Side view

2020.237d.JPG (4826 kB)
Side view