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One of the most interesting and collectable artifacts from ancient Egypt is the ushabti, the magical statue found in tombs. Magic played an important role in the daily life of the ancient Egyptians. Part of their magic was the belief that amulets and statues would protect them from perils, both real and imagined, in their daily lives and in the next world.
During Egypt’s Middle Kingdom period, small statues began to be placed in the tombs of the deceased. These statues were intended to be servants which would magically come to life, and do any unpleasant chore the deceased might be called upon to perform in the afterlife.
Because the daily life of ancient Egyptians centered around agriculture, they viewed the next world as primarily agrarian. They believed that the deceased would have to plant the fields and maintain irrigation canals, so the little statues, buried in the tombs, took on the appearance of field workers. They were mummiform, so as to be identified with Osiris, the god of the dead, but their hands were protruding from the bandages so they could do the work.
At first, the statues were inscribed with only the name of the deceased, but soon they were inscribed with magical spells as well to assure that they could really come alive to do their chores. A typical spell would be:
"O shawabti, if the deceased is called upon to do work in the next world, answer "Here I am!" Plough the fields, fill the canals with water and carry the sand of the east to the west."
The word "shawabti" apparently referred to the persea-tree out of which these figures were occasionally made. Another name for them was "usabti" which meant "answerer". The idea was that when the deceased was called to work, the figure would answer for him. The statues are called by both names today.
Since ushabtis were provided to do the work, it became desirable to have many of them. During the New Kingdom it was common to have hundreds placed in the more elaborate tombs.
Because the number of ushabtis found in tombs is often nearly 365, it is believed by many that the Egyptians intended that there be one for each day of the year. There is no actual evidence for this, and in fact the number found is rarely exactly 365. The pharaoh Taharqa had more than one thousand ushabtis, each one beautifully carved from stone.
Ushabtis varied considerably in size and materials, depending upon the wealth of the deceased. They were usually made of faience, although some were made of terracotta, wood or stone.
Faience, a paste made from ground quartz or of sand with a high percentage of quartz, was one of the most commonly used materials in producing ushabtis. The faience paste was pressed into molds and then fired. When baked, the glaze would migrate to the outside producing a smooth glassy surface. The quality and the color of the glaze depended on the impurities in the paste. Faience ushabtis range in color from a bright dark blue to various shades of turquoise and pale green.
Faience ushabtis were produced in all sizes and in varying shapes. The poorest quality were small, uninscribed and with minimal features.
Sometimes the faces and inscriptions were added with black ink. As the cost of the figure increased, so too did the quality of workmanship and the fineness of detail. On the backs of the more detailed figures are sacks, (usually identified by crosshatching on the left shoulder) that represent seed packs for planting in the fields.
Sometimes the hoes, held close to the chest are protruding from each hand. The better quality statues were usually larger, with inscriptions on the front and back. If a complete spell was not included on the ushabti, it was customary to identify the deceased with Osiris by inscribing the name of the deceased along with that if Osiris on each ushabti.
For collectors interested in Egyptian artifacts, ushabtis offer an interesting and affordable possibility. They are available in all prices, some with clear features and translatable inscriptions. Ushabtis are an art form that is purely Egyptian, remaining unchanged in both purpose and form for over 2,000 years.
Article written by Pat Remler in association with Sadigh Gallery Ancient Art, Inc. For more information regarding Egyptian artifacts, please visit www.sadighgallery.com