Amarna Shabtis

Oct 2015

Artículo publicado en la revista Ancient Egypt, Vol. 13/2 issue 74 October / November 2012 con el título «Amarna Shabtis. Remains of the Osirian ritual during the reign of Akhenaten».


Amarna shabtis04_nacho-aresAs Flinders Petrie recognized ‘funerary statuettes are the commonest of antiquities from Egypt’. The huge number of shabtis conserved in museums and private collections allows us a broad field to research in. If we reduce our field of research on the Heresy of Akhenaten, shabtis also offer a possibility to improve the little-known mortuary ritual and equipment of the Amarnian period.
These funerary statuettes were made ​​of faience, ceramic, stone or wood, among other materials and are absolutely linked to the cult of Osiris. Actually, they are a sort of ‘replicas’ of the God of the Dead himself.
Many references affirm that there was an interruption of traditional gods in the Amarna era and really there was. Osiris, the West, and the Nighttime were concepts that negated the light of the Aten, the new religion. At first sight, the production of shabtis during the reign of Akhenaten is a paradox or contradiction to the new believes.

Origin of funerary Statuettes

Role played by shabtis as servants in the Netherworld starts in Old Kingdom. But the first examples with the Shabti Spell date back to the XIIth dynasty in order to replace the deceased in any task to take on at the kingdom of Osiris.
Ancient Egyptians called shauabtis, shabtis or ushabtis to the funerary statuettes depending on the historical period they belonged. Apparently the first two names –shabtis and shauabtis– are linked to Swb (‘wood of persea-tree’), perhaps a reference to the material employed to make them, and SAbw (‘food’), surely connected to the idea of a ‘procurer of food’. The last name, ushebti, comes from wSb, ‘to answer’, a meaning joined to the functionality of the object.
Both meanings, ‘food’ and ‘to answer’, are connected to the work the deceased expected from the ‘servant’ in the Underworld. On one hand, he expected a worker that would procure water and provisions of any kind laboring in the holy fields of Osiris. On the other hand, a servant would answer any order that the owner, the new Osiris, could receive to take on hand-works from the Netherworld.
These roles are perfectly explained in the Chapter VI of the Book of Coming Forth by Day (the Book of the Dead), the main formula that shabtis largely bore before, in and after the New Kingdom. The reference to Osiris and the suggestion of working in his reign is clear: O, this/these shabti(s), if one counts, if one reckons the Osiris N (Title and Name of the deceased), to do all the works which are wont to be done there in the God’s land (…).
We can distinguish two types of workers. There are simple workers, equipped with hoes and baskets ready to do the work in the fields of the Netherworld. There is also a group, lower in number, consisting in overseers or reis.
Materials employed to make funerary statuettes in the Heresy are the same we find before and after the reign of Akhenaten. Royal shabtis are made of calcite, faience, limestone, granite, quartzite, and sandstone. We have no examples on wood but this material is detected in private shabtis, and ivory, bronze, serpentine, and black limestone as well.
Funerary statuettes can be classified following different topics. There is no one unique design but a multiplicity of combined elements. Variants are numerous. Next pages describe the elements that outline a shabti during the Amarna period. All of them can be combined in many ways. Only texts inscribed on funerary figurines can give us a different and exclusive factor of cataloguing.

Typology of Amarna shabtis

Amarna shabtis are conventional in size (10-25 cm) and shape. They have identical elements to those found before the rise of Akhenaten asAmarna shabtis05_nacho-ares well. The mummiform figure is the main element that reminds us once again the association with Osiris: arms folded across the chest, empty or holding tools or amulets in the hands, etc.
Amarnian typology has six head-dress styles. First are those with the nemes head-dress (nms). We also found shabtis with khat head-dress or bag-wig (xAT). Exemplars are very common with the archaic or tripartite wig, as well. The fourth and also the less common is the Nubian or ‘hair’-wig. Next style is the sophisticated wig with pointed lappets and finally we have a female wig. Royal shabtis always bear the uraeus on the forehead.
Only a few examples with daily life dress have survived. This design spreads just after the Heresy of Akhenaten but we can assume some exemplar among the last Amarnian shabtis.
Unfortunately we have not evidences of overseers. Their presence is not too large before the end of the New Kingdom. We conserve more than 200 shabtis of Akhenaten, many fragmented, but, at first sight, there are no evidences of overseers among them.
Regarding the use of the false beard secured by cord, it is reserved to royal shabtis. We have no examples among private figurines.
Finally, there is also a feature only seen in Amarnian shabtis. It is the pierced ear-lobes, a typical aspect of the iconography of Akhenaten’s new style art.

Implements and accoutrements

Tools and amulets are the feature in which the Amarna era shabtis especially highlighted. We can find not only the traditional hoes and bags, but also a worthy repertoire of amulets.
When speaking of objects we have to distinguish royal from private owners. The latter usually have both arms folded across the chest, carrying one hoe (mr) in each hand to develop the agricultural work. Some examples take amulets as the Osirian djed pillar (Dd), the Isis Knot or tit (tit), and the ankh (anx), looking for the protection of Osiris and Isis and the Eternal Life, respectively.
Akhenaten shabtis do not carry any hoe, related to Osiris, but ankhs or the regular royal emblems: crook (Hq(A)t) and flagellum (nxxw).
As an original element of this moment, we should notice that bags for seeds are duplicated and are visible not in the back, as in the common design, but in the front. Royal shabtis have no bags.

Texts: the Amarna Formula

Amarna shabtis03_nacho-aresAs Aubert stated, Amarnian funerary statuettes are easily identified by their texts, evoking the new manifestation of Re, the sun disk Aten. Then, inscriptions are very important to determine not only that an object belongs to the Amarna period but in which moment of the Heresy was made.
Firstable we have shabtis with the traditional Htp di nsw formula recorded alone or combined with the so-called Amarna Text. On the funerary statuette of the Deputy Hat, the new formula reads: “A boon which the king gives (to) the living Aten who illuminates every land with his beauty. May he give the gentle breeze of the northern wind, a long lifetime in the beautiful West, and cool water, wine, and milk upon the offering table of his tomb, for the ka of the Deputy Hat, repeating life”.
A second group is divided into exemplars with Aten-formula plus the traditional Shabti Spell, and funerary figurines with Shabti Spell or with name and titles only.
The third type is that of shabtis bearing only the name and title of the owner. The title gives us the confirmation that it belongs to the Amarna period. A classical example is Isis, Chantress of the Aten, now at the MET.
Unscribed shabtis form the fourth group. This especial kind of funerary statuettes are only linked to Amarna employing arguments based on the archaeological context. That is the case of an alleged shabti of Ay, made before his elevation to the throne, discovered in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings (KV58). This unscribed figurine of calcite fits with the time of the Heresy.
The commonest type is the group of contemporary or near contemporary shabtis with chapter VI of the Book of the Dead. The provenance of many of them is unknown but the area of Amarna has been suggested.
Finally we have royal shabtis, many of them fragmented, dedicated to Akhenaten, and only two fragments alleged to be parts of a funerary statuette of Nefertiti/Meritaten.
Akhenaten shabtis bear simply a column with the titles of the king together with one or more epithets.
All texts are always between vertical borders. There are no mentions to Osiris. There are six inscriptions with some minor variants: The King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Nefer-Kheperu-Re Wa-en-Re, Son of Re, Akhenaten, great in his lifetime / The Good Ruler, Living in Truth, Lord of the Two lands, Nefer-Kheper(u)-Re / Son of (Re), Living in Truth, Lord of Appearances, Akhenaten, True of Voice, etc.

Shabtis during Amarna period

Funerary statuettes are not outside the events experienced during the reign of Akhenaten. They show a clear key to understand what happened in the first years; especially, in all topics related to the mortuary ritual and equipment, a subject in which the lack of information is outstanding.
About 40 is the number of private examples. Some exemplars show details coming from the traditional religion. The Chantress of the Aten, Hatsheret (HAtSrt) (BM-8644), is a good example. It is thought to have been discovered in Abydos but this provenance is not clear. In any case, there are three main aspects we have to point out. The first one is the introduction of Hatsheret as ‘Osiris’ and ‘Chantress of the Aten’. This astonishing divine couple can only be seen in private funerary statuettes and in the beginning of the reign, before the prosecution of traditional gods.
The use of the Chapter VI is a new evidence of continuity of Osirian ritual, at least in private persons.
The text on the shabti of Hat (JdE 39590, unfortunately disappeared after the Egyptian Revolution) points out a new and completely different landscape for the deceased. The dark world of the West is replaced by a shining East: ‘the living Aten who illuminates every land with his beauty’, the horizon of the Aten disc.
Royal shabtis show singular features. There is not any direct mention to Osiris. The mummiform statuettes usually wear amulets in both hands, not hoes or any other implement that could be related to the work in the Netherworld. We have only some examples of the queen Tiyi, mother of Akhenaten, died and buried during the Heresy, with duplicated hoes and baskets in the front.
Examples of Akhenaten are grasping symbols as the ankh (anx), and the crook (Hq(A)t) and the flail (nxxw). He also avoids amulets related to Osiris as the djed pillar (Dd).
There are two fragments of a queen or princess, alleged to be parts of a funerary statuette of Nefertiti. It is not sure at all that both fragments belong to the same figure. In addition, the presence of royal emblems points to a pharaoh, but the text describe a woman. The only possibility in the Amarna period is Meritaten, who governed in co-regency with his father, Akhenaten, in the 17th year of his reign.
The recovery of the Osirian tradition with Tutankhamen expanded the employment of shabtis not only in the royal status but in all social classes. In the case of the Boy King, we have for the very first time a complete set of 413 shabtis. Some of them maintain the Amarna style in aspects as the frontal double bag and the ankh grasped by both hands.


The remains of the Osirian ritual during the reign of Akhenaten, not only in shabtis, are clear. Although we do not know so much of theAmarna shabtis02_nacho-ares mortuary ritual in the Amarna era, the employment of similar funerary equipments and the structure of the tomb itself, suggest that equivalent elements were used with similar meanings.
There are some features in Osiris that contradict the Aten religion. Mainly, the nighttime negated the light of the Aten. But Amarnian shabtis also point out ‘a long life in the beautiful West’, a clear remain of the old Osirian tradition.
The mummiform shape with crossed arms, is an evident continuity of the Osirian thoughts. In addition, the texts show an obvious contradiction mixing up mentions to Osiris with other inscriptions where this god is completely obliterated. Surely this is the key to separate royal from popular religion. The unique reference to the idea of the world of Osiris in the royal texts is the epithet mAa xrw, ‘True of Voice’, a formula that the deceased should pronounce during the negative confession before the judgment of the God of the Dead.
We should also add that there is in Akhenaten shabtis an element that eludes the association with Osiris. The beard we see in royal shabtis is not an upturned one, as Osiris usually wore, but a normal beard wider toward the bottom.
Emblems as the sceptre and the flail are also related to the god. Is from this very moment, that royal shabtis with nemes and khat head-dress wear the sceptre and the flail as Osirian insignias, an innovation created in the workshops of Amarna.
On the other hand, the tit and djed amulets that we find in some shabtis of Amarna are closely connected to the legend of Osiris and his regenerative power as is prescribed in the Chapters 155 and 156 of the Book of the Dead, an Osirian book also presents in the shabtis.
The problem of interpretation of these shabtis is also evident when we study the examples of Akhenaten. No one of them exhibits the characteristic features of the exaggerated phase of the Amarnian art. We assume that the funerary statuettes were made in the beginning of the reign, when the Heresy was not completely established. But actually they were used in his grave, where most of the fragments were found. Can we assume that Akhenaten was perhaps buried following the traditional ritual? Was he mummified, the most patent evidence of an Osirian ceremony?
It is strange that only shabtis of the pharaoh have survived. We have no examples of any of his daughters, some of them died before the end of his reign. If they were buried in the Amarna Royal Tomb, were all the figurines of the family destroyed?
Before and after Amarna, shabtis are Osirian, then, we assume that during the Amarna era they were as well.

(C) 2015