My work with the Eton Myers collection has been brief and is sadly already over. I wish I could stay longer and learn more about this beautiful collection, but at least I’m ending on a high note, getting to write a short paper on one of the more special items of the collection: the shabti of Horwedja. This paper will be published online as part of the material for an exhibition later this year – at which point I will naturally share the link here.
In the meantime though, I thought I would tell you a little of what I’ve learned about shabtis in general, this particular shabti as well as something about collecting and souvenirs of yesteryear. This shabti was collected in a most Indiana Jones like fashion during the late 1800s (or River Song like fashion, if like me you’re more of a Doctor Who fan). 399 in total, these shabtis were excavated by self-taught egyptologist Flinders Petrie in the tomb of the priest Horwedja at Hawara, near Faiyum (where he also found several of the famous mummy portraits in encaustic painting). He had to partly submerge himself in water and pick these mummiform shabtis up with his feet while, according to his journals, skulls of the mummies bobbed on the water.
Shabtis started out as maybe one or two sculptures, often made of wood, placed in the tomb of a wealthier person. They were meant to take on the labour of the deceased in the afterlife. This evolved over time into a system that got more and more elaborate. The ideal number of shabtis in a tomb increased and ended up being 401: one worker for each day of the year and one overseer/workleader (characterised by his tool being a whip) for every 10 workers. This shabti is part of one of these large, late groups of shabtis and is special because these generally tend to be less detailed and well made simply due to the large number of sculptures needed. To do his work in the field, he carries a mattock, a hoe and a grain basket.
The lower half of the shabti carries the shabti spell, which was meant to activate the shabti when the time came. The words “‘Here I am’, you shall say” are part of this spell, telling the shabti what he should answer when work is required of the person he is supposed to do the work for.
Shabtis were generally popular souvenirs for both collectors and tourists in the early days of excavations in Egypt – mainly because of their practical size, the large numbers in which they exist and their appearance, which is quintessentially has the connotations of everything we think of as Egyptian. While this particular shabti is faded due to the water in the tomb, the Egyptian blue faience which it is made of is a common material for the shabti collections. Shabtis are most often mummiform in shape, something also very intimately linked with ancient Egypt and our picture of it. Then the fact that there are hieroglyphics (the shabti spell) on this mummiform, Egyptian blue, suitably small object is just what ties it all together, really. The fact that shabtis were so popular also means, though, that they were among the first kinds of objects to be forged, even as early as in the 17th century.