Egyptian Ushabti Figurines

Egyptian Ushabti Figurines
Alternative Title
Ushabti, Shabti
Ushabtis were created to spare ancient Egyptians from menial labor in the afterlife. They were buried with their owners with the intent that they would come forth when called upon and labor on behalf of the deceased.

A chapter of the Egyptian Book of the Dead deals with this necessity, instructing the ushabti as follows:

"Oh ushabti, if [name of the deceased] should be summoned to do any work which has to be done in the realm of the dead - to make arable the fields, to irrigate the land or to convey sand from east to west - 'Here am I,' you shall say, 'I will do it.'"

An ushabti usually takes the form of a mummy, with its arms wrapped tightly against its body, but with its hands protruding from the wrappings so they could hold various objects associated with its labors. Each Ushabti served for one day out of the year, so it was common for around 360 to be found in a tomb. Ushabtis were made of many materials, but the favorite was faience, a compound of crushed quarts and lime, covered with a glaze. Most ushabtis were blue or green. Colors were of great religious significance to the Egyptians: "Blue, for example, refer to life symbolized by the river Nile and heaven. On the other hand, the green could exemplify vegetation's cycle, and consequently, revival and regeneration" (Khedr).

We have two original ushabtis in our collection.

1. Ptolemaic Period, ca. 200 BC. Of turquoise-blue faience.

This exceptionally fine example has a beautiful face with lovely almond-shaped eyes. His ears, wig, and false beard are all carefully rendered. He is depicted with traditional Egyptian agricultural implements. In his right hand he holds the ancient A-shaped hoe and a rope running over his shoulder to the seed-sack. In his left hand he grasps a "sulk", a tool similar to the mattock or pick-axe, and an odd tool consisting of several balls tied on strings, shown by five incised circles. The single column of incised hieroglyphs in front give the name of the owner as "General (Overseer of the Army) Pa-di-Her-em-heb to whom Aset-her ti (his mother) gave birth".

2. Late Period, ca. 747 - 332 B.C. Of blue faience.

The brown colors are mineral encrustations resulting from having been buried for more than two thousand years. The hieroglyphic inscription names the ushabti's owner as Nes-Min. It reads, "May he be illuinated, the Osiris, Nes-Min, the true of voice". Osiris was the god of the underworld. Being pronounced "true of voice" was like being described as being "pure of heart".

The larger figurine is not an ancient artifact but a modern plaster copy. It more clearly shows the hieroglyphic inscription and other details.

Khedr, Amal, Hamada Sadek, Olodia Aied Nassef, Mahmoud Abdelhamid, and Mohamed Abdel Harith. “Discrimination between the Authentic and Fake Egyptian Funerary Figurines ‘Ushabtis’ via Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy.” Journal of Cultural Heritage 40 (November 1, 2019): 25–33. doi:10.1016/j.culher.2019.05.006.
Date Created
747-332 B.C. (blue), 200 B.C. (turquoise-blue), and 21st Century AD (facsimile)
Collecting Areas
English History of Writing Collection
Faience (originals), plaster (facsimile)
200 BC figurine was purchased from the Artemis Gallery. Ex-Graham Collection (famous British Port Merchants), ex-Charles Ede Gallery, Longon, ex-private Denver, Co collection.

Item sets