It is believed that Shabti figures developed from the servant figures common in tombs of the Middle Kingdom. They were shown mummified, like the deceased, with their own coffin and were inscribed with a spell to provide food for their master or mistress in the afterlife.
From the New Kingdom (circa 1550-1070 B.C.) onwards, it was believed the deceased would live for eternity in the ‘Field of Reeds’, and so they were expected to assist with its’ maintenance. Such work included agricultural labours, ploughing, sowing, and reaping the crops. Understandably, the deceased were keen not to personally undertake this work throughout eternity, so the Shabti figure was created as a servant that would carry out heavy work on their behalf. The mummiform figures held agricultural implements such as hoes. To ensure the deceased would not be called upon for manual labor, the Shabti’s were inscribed with a spell which ensured they answered when the deceased was called to work – hence the name ‘Shabti’ (meaning ‘answerer’).
From the end of the New Kingdom, anyone who could afford to do so might have a total of 401 figures – one for every day of the year, with an overseer figure for each group of ten labourers. Many individuals had several sets. These vast collections were often of extremely poor quality, uninscribed and made of mud rather than faïence, which had been often used in the New Kingdom.
AN EGYPTIAN PALE AZURE GLAZED FAÏENCE SHABTI, Late Period, Circa 600-300 B.C., 12.5cm