Ushabti for the pharaoh Psusennes I

A solid bronze ushabti belonging to a pharaoh and forming part of his funerary goods. The figure is wearing a tripartite wig. Only the hands, crossed over the chest, protrude from his mummiform shroud. These are holding two hoes, indicating the agricultural work that he will be called on to carry out in the Other World.

There is a vertical register of hieroglyphics running down the front of the piece. The inscription translates as: “The Osiris, king Pasebajaenniut- meryamon (The star which appears in the city of Thebes, beloved of Amun - Psusennes I).”

The use of bronze for the production of ushabtis began in the middle years of Dynasty XVIII, during the reign of Thutmose III, in the funerary goods of prominent figures buried in the Saqqara necropolis. The technique continued to be used for important figures during the reigns of Tutankhamun and Horemheb, such as the example of Hesmeref (Gulbenkian Foundation Lisbon n. 166). Later, other examples were found for the pharaohs Ramesses II (only one), and for Ramesses III (five known examples). Even so, very few examples have been found of bronze ushabtis in Egyptian history. The only pharaoh of whom we know that his ushabtis were of bronze was Psusennes I. Those of his sister and wife, Queen Mutnodjmet, and the general Wendjebauendjed were also of this metal.

Pharaoh Psusennes lived during Dynasty XXI and had a long reign of at least 41 years. It is believed that it may have been ten years longer.

The archaeologist Pierre Montet discovered his intact tomb in 1940 in the royal necropolis of Tanis, near the great temple of Amon in the Nile delta. It contained an extraordinary collection of receptacles in gold and silver as well as jewellery. The funerary mask of the pharaoh in solid gold is of great note.

The tomb also contained the remains of his wife and queen, Mutnedjmet, and this tomb was later reused by his successor, Amenemope. It contained treasures, although these were less impressive. The bodies of Psusennes’ son, Ankhefenmut, and of his archery general, the great dignitary Wendjebauendjed, were also discovered. The latter had the honour of being buried alongside his sovereign. The tomb of the pharaoh Osorkon II was also discovered in this same complex.

This was the most important discovery of royal tombs since the discovery of that of Tutankhamun.

The Egyptian Afterlife was understood as a mirror of the real world, where both good and evil had their place. Those who were unfair or evil were punished for eternity, while the just enjoyed a comfortable existence travelling with the solar god. Even then, the deceased who were so blessed were still obliged to fulfil human responsibilities and needs, in the same way they had to in life. Their need to have food and drink in the Afterlife was a constant worry for them. If they were obliged to work in the Fields of Aaru, in the Realm of the Dead, and as members of a society which was a hierarchy governed by the gods, everyone – men and women, lords and servants, kings and queens – had to be willing to cultivate, sow and harvest the crops.

In the world of the living these basic tasks of production were carried out by the lower classes in society. To avoid this fate, Egyptians looked for a magic solution: they created one or more figures of themselves to be able to hand over to the emissaries of the reigning god, Osiris, when these called on the deceased to fulfil his obligations. These statuettes, placed amongst the grave goods in the tomb, were images which represented both the master and the servant.

They are known by the name of ushabtis, the term coming from sabty or shabty, derived from Sawab, the meaning of which corresponds to the Greek word “persea”, a sacred tree from whose wood the ancient Egyptians began to produce these funerary effigies. It was towards the Third Intermediate Period, in Dynasty XXI, around 1080 BC when they began to use the term wsbty, that is, “ushebty”. From then on the name “ushabti” derived from the verb wsb meaning “to answer” was used to name “he who answers”.

The use of ushabtis was incorporated into the burials in Ancient Egypt from the First Intermediate Period on. Their use grew during the Middle Kingdom, the time when the Egyptians began to write a spell in the Coffin Texts, number 472, so that the ushabtis would answer to the call: “The justified N. says ‘Oh ushabti, allotted to N, if N is summoned to do any work, or if a disagreeable task was asked of N as for any man for his duty, you are to say ‘I am here’. If N is called to watch over those who work there, ploughing the new fields to break the earth, or to ferry sand in a boat from east to west, you will say ‘I am here’. The justified N.”

This spell or utterance went on to be inscribed on ushabtis, and so in most cases, it appears there engraved. From the New Kingdom on, a great number of innovations were introduced. Examples with texts started to proliferate. Some of these were somewhat longer texts from Chapter VI in the Book of the Dead. Even so, in many cases the text simply indicates the name of the deceased, or a basic utterance, with the name of a family member or the posts that he held.

Ushabtis at first were made above all from wax, later from wood, and then towards the end of the Middle Kingdom they appeared in stone. From the New Kingdom on, the material par excellence was faience. We know they were produced in multiples thanks to moulds which have been preserved, and where in some cases, the engraved texts were unfinished, as the name of the owner was missing. The most popular form was that of the mummy until the introduction, towards the end of Dynasty XVIII, of figures decorated with everyday clothing. Many carried implements to work in the fields, such as a basket, a hoe or a pick, as a reference to the task to be carried out which was awaiting them in the Afterlife, as the symbolic representation of their master. The iconography, texts, materials, colours and their placing in the tomb could suggest other symbolic meanings.

Sometimes they were placed in wooden boxes, which could be either simple ones or with sophisticated decoration. In the New Kingdom they came to be placed in miniature sarcophagi.

While at first they were considered to be replicas of the deceased, in the New Kingdom and later, the ushabtis came to be seen as servants or a manner of slave, and for this reason they were produced en masse. There were both women and men, including specialists in different activities. Sometimes they were under the supervision of overseers, and these were distinguished by the use of a kilt. This is the case for the pharaoh Tutankhamun: he had three hundred and sixty five ushabtis at his command, one for each day of the year; thirty six overseers, one for each team of ten workers; and twelve master overseers, one for each month of the year. This came to a total of four hundred and thirteen servants in the Otherworld. The fear of having to carry out these tasks demanded of the dead by Osiris meant that in some burials there were even ushabtis who were there to act as substitutes or stand-ins, if necessary, for the main ones.

It is logical to think that no pharaoh would have wanted to carry out this type of task personally, and so at the necessary moment the utterance written on the body of the ushabti was read out so that this object acquired life to answer to the call, substituting for the pharaoh in the work.


- AUBERT, Jacques F. y AUBERT, Liliane. Statuettes égyptiennes, Chaouabtis, ouchebtis. Paris. 1974. p. 150-156.
- AUBERT, Jacques F. y AUBERT, Liliane. Bronzes et or égyptien. Paris. 2001. p. 115; p. 428, pl. 12.
- CLAYTON, Peter A. "Two Ancient Egyptian Bronze Royal Shawabti Figures", The Antiquaries Journal 50. London. 1970. p. 347-348.
- CLAYTON, Peter A. "Royal Bronze Shawabti Figures", Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 58 .London. 1972. p. 167-175.
- HAYEZ, Valerie. Use of Micro-Raman Spectroscopy for the Study of the Atmospheric Corrosion of Copper Alloys of Cultural Heritage. Brussels. 2006. p. 246-248.
- MONTET, Pierre. Les constructions et le tombeau de Psousennès à Tanis. Fouilles de Tanis; La nécropole royale de Tanis, tome 2. Paris. 1951. p. 94, n. 333, pl. LXIII.
- SCHNEIDER, Hans D. Shabtis. An Introduction to the History of Ancient Egyptian Funerary Statuettes with a Catalogue of the Collection of Shabtis in the National Museum of Antiquities at Leiden. Leiden. 1977. n. -
- SCHLÖGL, Hermann y BRODBECK, Andreas. Ägyptische Totenfiguren aus öffentlichen und privaten Sammlungen der Schweiz. Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis, Series Archeologica, 7. Göttingen, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. Freiburg Schweiz, Universitätsverlag. 1990. p. 208-209.

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