The mystery of the modern shabtis

As part of National Museums Scotland’s national programme review of ancient Egyptian collections in Scotland we have noticed a bit of a trend.

At each museum we have visited and collection we have looked at, we have seen the same object; a shabti. Ancient mass manufacture means that similar objects can end up in different museums but these shabtis are different, they are closer to 150 years old rather than 2500 years old…

During the late 1800s many people became increasingly excited by the idea of travelling to Egypt. Europe’s colonial powers were involved in a scramble for antiquities, each wishing to own its own share of the ancient world to display in its museums and public spaces. The public decipherment of hieroglyphs in 1822 only added to this enthusiasm.

This in turn encouraged more people to add Egypt to their travel wish-list. The advent of the package holiday, introduced by Thomas Cook & Son in the late 1860s meant that hundreds of tourists could now visit Egypt and marvel at the Pyramids, Sphinx and temples in comfort.

Holiday-makers visiting Egypt in the 1890s and 1900s were not too different from those jetting off to the sun in the 1990s or 2000s. Both wanted to enjoy change of scenery, perhaps some sun and wanted something to remember their journey with. However, these early travellers brought back souvenirs that were a lot more unusual than Mickey Mouse ears and a straw donkey.

What those Victorian and Edwardian travellers wanted to bring back to Scotland was not just a genuine example of the ancient past but one that would fit inside their luggage! Small, portable antiquities became common mementos and have subsequently ended up in museums across the country. One particularly popular object type was the shabti- these small human shaped figurines that were buried with an individual to act as their substitute in the afterlife. Though they began as single examples within a burial, their number later ballooned to over 365 smaller shabtis per person (one for each day of the year) – this made them the perfect object to sell to an excitable tourist.

Mass-produced ancient Egyptian shabtis. Museum reference: A.1956.286 B-Q

This is where the mystery shabtis come into the frame. Most people looking to buy a shabti would not have seen or examined hundreds of shabtis, nor were they likely to be literate in hieroglyphs so they would not have been able to tell if they were ancient or not.

There are three key features that mark them out as modern:

1. The material and tool marks used to make them are inconsistent with ancient examples. However, using moulds to make multiple copies of the same is a method shared by the ancient Egyptians and the makers of these modern examples.

Shabti in the collections of ANGUSalive (Montrose Museum) with a nonsensical inscription

2. The inscriptions are gobbledygook. Ancient shabti inscriptions vary over time; commonly they simply include the name and titles of the individual. If there was more space they were inscribed with a spell which calls for the shabti to do the work of the owner in the afterlife. There are real hieroglyphs in the gibberish inscriptions but they make no sense at all.

Left: The cartouche of Thutmose III. Right: cartouche on a shabti in the collection of East Ayrshire Leisure.

3. The odd addition of the cartouche of a king. In the middle of the chest of these examples is the name Menkheperre, one of the names of King Thutmose III. Royals also had shabtis but the style and material of these are far from those of the time in which King Thutmose II lived.

These shabtis may be modern, but they occupy a special place in the history of the public engagement with ancient Egypt. They show how travellers to Egypt during the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw as a valuable memento of the culture of ancient Egypt. The combination of features also reveals a lot about what makes a shabti to the eyes of the maker and buyer, even more so what makes it valuable. Clearly a good amount of text and the cartouche add to this value and likely contributed to their apparent popularity.

Four of the six modern shabtis identified so far. Left: One shabti from collection of Culture Perth and Kinross. Right: Three shabtis from collection of East Ayrshire Leisure.

When I started writing this blogpost, the collections review had identified six modern shabtis which share similar characteristics. Some of them may even be from the same maker or even the same mould! Since then, I have seen even more, modern shabtis like this and more that were made to look like other kinds of ancient figures.

From now until March 2020, we are undertaking national collection reviews of ancient Egyptian and East Asian collections across Scotland as part of the Ancient Egypt and East Asia National Programme.  This work is supported by The Collections Fund – delivered by the Museums Association. Thank you to ANGUSalive, East Ayrshire Leisure, Culture Perth & Kinross and Live Borders for sharing your collections with us. 

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