Shawabtis, servant figures and models To Sikait-Zubara (Archaeology of Ancient Egypt)

Shawabtis, servant figures and models

Servant figures

Servant statues are customarily interpreted as representations of the workers on a nobleman’s estate. The models recreate a rich illustration of ancient Egyptian domestic life. They were placed in tombs with the belief that they would magically be recreated in the next world, where they would continue their work in the same capacity that they had in this world.

Servant statues are in many ways three-dimensional versions of the two-dimensional relief scenes depicted on tomb walls. Parallels for all the activities performed by the statuettes can be found in the reliefs, illustrating that the statuettes were not meant to be a replacement for the relief scenes, but rather supplemental to the reliefs. Just like the two-dimensional representations, they were placed in the tombs of non-royal officials but were not found in royal tombs.

In a few instances, names and titles were inscribed on servant statues. They suggest a more complex interpretation of their function. Those which carry more than the personal name bear titles which name the statuette as son, daughter or "soul-priest" of the deceased. Therefore, some Egyptologists suggest that the inscriptions indicate that the statuettes represent the relatives or priests who were responsible for bringing the funerary offerings to the deceased. The inscribed pieces never bear the title or the actual profession of the person represented.

A type of servant statue possibly appeared in Predynastic burials, in the form of crudely made human figures of ivory or clay. These figures give way to limestone statues in the 4th Dynasty. At this time they are depicted in the form of servants engaged in their daily tasks. They mainly occur in the non-royal tombs in the cemeteries of Giza and Saqqara. At the end of the 6th Dynasty wooden statuettes become more common. Their provenance is no longer confined to the Memphite cemeteries. A further development near the end of the Old Kingdom was for separate statues to be mounted together on a single wooden base. These groups display different aspects of a single task.

In the First Intermediate Period group figures predominate, and individual servant figures now exist only when they are carrying offerings for the deceased. Workshops are represented in much greater detail at this time.

The Middle Kingdom marks the high point in the servant figure tradition. The number and variety of the models from this period are far greater than the combined total for the Old Kingdom and First Intermediate Period. The material used was usually wood. In the Old Kingdom these statues are primarily concerned with food preparation, but in the Middle Kingdom agriculture, fishing and other activities are added to the themes represented. Animated models represent the whole household of the tomb owner, including brewers, millers, dough kneaders, bakers, butchers, cooks, potters, brick makers, farmers, sailors, artisans, musicians and sometimes even military personnel. A miniature world of the whole community, including gardens, workshops, storehouses and even fleets of ships, was recreated.

One of the largest collections of Middle Kingdom wooden models ever found comes from the tomb of Djhuty-Nakht from Deir el-Bersha, now housed in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Cairo Museum. Djhuty-Nakht’s burial chamber contained more than fifty-five boats, at least thirty-three workshops, and a dozen or more individual figures carrying offerings. The majority of the scenes represent some aspect of food production, from plowing the fields to preparing bread and beer.

During the Middle Kingdom, these models have mainly been located at sites in Middle and Upper Egypt. Very few servant statuettes are seen after the first half of the 12th Dynasty. It is noteworthy that at this very time the first shawabtis (servant figures in mummiform) appear in tombs.

Statuettes were commonly placed in the serdab (statue chamber) of the tomb’s superstructure (mastaba). However, throughout the First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom, when serdabs were less popular, the servant figures were situated in or near the burial chamber. In one known instance they were placed in the fill of the burial shaft along with statues of the tomb owner. In their final development, the servant figures were placed in the burial chamber itself. One exception is the famous 11th Dynasty tomb of Meket-Re at Deir el-Bahri, where the servant figures were found in a small serdab chamber. Within the burial chamber, they were placed either in or adjacent to the sarcophagus. Sometimes servant figures were placed in a niche in the wall of the burial chamber, or even in a hole in the floor of the chamber.


It is no coincidence that when funerary statuettes disappear, shawabtis appear. Both types of statuettes were supposed to perform menial tasks of labor, and often occupy the same position in the tomb. As the ancient Egyptians were loath to eliminate any essential part of their funerary symbolism, these two types of funerary figures probably share a common origin or function. This link is further demonstrated by the rare occurrences of New Kingdom servant statues inscribed with the "Shawabti Spell" from topic 6 of the Book of the Dead.

There are major differences, however, between servant figures and shawabtis, in both form and function. The shawabti figure is mummiform and does not depict an active, living person. The type of work which is requested to be done by the shawabti is not domestic and has no relation to food preparation. Furthermore, the tasks which the shawabti perform are curiously not depicted on tomb walls.

Initially, the shawabti was a substitute for the deceased. Later it evolved into a servant of the deceased. The earliest shawabtis appear at the beginning of the Middle Kingdom. They are mummiform figures made of wax, clay or wood. Often they were placed in miniature coffins. Later shawabtis were made of wood, faience or stone. Those that were inscribed carried only the name of the deceased and occasionally also the offering formula. In the second part of the 12th Dynasty these mummiform figures begin to appear in graves, which is also when mummiform figures first appear on stelae, and coffins take an anthropoid form—reflecting changes that were taking place in the funerary ritual.

A longer text appears on shawabtis for the first time at the end of the 12th Dynasty, and the offering formula continues to be used in various longer and shorter versions until Ptolemaic times. This text is found in topic 6 of the Book of the Dead. The tasks were "to do all the works which are required in the god’s domain." In particular, they were to plow the fields, irrigate the arable land and generally maintain the irrigation system in the netherworld, a physical realm believed to be exactly like Egypt.

Royal shawabtis do not appear until the early 18th Dynasty. Prior to this they were made only for private individuals. Numerable iconographic and stylistic developments of the shawabti occurred at this time. They were now made of a wide variety of materials: wood, faience, terracotta, unbaked clay, stone, bronze and even with inlays of glass. During the reign of Tuthmose IV the agricultural implements carried by the shawabti evolved, consisting primarily of both a narrow and a broad-bladed hoe, baskets, bags, molds for brick making, whips and pots for carrying water. These model tools could be painted on, shaped in relief, or added separately.

New shawabti types developed which are unconventional and mainly seen only in the New Kingdom, such as the double shawabti, the shawabti lying on a bier and the shawabti milling grain. Some of colossal size also appear. After the Amarna period (late 18th Dynasty) shawabtis in the dress of the living are found. Instead of being mummiform, they wear elaborate, pleated linen clothing that was the fashion of the day, and some seem to be copies of full-scale statues.

In the 19th Dynasty the "overseer" figure evolves, and the dress of daily life was reserved for these shawabtis, which are modeled holding a whip. In tombs there is one shawabti overseer for every ten worker figures, based on the actual division of labor.

The number of shawabtis made for the deceased appears to vary, and most likely depended on the tomb owner’s economic status. During the late Middle Kingdom and early New Kingdom the number of shawabtis for private individuals usually did not exceed five, and in the early 19th Dynasty, ten was the maximum. Toward the end of the 18th Dynasty the ideal number of shawabtis in royal tombs was 365, one for every day in the year, plus one overseer for every ten figures (401 shawabtis total). However, a wide variety of numbers have been found in tombs, and diverse types and sizes could belong to one tomb owner. Tutankhamen’s tomb contained 417 shawabtis.

Shawabtis were stored in the tomb in a variety of ways. They could be placed in the burial chamber or in the coffin itself. In the 18th and 19th Dynasties they were kept in model coffins and shrine-shaped containers. Later in the New Kingdom, ceramic jars were also used for shawabti storage. During the Third Intermediate Period complete gangs of shawabtis were placed in large wooden boxes, which were used until the 30th Dynasty.

Great numbers of shawabtis have been found from the Third Intermediate Period, when they were mass-produced, primarily in faience with a blue-green glaze. In general, the features of these shawabtis were summarily treated and the details were enhanced with black paint.

In the 25th and and early 26th Dynasties the shawabti underwent another major transformation. A new arrangement of tools is found consisting of a pick, hoe and small seed bag suspended from a cord slung over the left shoulder. The figure takes on a new shape with a back pillar and base. Shawabtis from this period are customarily made of faience with a distinctive pale-green or blue-green glaze.

Kushite shawabtis from the first millennium BC kingdoms in Nubia have an entirely different iconography than Egyptian ones, with different tools and hairstyles. Shawabtis continue to be used in burials in the Late and Ptolemaic periods, but disappear with the onset of Roman times.


There is much evidence in ancient Egypt for the study of ships. Models of boats were made in clay, metal, ivory and wood, and the remains of real boats have been excavated. Boats are depicted in rock-art and numerous pictorial representations are found on pottery, papyri, textiles, stelae, and the walls of tombs and temples. Reliefs and wall paintings provide information about all kinds of shipbuilding and life on the Nile. There are scenes of wharfs, sailing, overseas expeditions and funeral voyages. Information is also provided by texts.

Most of what is known about ships in ancient Egypt concerns river craft, whereas information about sea-going ships is limited. Since traveling overland in Egypt was difficult, an elaborate nautical transport technology developed which used the available natural resources, such as wood and papyrus reeds. Pictorial evidence and models show both simple dug-out canoes and a great variety of rafts (or boats) made of papyrus bundles—which may also have been used for maritime shipping. In scenes, rafts of all kinds were often painted green and with the bindings typical of papyrus reed constructions. Since hunting and fowling in the marshes were favorite activities of upper class Egyptians, the archaic reed-bundle craft was used until Roman times.

The evolution of wooden plank boats is too complicated to be discussed here and is not very well understood. Many boat depictions look like wooden replicas of reed boats and indeed this may have been the process of development. Possibly wooden boats developed from dug-out constructions with added planks. The two most famous wooden boats are the "royal barks" of Khufu. One of these boats is now reconstructed in a museum next to the Great Pyramid; it is 43.3m long and is made of 1,214 pieces of wood, including planks, tenons, battens, pillars, stanchions and frames. The boat was constructed by transversely binding the planks of the hull. It may have carried the king’s mummy in the funeral procession, but there is no evidence for any other use.

Six wooden boats dating to the 12th Dynasty were found at Dahshur and are now in museums in Cairo, Chicago (Field Museum of Natural History) and Pittsburgh (Carnegie Museum). Although their exact purpose is not known, they are excellent examples of working boats and provide first-hand information about "tenon and dowel" plank construction. These boats are circa 10m long and 2.2m in beam, with planks up to 6m long. To secure the boats’ internal strength, the shipwrights used additional lashings; the three pieces of the keel plank are pieced together by dovetailed wooden clamps. Numerous funerary and cult ships were of this type, but most such boats were for ordinary travel on the Nile and on canals—to transport passengers, soldiers, officials, animals, stones, wood, craft goods and so on. Such boats were used as ferries, kitchen boats and pleasure craft; they were also used for fishing and recreational activities.

A model fleet from the tomb of Meket-Re, who was a vizier in the 11th Dynasty, consists of traveling and kitchen boats, fishing and fowling skiffs, a pair of fishing canoes, sporting boats and funerary barks. The models are with oars or sails (for traveling up or down the Nile), and lively figures of crew members have been placed in them. These models are now in Cairo and New York (Metropolitan Museum). In Tutankhamen’s tomb, a royal flotilla of thirty-five model boats of nine different types was found which represents both ceremonial boats and ones actually used on the Nile. These models, which rank among the finest ever made in antiquity, are on display in museums in Cairo and Luxor.

Many boats must have been multi-purpose crafts, but there were also many highly specialized ships or barges, such as for obelisk transport. The reconstruction of these barges presents tremendous structural problems. The Karnak obelisks are nearly 23m high and each weighs circa 186 tons. Barges used to transport them must have been about 63m long with a beam of 21m—which implies a tonnage of perhaps 1,500 tons. How these barges were built, launched and maneuvered, how the obelisks were loaded, and how the boats were towed, sailed or rowed can only be hypothesized.

Other huge ships are reported from Ptolemaic times. The writer Athenaios gives a detailed description of the thalamegos of Ptolemy IV. This ship, which was really a floating palace, must have been circa 100m long, with staircases for a two-story construction consisting of a large hall, kitchen, bedrooms, dining rooms and even a temple. Precious materials were used to make it a truly magnificent court on the Nile and it probably was never moved from its permanent mooring place.

There is much less information about Egyptian sea-going ships than for river craft. One of the earliest sources is the reliefs from the 5th Dynasty pyramid complex of Sahure at Abusir, with scenes of the return of an overseas military expedition. The hulls of these ships are long, slender and spoon-shaped; they are built of edge-joined planks with a minimum of framework. An important feature of the construction is the rope truss (or hogging) running from stem to bow, which prevented the ship, with greatly overhanging bow and stern, from breaking apart. Such a feature resembles the function of the hogging trusses on Mississippi river boats. Other sea-going ships, such as the Punt ships of Hatshepsut depicted in her temple at Deir el-Bahri, show the same rope truss to support overhanging ends. Many other details are seen in these reliefs, including foredecks and afterdecks with screens and straight stem posts decorated with carved lotus buds. These ships could be rowed by thirty rowers or sailed with one low, wide sail on a pole mast.

The so-called Sea Peoples were groups of different tribes which came to Egypt in the middle of the fourteenth century BC. Some of them worked as mercenaries, but during the reign of Ramesses III others tried to invade the country. They were defeated in a combined sea and land battle in the Nile Delta, which is depicted on the outer walls of the temple of Medinet Habu. In the reliefs two kinds of ships are seen: Egyptian and foreign (northern?). The latter are sickle-shaped and their stems are carved with heads of an Asiatic and a lion. All vessels are equipped with both oars and sails. On the pole masts there are lookout platforms which could possibly also hold a bowman. Between the fore-and aftercastles there are parapets to protect the oarsmen, which number between six and eleven on each side. This number was hardly sufficient to row a war galley, and probably represents artistic license in the details that could be depicted.

Relief of a ship from a pyramid temple of Sahure, 5th Dynasty

Figure 103 Relief of a ship from a pyramid temple of Sahure, 5th Dynasty

The Egyptians clearly loved elaborate ship decorations. Their ships are depicted with all kinds of elements, of floral, animal or human motifs, which were painted, carved or cast. A prominent feature is the "wadjet eye," a symbol of the god Horus’s eye, which represented his protective powers. It is found on the bows of many (model) ships, especially those for cult or funerary use. The "magic eye" on boats is a common symbol found on many boats in different cultures, and can be seen, for example, in China, Sri Lanka, Portugal, the Adriatic and Malta.

Another motif of great importance was the bud of the cyperus papyrus, which was used as an architectural element (for columns) as well as for nautical decoration. Many stems are shaped like papyrus buds, which give the ship an elegant and papyriform appearance. Motifs of animals, such as hedgehogs, falcons, hawks, ibex and bull heads, decorated ships. Various cult emblems and standards, and ornaments of all kinds decorated sails, oars, cabins and hulls, and emblems of the gods and the sun were used as figureheads. "Floating temples" were built for priests and royalty; one belonging to Ramesses III was supposedly 63.5m long. As houses of the gods and goddesses, these barks were lavishly carved, painted and decorated with precious stones and metals.

The great works of Egyptian shipbuilding must be regarded as part of the national identity. There are some ninety terms for ships in Egyptian (hieroglyphs). Br was a boat used for transport (also a galley, scow or freighter), and became a loanword in German (Barke) and English (bark). The names of 175 ships are known (actual ships and symbolic ones, as well as portable barks in temples). There are 126 verbs relating to naval activities—which demonstrate the rich nautical vocabulary in Egyptian.

The historical, political, economic, military and communications uses of ships are too complex to discuss here. Problems of timber supply (cedar from Lebanon, native acacia), wharf and harbor organization, administration, logistics, recruiting and wages of personnel, trade and exchange, exploration, and the types of ships used for overseas trade to Punt and Byblos, require longer studies. Nile shipping certainly dominated Egyptian mythology and religion, and funeral and cult practices; and reflects the Egyptians’ love of their water craft.


Sikait-Zubara was an emerald mining region in the southeastern desert of Egypt, centered on Gebel Sikait (24°40′ N, 34°49′ E) and Gebel Zubara (24°45′ N, 34°48′ E). In ancient times, the two principal sources of emeralds were located at Sikait-Zubara in Egypt and in the Salzburg region of Austria. In the Eastern Desert, the combination of schist and granitic fluids provided the necessary chemistry for the formation of beryl during metamorphism. The faulting that formed the Red Sea also produced the uplift of the metamorphic basement along the eastern margin of Egypt, thus creating the mountains of the Eastern Desert and revealing the emerald deposits within them.

The Sikait-Zubara mines, worked from at least the beginning of the Ptolemaic period, were the only source of emeralds for Europe, Asia and Africa then, and they continued to be exploited until at least the Middle Ages, when Arab writers document the appearance of larger, heavier stones from the Indian subcontinent. The preliminary examination of pottery from the region suggests that the mining activity covers an extremely wide chronological range, extending at the very least from the late Roman period at Wadi Gimal to the sixteenth century at Gebel Zubara. Since the rock temples at Gebel Sikait are usually assigned to the Ptolemaic period, the full period of exploitation at Sikait-Zubara must have spanned more than 1,500 years.

Several geologists and archaeologists have published accounts of their visits to the Sikait-Zubara region, particularly during the first three decades of the twentieth century. In 1994, a geological survey undertaken by Shaw, Jameson and Bunbury examined four emerald mining sites in the region in order to gain a better understanding of the changing patterns of procurement from the Ptolemaic period to the Middle Ages.

Emeralds do not appear to have been used regularly in Egyptian jewelry until the Roman period, when techniques for polishing the stones were probably introduced. However, in lists of gemstones dating to the Late period, the phrase "eastern green (stone)" (wadj n Bakhw) appears; if this term refers to beryl or emerald, it may possibly indicate that the stone was being exploited before the end of the pharaonic period. There is some tenuous support for pharaonic mining of emeralds in Sir John Gardner Wilkinson’s assertion in 1878 that the Sikait-Zubara mines were worked as early as the reign of Amenhotep III (18th Dynasty). He does not, however, give any specific evidence for this early date, and in any case, none of the surviving archaeological remains associated with the mines appears to date any earlier than the Ptolemaic period.

There is clear documentary evidence for emerald mining in the southeastern desert in 24 BC, when Strabo (Geography XVII, I: 45) writes: "Then follows the isthmus, extending to the Red Sea near Berenike…. On this isthmus are mines in which emeralds and other precious stones are found by the Arabians, who dig deep subterranean passages." The Sikait-Zubara mines had fallen out of use by the seventeenth century, and by the time James Bruce undertook his expedition through Egypt in 1768, even the location of the mines seems to have been temporarily forgotten. As a result, Bruce misinterpreted Pliny’s description of Egyptian emerald mining as a reference to the procurement of peridot on St John’s Island.

In 1816, the French goldsmith Frederic Cailliaud, searching for mines on behalf of the Egyptian ruler Muhammad Ali Pasha, rediscovered the Sikait-Zubara mining region. He first stumbled on the Ptolemaic rock temples at Gebel Sikait, and later entered one of the deep mine shafts at Gebel Zubara. He is said to have found an emerald after descending through a winding passage for a distance of about 100m, reaching a depth of 30m below the ground surface. In the nineteenth century the principal mining sites in the region were also visited by Giovanni Belzoni, John Gardner Wilkinson and Nestor l’Hote, and the general geology has been described by Oskar Schneider and W.F.Hume. During the early 1900s the archaeological remains were also explored by Donald MacAlister, E.S.Thomas and Gilbert Murray.

Because of the presence of three Ptolemaic rock-cut temples, the Gebel Sikait mining area has tended to attract more Egyptological attention than the Wadi Nuqrus and Gebel Zubara. One of the most impressive sites in the Sikait region is a settlement located on the northeastern side of the Wadi Nuqrus, close to Gebel Sikait itself, where the miners created substantial buildings incorporating roofing slabs and lintels. All the structures are square or rectangular in plan, and they would originally have had walls reaching at least to head height. Some of the buildings are high enough to have originally had two stories. There were also a number of structures consisting of rows of deep narrow rectangular niches, presumably used for storage; some of these were incorporated into level podiums of dry stone on which the houses are built. The houses often have small square recesses built into the interior walls, which were presumably used for storage.

The mines at Gebel Zubara, at the northern end of the Sikait-Zubara region, are the largest and probably also chronologically the most recent. The ancient pre-eminence of the site, even in comparison with the extensive works farther south at Wadi Nuqrus/Gebel Sikait, is reflected in its classical name, Mons Smaragdus: the "emerald mountain." The settlement at Zubara is contained within a narrow wadi floor, spectacularly situated at the foot of the mountain. The essential differences from the hillside settlements at Wadis Nuqrus and Sikait arise from the curvilinear character of many of the building plans at Zubara. In many cases the walls of the huts or hut "compounds" are circular or spiral, and even the more angular plans lack the precise 90° corners of many of the buildings at Wadi Nuqrus. The best preserved and most "formal" building at Zubara consists of two adjoining perfectly circular enclosures (arranged in a sort of dumbbell shape) near the mouth of the wadi. Two carefully corbelled beehive-shaped ovens are built into its walls, and it may have functioned as a sort of communal cooking and eating place.

The sides of the wadi are lined with large heaps composed almost entirely of fragments of schist. The gangue has been extracted from a large number of shafts piercing the wadi sides. Although there is evidence of some comparatively recent attempts to reopen the mines, a number of the shafts bear clear chisel marks, demonstrating that they were created by ancient mining activity. These shafts broadly follow the contact of the schists with the granite, and the shape of the tunnels suggests that adits were cut along the sub-horizontal emerald-bearing lodes until the deposit gave out, whereupon shafts were sunk from the original galleries until a new lode was struck. While many of the excavations are shallow pits or tunnels undermining specific quartz veins, a few of the entrances appear to lead to more extensive tunnel systems.

The Sikait-Zubara emerald mines seem to form a continuum of types of exploitation from adventitious to structured mining. The more "opportunist" mines are found in areas such as the Wadi Nuqrus, where the emerald deposits are relatively poor and widely distributed, whereas the more structured mines appear to have developed in areas where emeralds were both abundant and localized, as at Gebel Zubara, where the geological context was relatively straightforward.

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