Tomb Models

Significant numbers of people in the modern world never seriously worry about where their next meal is coming from. I myself am one of those people – even when getting grocery shopping delivered was difficult at the peak of lockdown in the UK earlier this year I was mostly concerned about whether I would get the food I wanted or not, I was confident I would be able to get something to cook & eat. And that position of privilege can make it hard to get oneself into the mindset of a pre-modern population (or that of the many people less fortunate than me even in my own country) – where if the harvest failed too often (perhaps even just once) then people were going to struggle to find enough to eat. Where the poorer portions of society might well routinely restrict what they ate, not out of fear of “getting fat” but because there was only so much food to last until the crops ripened. But it’s something that’s worth keeping in mind when thinking about the Ancient Egyptians – it helps make sense of some of the differences between their worldview and ours. Like the way that among the various metaphysical elements of their thoughts about life after death there are also solidly pragmatic concerns about ensuring that the deceased has food security in the afterlife (with a definite sub-text that this was one of the ways that the afterlife was going to be better than this life). I’ve talked about some examples of this before in the blog – like shabtis as servants to do the necessary agricultural work, or the Offering Formula to guarantee food offerings would continue to be received for eternity. And the objects I’m talking about today are a part of this mindset.

The early Middle Kingdom sees a flowering of three dimensional representations of activities involved in food production, like the one pictured where cattle are being tended to in a stable. Previously these daily life scenes had been carved or painted on the walls of the tomb, but during the First Intermediate Period there was a shift in focus from decorating the tomb to decorating the coffin. This left less space for showing food production and so models are provided for the deceased instead. These changes accompanied a change in the the overall idea of the afterlife – the rise in prominence of Osiris, and the idea that even commoners would go to some other place after death like the Field of Reeds. And they may also be a reaction to changes in the environment around them, both natural and political – the Old Kingdom had fizzled out amongst many problems, one of which appears to’ve been a series of famines that the central authority didn’t deal with terribly effectively. And then the First Intermediate Period was a time of conflict – taken together food security and a sense of certainty in the afterlife must’ve seemed even more important than it previously had been.

Model Cattle Stable

These tomb models don’t just appear suddenly from out of nowhere, of course, they evolve from earlier use of models in tombs. This appears to begin around the same time as the unification of Egypt, so some 1000 years before the Middle Kingdom. During the late Predynastic Period and the Early Dynastic Period there are some cases of replacement of large scale or expensive tomb goods with models. For instance some burials had full scale boats, but others had model ones. And one burial even had a full scale granary but several had model ones. During the Old Kingdom this practice was extended to smaller objects – for instance they might have model storage vessels or model tools. And in the later Old Kingdom limestone statues of servants also begin to show up – at first solely concerned with food production but then later expanding their repertoire of occupations to include other necessities of life.

It’s during the First Intermediate Period and early Middle Kingdom that the tomb models really come into their own. In contrast to the Old Kingdom servant statues these models are made of painted wood – which makes them much more perishable, even in the typically dry climate of Upper Egypt, so we’re lucky as many have survived as have! A typical elite burial of the period includes a set of these models, but the number and choice of scenes varies between tombs – presumably determined by the status of the deceased, the region and the exact time period. The most common are boats and models to do with food production – but other craft activities are depicted as well. The general idea is to provide all the industry required for a comfortable (food secure!) afterlife.

Boats are a little bit of a different category so I’m only going to touch on them briefly here. They have a more explicitly religious character: as the Osiris cult rose in prominence his primary cult centre at Abydos became a place of pilgrimage, and model boats in tombs from the First Intermediate Period onward generally symbolise eternal participation in pilgrimage to Abydos.

Other than boats the most common models are scenes of butchery, granaries, scenes of baking, scenes of brewing, and pairs of female servants carrying food offerings. As you can see this covers the first 3 or 4 of the standard offerings mentioned in the Offering Formula – bread, beer, ox and fowl (only present if that’s what the servants are carrying). So by including these models you are going to be well supplied in the afterlife.

Tomb models of this type (other than boats) have this period where they flourish, but then they rather abruptly die out in the reign of Senwosret III. His reign, as part of the 12th Dynasty, marks an inflection point in the history of Egyptian culture. Although we tend to think (primarily because of the influence of the 3rd Century BCE historian Manetho) of the Middle Kingdom as a single unit, subdivided into 3 dynasties, there’s also an argument to be made that it should be divided into two at the reign of Senwosret III. The early Middle Kingdom is closer to the First Intermediate Period in culture than to the later Middle Kingdom (and things like burial customs don’t seem to change when Montuhotep II reunites the country). Then Senwosret III oversees significant changes to the art style, religious ideas and political organisation of the country and the later Middle Kingdom begins – and the necessity for (or desire for) dioramic models in tombs is one of the things that changes.

But why use models? It seems perhaps a little childish to the modern eye – there’s something of the doll’s house to them, a toy for a child to play with. And it’s true that it can be hard to identify which objects from Ancient Egypt are toys and which are models with religious or magical significance (and sometimes the answer may be “both”!). The context of the find can give clues (if it’s known), for instance models such as these ones I’m talking about are found in the graves of adults so we probably need to put aside assumptions about childishness and look for other explanations. The key to understanding this are the Ancient Egyptian beliefs about the reality of symbols in a magical sense – the written or spoken name of thing, a painting or carving of a thing, or a model of a thing are magically the same as the thing itself. So if you have written on your tomb walls your request for bread and beer, then in the afterlife you will magically have bread and beer. If you have carved scenes with loaves of bread and jars of beer, then you will magically have bread and beer in your afterlife. And if you have a model granary, a model bakery and a model brewery, then in the afterlife they will magically exist and produce an endless supply of bread and beer.

So these models are in a magical sense the real things they represent. And this then answers the question of “why models?” – models are more practical than the object they represent. In much earlier times kings were buried with the actual objects – including servants in some cases – but this is expensive in terms of resources (even leaving aside the ethics of killing your bread bakers!!), and in terms of the space required inside the tomb complex. Models are a cheaper and more efficient way of taking it with you when you went. They’re also much less attractive to tomb robbers – yes, magically this stable in the photo is real and has real cows in it, but in this world you can’t eat the beef they magically produce!

The models are, of course, fascinating to anyone who’s interested in learning about Ancient Egyptian culture. They give us the obvious information about how bread was made, beer was brewed and so on. And also things like how Egyptian buildings were laid out, even the very fact they kept their cattle in stables! As well as these insights into material culture they also reinforce other evidence about what the Egyptians saw as the key necessities of life (like their emphasis on food security in the afterlife), and even give us information as to how their art style worked by letting us compare two dimensional and three dimensional representations of the same activities. A proper treasure trove despite not having the glitter of gold!


Resources used:

Ardagh, Philip. 1999. The Hieroglyphs Handbook: Teach Yourself Ancient Egyptian. Faber and Faber.
Assmann, Jan. 2003. The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs. Translated by Andrew Jenkins. Harvard Univ. Press.
David, Rosalie. 2002. Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt. Penguin Books.
Grajetzki, Wolfram. 2003. Burial Customs in Ancient Egypt: Life in Death for Rich and Poor. Duckworth Egyptology.
Mertz, Barbara. 2008. Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt. William Morrow.
Oppenheim, Adela, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold, and Kei Yamamoto, eds. 2015. Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Quirke, Stephen. 2015. “Understantding Death: A Journey Between Worlds.” In Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom, edited by Adela Oppenheim, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold, and Kei Yamamoto. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. 2008. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. British Museum.
Wilkinson, Toby A. H. 2010. The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra. Bloomsbury.
Yamamoto, Kei. 2015. “Comprehending Life: Community, Environment, and the Supernatural.” In Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom, edited by Adela Oppenheim, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold, and Kei Yamamoto. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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Here Am I!

Ancient Egyptian afterlife beliefs throughout their history are a wide-ranging mix of the esoteric and the pragmatic. The king might travel to the stars, or eat the gods to gain their powers, or accompany the sun on its night journey through the underworld. A normal person might be judged by the gods before he or she can enter the eternal afterlife, with a variety of demons to overcome and gates to pass through on his or her journey to the judgement hall. But kings and commoners also took care to provide themselves with a source of food and the other necessities of life for eternity – whether in the form of preserved items, model manufacturing facilities, or servants to do work on their behalf. Shabtis are one of these provisions – they are small mummiform figurines which have been found in their thousands in Egypt. They are so ubiquitous that every museum that has even a hint of an Egyptian collection will have a shabti, and so numerous (and sometimes so poor quality) that the treasure hunters of the 19th Century & earlier didn’t bother to collect them all up.

Display of Shabtis at Manchester Museum

Shabti is the Egyptian name for the figurines, other variants are shawabti and ushabti (the latter is used later in Egyptian history). The etymology is unclear – shabti may be derived from the word for stick and may refer to the modelling of the first known shabtis which is rather crude. The later term (ushabti) means “answerer” and that ties into the function of these figurines. Part of the Egyptian conception of the afterlife was that the deceased (once judged and found worthy) would spend eternity in the Field of Reeds – life would be the same there as in the living world, except one would be eternally young & healthy and conditions would always be perfect & harvests would never fail. And Ancient Egyptians of all social classes knew how agriculture worked – fields must be tilled, irrigation channels dug and repaired etc. And this is where the shabtis came into the picture. Some of them are inscribed with a text explaining their purpose:

“O shabti allotted to me [owner’s name]! If I be summoned or if I be detailed to do any work which has to be done in the realm of the dead, … you shall detail yourself for me on every occasion of making arable the fields, of flooding the banks, or of conveying sand from east to west: “Here am I”, you shall say.”

So instead of going off to work in the fields in person the deceased sent off the shabti to do the work in his or her place. Almost every book I looked at presents this as an avoidance mechanism. For instance Barry Kemp uses shabtis to get insight into how the Ancient Egyptians felt about the corvée labour system that built their grand monuments and kept their agriculture functioning. And he points out that there’s evidence of people sending substitutes (usually relatives) when summoned for labour, so shabtis are a magical post-death version of something that happened in life. But Jan Assmann has a different take on them – he sees them as a way for the deceased to participate in the work. That instead of magically replacing a servant sent off to work on his master’s behalf they magically replace the deceased so that he or she can be in two places at once, one of which is being a part of the community doing the necessary work to ensure survival. For corroborating evidence he says that there are no spells in the various funerary texts (like the Book of the Dead) for actually avoiding the summons, and surely there would be if that was what the deceased was trying to do. I’m not sure I buy this idea, though – I think it more likely that the Ancient Egyptians saw the work as necessary (i.e. you couldn’t have everyone just avoid it) but not something that they wanted to spend eternity doing personally.

Shabtis first start to show up in tombs in the Middle Kingdom, which is the same time period that ideas about people other than the King having an afterlife were being developed (before that there was more of a feeling that a non-royal deceased would be effectively living in their own tomb for eternity). They develop from model bodies that were intended as a backup in case something happened to the mummy – so that the ka and ba of the deceased person would still have somewhere to go. Over time they become these servants, and I don’t think it’s quite clear where the dividing line is. Wolfram Grajetzki draws a distinction between shabtis (that have the inscription on them) and shabti-like mummiform figures (that do not) and in later periods of Egyptian history it seems clear that the uninscribed ones are the equivalent of the inscribed ones, but it’s not so clear early on. During the Middle Kingdom shabtis are just for the commoners – there are none found in tombs of kings until Ahmose I in the 18th Dynasty (the re-unifier of Egypt at the start of the New Kingdom).

Over time the shabtis become more elaborate. They start as simple mummiform figures (in some cases quite rudimentary indeed), which are sometimes put into a model coffin before being buried with the deceased. In the early New Kingdom they might be provided with model agricultural tools – hoes or baskets for instance. And later on these are carved or moulded directly on the figures. Shabtis can be made out of a variety of materials, blue faience is most common but they are also made of wood, stones of various types, clay, wax, or even glass. They vary in quality too, from the peg-like or clumsily shaped through to exquisitely detailed statuettes.

Initially a burial would just be equipped with one shabti, but they become much more numerous over time – eventually a “full set” could number in the hundreds for those who could afford a lavishly appointed tomb. For instance Tutankhamun was buried with 401: 365 workers (one for each day of the year) and 36 overseers (one for each 10 day week). The overseers were given flails instead of agricultural implements, so they could do their jobs properly. Which gives an interesting insight into how the Egyptians thought a workforce was ideally organised and controlled in the real world.

Because shabtis are so intimately bound into a particular vision of the afterlife I would’ve expected that they would vanish during the Amarna period when Akhenaten did his best to make sweeping changes to the Egyptian religious landscape. But not only do shabtis still show up in non-royal burials of this time but also Akhenaten had some of his own. The inscriptions on the shabtis are different, however, and Grajetzki sees this as representative of the general trend of the period: the physical objects in tombs were much the same but the inscriptions (and thus ideas?) were not. After the New Kingdom and towards the end of the Third Intermediate Period shabtis do fall out of style but both the 25th & 26th Dynasties look back to older periods of Egyptian history to bolster their own legitimacy and shabtis make a return as part of this. The final death knell for these servant figurines is during the Ptolemaic Period and is part of a general moving away from the traditional Egyptian burial goods – by the end of the period they are no longer in use.

There’s something about both the form and function of shabtis that makes them still fascinating even into the modern world. And I can’t leave this subject without mentioning the modern artist Zahed Taj-Eddin. I saw his Nu-Shabtis at an exhibition in 2016 and as well as the Egyptian artifacts and the egyptological exhibition there were also Nu-Shabtis scattered throughout (see my photos on flickr). He has extrapolated the concept of a shabti into the modern day, but not in the obvious way of “wouldn’t it be neat to have a replacement to send to do work for us?”. Instead they were an answer to or exploration of the question of what would shabtis do in the modern world? What if when the tombs were opened and the shabtis discovered that there was no Egyptian afterlife of eternal toil on behalf of their masters they came to life anyway, and took part in our modern world?


Resources used:

“Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt” Jan Assmann (trans. David Lorton)
“Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt” Rosalie David
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“Burial Customs in Ancient Egypt: Life in Death for Rich and Poor” Wolfram Grajetzki
“Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilisation” Barry J. Kemp
“Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt” Barbara Mertz
“Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom” ed. Adela Oppenheim, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold and Kei Yamamoto
“The Complete Tutankhamun” Nicholas Reeves
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” ed. Ian Shaw
“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson

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Beauty and Entrails

My bonus article for December is available on Patreon for subscribers at the Khery-Hebet tier and is about canopic jars: Beauty and Entrails.

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