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What is an Egyptian Shabti Doll? – An Introduction for KS2

Updated: Jun 20, 2023

Ancient Egypt Shabti Doll funerary doll
A replica of an Ancient Egyptian Shabti Doll - Courtesy of Joanna Hill

A Shabti Doll? Is that some sort of Ancient Egyptian toy?

Not exactly, no. Shabti Dolls were little figurines that were buried in tombs with Ancient Egyptian people after they died. They were also sometimes called Shawabti or Ushabti. Shabti Dolls stood anywhere from 5cm to 30cm tall and were made from lots of different materials including wood, clay, metal, glass and, later, faience (a type of glazed pottery). But they weren’t toys for playing with in the afterlife, they were workers.

Workers? Wait, there’s work to do in the afterlife?

Shockingly, yes! The Ancient Egyptians believed that their afterlife was an exact replica of your earthly life. Of course, there were a few differences like you couldn’t get ill or die (after all, you were already dead) and loved ones who had died before you would be there waiting for you. But the rest of it was the same, including your home, your hobbies and yes, work.

4 painted Shabti figures with their box, belonging to Khabekhnet and Iineferty

But work sucks! Why would the Egyptians want to do work in the afterlife?

Well, it wasn’t just any work. The Ancient Egyptians believed in an idea they called “Ma’at”, meaning harmony. As part of this state of harmony, people would do work for others in the community to show that they valued and appreciated them. Often, in their earthly lives, it was the Pharaoh who called upon his people to do work for the value of the community, like the construction of the pyramids. In the afterlife, it was thought that the god Osiris might call on you at any time to do this work.

So, Osiris could call on you any time? For the rest of eternity? Don’t you ever get to retire?

Nope, afraid not. Luckily, that’s where the Shabti Dolls come in. Historians think that the word “Shabti” translates to “answerer”. So if Osiris called on you to do some work, one of these Shabti Dolls would “answer” the call for you and turn up in your place.

A Shabti Doll shown with farming tools and baskets - Courtesy Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund

Oh, that’s handy! So how would that work?

Firstly, the Shabti Dolls needed to be buried with the person in their tomb when they died. Then one of the spells from the Egyptian Book of the Dead would be used to bring the dolls to life.

Each Shabti Doll would be sculpted holding a tool in their hands, such as hoes for farming, chisels for building or even whips to oversee the slaves! The tools they held, plus an inscription in hieroglyphs on the doll called a “Shabti Formula”, would show what jobs the figures would do. The more Shabti Dolls a person had, the less work they would have to do in the afterlife.

A "Shabti Formula" would be inscribed in hieroglyphs on the doll - Courtesy Joanna Hill

So, did everyone have Shabti Dolls or was it one of those things where just the Pharaoh is allowed to have them?

Most Egyptian people had a Shabti Doll buried with them after they died. Because of this, archaeologists have found so many Shabti Dolls in Egypt that it would be impossible to count them all!

But Shabti Dolls could be expensive to buy. So poorer Egyptians were often buried with only one or two very crudely made dolls. The Pharaohs and other rich people could afford much more ornate dolls. Some rich Egyptians thought it best to have a total of 401 Shabti Dolls! This included 365 regular worker dolls, one for each day of the year, and 36 overseer dolls to keep the worker dolls in line, one for each week of the year (Egyptian weeks were 10 days long).

Wowsers, that’s a lot of Shabti Dolls! When did the Egyptians stop using them?

The use of dolls probably died out around the Ptolemaic Period (that’s around the early 300’s BC). By then, they had been used by Egyptians for over a thousand years.

Historians aren’t sure why Egyptian burial with Shabti Dolls stopped. Perhaps they used something else instead or their use began to change. After all, before they were used as workers, the Egyptians used Shabti Dolls as little replicas of themselves just in case their mummified remains were damaged. Perhaps the use of Shabti Dolls evolved again in the Ptolemaic Period.

Above, you can spot our replica Shabti Doll alongside the other Egyptian replica artefacts we feature as part of our Ancient Egypt: A Time Travel Tour workshop for Primary School children. Our interactive school workshops use drama activities, roleplay and storytelling to bring history to life for your students. Invite us to your school by enquiring here!


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