One of the most interesting and collectable artifacts from ancient Egypt is the usabti, the magical statue found in tombs. Magic played an important role in the daily life of the ancient Egyptians. Part of their magic was the belief that amulets and statues would protect them from perils, both real and imagined, in their daily lives and in the next world.
During Egypt’s Middle Kingdom period, small statues began to be placed in the tombs of the deceased. These statues were intended to be servants which would magically come to life, and do any unpleasant chore the deceased might be called upon to perform in the afterlife.
Because the daily life of ancient Egyptians centered around agriculture, they viewed the next world as primarily agrarian. They believe that the deceased would have to plant the fields and maintain irrigation canals, so the little statues, buried in tombs, took on the appearance of field workers. They were mummiform, so as to be identified with Osiris, the god of the dead, but their hands were protruding from the bandages so they could do the work.
At first, the statues were inscribed with only the name of the deceased, but soon they were inscribed with magical spells as well to assure that they would really come alive to do their chores. A typical spell would be: shawabti, if the deceased is called upon to do work in the next world, answer “Here I am!” Plough the field, fill the canals with water and carry the sand of the east to the west.”
The word “shawabti” apparently referred to the persea-tree out of which these figures were occasionally made. Another name for them was “usabti” which meant “answer”. The idea was that when the deceased was called to work, the figure would answer for him. The statues are called by both names today.
Since ushabtis were provided to do the work, it became desirable to have many of them. During the New Kingdom it was common to have hundreds placed in the more elaborate tombs. Because the number of ushabtis found in tombs is often nearly 365, it is believed by many that the Egyptian intended that there be one for each day of the year. There is no actual evidence for this, and in fact the number found is rarely exactly 365. The pharaoh Taharqa had more than one thousand ushabtis, each one beautifully carved from stone.
Ushabtis varied considerably in size and materials, depending upon the wealth of the deceased. They were usually made of faience, although some were made of terracotta, wood or stone.
Faience, a paste made of ground quarts or of sand with a high percentage of quartz, was one of the most commonly used materials in producing ushabtis. The faience past was pressed into molds and then fired. When baked, the glaze would migrate to the outside producing a smooth glassy surface. The quality and the color of the glaze depended on the impurities in the paste. Faience ushabtis range in color from a bight dark blue to various shades of turquoise and pale green.