Accession Number


Medium or Technique


Not On View


Africa and Oceania, The Ancient World


Shawabties and shawabty boxes

This wooden shawabty has a substantial bitumen coating over virtually the entire object, now somewhat worn. It is a mummiform figure wearing a tripartite wig. Arms are crossed over the chest as though bundled under wrappings with no modelling of hands. The black coating obscures whether the shawabty was originally intended to be shown holding implements in hands (though it appears unlikely in this case) and if any painted decoration or text were applied. The foot is somewhat short, perhaps as though bitumen originally coated over a break in the object. However, this is possibly rather a facet of original crafting.

An ancient Egyptian shawabty is a funerary figurine that was intended to magically animate in the Afterlife in order to act as a proxy for the deceased when called upon to tend to field labor or other tasks. This expressed purpose was sometimes written on the shawabty itself in the form of a “Shawabty Spell,” of which versions of various length are known. Shorter shawabty inscriptions could also just identify the deceased by name and, when applicable, title(s). However, many shawabtys carry no text at all. The ideal number of such figurines to include in a tomb or burial seems to have varied during different time periods.


By 1836: Robert Hay Collection, Linplum, Scotland; 1863: to his son, Robert James Alexander Hay; 1868-1872: Way Collection, Boston (purchased by Samuel A. Way through London dealers Rollin and Feuardent, 27 Haymarket); 1872: given to the MFA by Samuel's son, C. Granville Way. (Accession Date: June 28, 1872)

Credit Line

Hay Collection—Gift of C. Granville Way