This week museum technician Dale Hudson chose a pair of ancient Egyptian ushabti. To reach this exhibit – and exhibit it is, being on display on the mezzanine floor – we passed through various interesting colours. In association with the Sarjeant Gallery, the museum has built an exhibition around colour schemes, where the only qualification an artifact/item needs is its colour. For example, there’s a black room – with such things as an old typewriter and a scary-looking dental X-ray unit. They’re black, so they qualify.
It was in the blue room where we found the two small statuettes known as ushabti. They go under various names, but ushabti will do. They were a mass produced funerary statuette, made to be buried with the dead to be employed as servants in the afterlife.
Dale says these things were around from about 1900BCE until the Ptolemaic period, about 2000 years later. “They were usually inscribed with Chapter Six of the Egyptian Book of the Dead,” he says, referring to an ancient best seller.
The two in the Whanganui Regional Museum are typical ushabti, carved to look like a mummified body but just a few centimetres in height. They are a generic shape, representing no particular gender nor any particular person. They are often portrayed holding a hoe or a gardening implement, useful tools for the gardens in the afterlife. These ones are quite worn and may or may not have originally had such accoutrements.
So why did Dale choose the ushabti? “I just like working in a museum; it’s like you think there must be tons of history but there are not many of the older artifacts that we know anything about. But with these there is a bit of a story behind them.”
Our two blue ushabti originally came from a tomb in upper Egypt. “The dead were often buried with hundreds of these things,” says Dale.
Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek in June 2010. Reproduced with permission from the Publishers.