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Thursday, April 5, 2018

Stone Shabtis of Senkamenisken and Sudanese Society - Nile Scribes

Stone Shabtis of Senkamenisken and Sudanese Society

The Nile Scribes are pleased to host another guest blog for a mid-week special written by Dr. Peter Lacovarawho contributes a brief response to recently proposed ideas on the shabti production of the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty kings, including some on display in the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM).

Guest Scribe: Dr. Peter Lacovara

A recent blog post on the top five Nubian objects in the Royal Ontario Museum sparked my interest, as number one was a shabti figure of King Senkamanisken (Fig. 1). This shabti was one of 410 stone funerary figurines from his tomb at Nuri Pyramid 3 that was a gift from the Sudanese Government to the ROM in 1926 made after the division with the Harvard University-Museum of Fine Arts Expedition to the Sudan that excavated the royal cemetery (1). Thousands of shabtis were found in the pyramid burial chambers at Nuri made both in faience and in stone (2).

Figure 1: Serpentine shabti of King Senkamanisken (ROM            Object number: 926.15.1)

Figure 1: Serpentine shabti of King Senkamanisken (ROM Object number: 926.15.1)

Many features of these shabtis distinguish them from ones made in Egypt, such as the two uraei, indicating Kushite royalty and textual peculiarities, which have been pointed out by scholars such as Joyce Haynes and Ron Leprohon (3) and Jean-Luc Bovot (4). However, a recent article has dismissed these features and suggests that Senkamanisken's stone shabtis were manufactured in Egypt for export to Nubia (5). There are many problems with this re-interpretation. To begin with, the author erroneously states that "the serpentinite stone shabtis of Senkamanisken…were …. made of a stone that occurs only in Egypt," (5) ignoring the fact that there are widespread deposits of serpentine in the Nubian Red Sea Hills (6). (Fig. 2)

(Note: You can try to click on the link for the map, but be advised that it may not come up:

Likewise, the author also goes on to suggest that some of the faience shabtis from the Nuri tombs were also imported from Egypt despite the fact that molds for them were found in the excavations at Nuri (5). More importantly, recent research seems to suggest that the faience of Napatan Nubia was a local formulation much as was the case at the end of the Kerma Kingdom (7). Already under King Taharka stone shabtis were being produced of a size and type without parallel in Egypt (Fig. 3) and after a hiatus of nearly three centuries after their production had ceased in Egypt (8). Joyce Haynes has identified workshops both in Nubia and in Egypt that were producing these shabtis for Taharqa (9).

The re-introduction of stone shabtis in Egypt comes with the Theban officials of the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty including Mentuemhet, Diesehebsed, Amenirdis and Pedamenopet and does not continue into the following dynasties. Like so many of the innovations of the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty, this can be seen as an inspiration of the Nubian rulers of Egypt and not something being produced before or after in Egypt (10).

Figure 3: Serpentine shabti of King Taharqa (ROM Object            number: 926.15.2)

Figure 3: Serpentine shabti of King Taharqa (ROM Object number: 926.15.2)

While eschewing the overtly racist prejudices of past scholars, nonetheless many modern scholars are hampered by an implicit bias, as here in suggesting that Nubian craftsmen were incapable of producing such goods. Moreover, this flies in the face of the archaeological evidence. With the end of the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty rule in Egypt, the production of stone shabtis in Egypt ceases and the hostile relations between Saite Egypt and Napatan Nubia would preclude the commissioning and export of large quantities of stone burial goods for the royal tombs at Nuri. Indeed, as Lisa Heidorn has shown, even the importation of Egyptian ceramics ceases by the reign of Senkamenisken (11).

Figure 4: Faience shabti of King Anlamani (ROM Object            number: 926.15.6)

Figure 4: Faience shabti of King Anlamani (ROM Object number: 926.15.6)

Peter Lacovara (B.A. 1976, Boston University; Ph.D. 1993 The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago) is Director of The Ancient Egyptian Archaeology and Heritage Fund. He was Senior Curator of Ancient Egyptian, Nubian, and Near Eastern Art at the Michael C. Carlos Museum from 1998 to 2014 and before that served as Assistant Curator in the Department of Ancient Egyptian, Nubian and Near Eastern Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.


  1. Dunham, Dows, The Royal Cemeteries of Kush, vol. II: Nuri, Boston, 1955. 41-47.
  2. Dunham, Dows, "Royal Shawabti Figures from Napata," Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Vol. 49, No. 276, 1951. 40-48.
  3. Haynes, Joyce L. and Ronald J. Leprohon, "Napatan Shawabtis in the Royal Ontario Museum." Journal of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities 17, 1987. 18–32.
  4. Bovot, Jean-Luc."Un roi nubien qui admirait les pharaons (le serviteur funéraire royal de Senkamanisken- 643-623 av. J.C.)." La Revue du Louvre et des Musées de France 46 (3), 1996. 21–28.
  5. Howley, Kathryn, "Power Relations and the Adoption of Foreign Material Culture: A Different Perspective from First-Millennium BCE Nubia." Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections, vol. 17, 2018. 18–36.
  6. Butzer, Karl, W., and Carl L. Hansen, Desert and River in Nubia: Geomorphology and Prehistoric Environments at the Aswan Reservoir, University of Wisconsin Press, 1968. 468.
  7. Lacovara, Peter, "Nubian Faience," in Florence Friedman, ed., Gifts of the Nile: Ancient Egyptian Faience, Providence 1998. 46–49.
  8. Schneider, Hans, Shabtis: An Introduction to the History of Ancient Egyptian Funerary  Statuettes with a caltalogue of the collection of shabtis in the National Museum of Antiquities at Leiden: Part I, Leiden, 1977.  234.
  9. Haynes, Joyce L. "Ushabtis of King Taharqa at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston," KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt, vol. 20, no. 3, 2009. 30-37.
  10. Cf. Lacovara, Peter, "The art and architecture of Kushite Nubia," in Melinda K. Hartwig, ed., A Companion to Ancient Egyptian Art, Chichester, 2015. 447-462.
  11. Heidorn, Lisa A., "Historical Implications of the Pottery from the Earliest Tombs at El Kurru." Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, vol. 31, 1994. 115-131

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