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Egyptian Ushabtis and Shumerian Temple Statuettes Essay

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Updated: Aug 16th, 2020

Egyptian civilization and the role of the art in it

Ancient Egypt is one of the world’s oldest civilizations, which has risen more than 5,000 years ago in the Northeastern Africa. The main precondition of the Egyptian civilization’s origin and the further development was the local climate, as well as the Nile River. Therefore, the population of Ancient Egypt was concentrated along the banks of the Nile and its tributaries. The Egyptian agriculture was highly productive due to the developed irrigation system.

One of the main achievements of Egyptian civilization was the invention of the papyrus and the subsequent development and spreading of the written language. Ancient Egypt was ruled by the Pharaohs, and nowadays is well-known for the majestic architecture – the Pharaohs’ burial vaults in the shape of the enormous pyramids.

As a matter of fact, the Egyptian monuments, paintings and sculptures were widely known beyond the borders of Egypt in the ancient world. The art of Ancient Egypt was closely connected with the religion and the mythology. All the works of the art were created in accordance with the strict rules, called the canons. In contrast to other civilizations of Ancient East, the Egyptians made the artifacts, dedicated to the Gods, in order to emphasize their greatness and grandeur, not their frightful features. The Pharaohs were considered as the living Gods and the vast majority of the artifacts were dedicated to them.

Many of the Egyptian works of the art have remained to the present days and are very precious museum pieces. Among them, one of the most interesting from the point of view of understanding the Egyptian culture is the ushabti.

The ushabtis as the examples of the Egyptian ritual art

The Egyptian art mainly focused on the afterlife. The ushabti (that means “the answerer”) was the funerary statuette. The ancient Egyptians believed that after the death the soul of the deceased was to work his plot of the land in the underworld, the kingdom of Osiris. It is the striking illustration of the agrarian nature of Egyptian civilization. To make the afterlife easier and more comfortable, the ushabtis were put into the coffin or the sarcophagus, and they were expected to revive in the netherworld and to make the field work instead of the deceased Egyptian. When the deceased was called to duty, the ushabti was expected to answer “It is me! Here I am!” That is why the ushabti statuettes were also called “the answerers”.

Thereby, the ushabtis embodied the slaves and other dependent persons. According to the historians’ suppositions, the ushabtis have replaced the slaves and the servants, who were killed during the funeral and buried together with their master before the beginning of the Egyptian dynastic period.

The ushabtis were of the various sizes – from 5 to 20 inches tall. The materials, of which the ushabtis were made, were also different: the wood, the stone, the alabaster, and the clay with the blue, green, red, or brown glaze. One of the most common materials was the faience. The ushabti statuettes were made with the appearance of the mummies (so-called Osiris’s portrayal) with the agricultural implements and the grain sack in their hands. Sometimes they were fashioned as the living persons, and instead of the mummy shape the ushabtis wore the clothes of the time, and there was the molded image of the soul in the shape of the bird on their chests (Dunn par. 3-4).

The name of the deceased, as well as the hieroglyphs from the 6th chapter of the Book of the Dead (the spell to describe the function of the ushabti in the underworld), was engraved on the statuette. Usually, the statuettes were put into the small sarcophagi or the wooden boxes with their sides inclined inside slightly. The number of the ushabtis for one deceased Egyptian could also vary significantly, approaching sometimes the number of 401 statuettes – 365 workers and 36 overseers (Mark par. 3).

The thoroughness of the work at the ushabti differed according to the social status of the Egyptian. Nevertheless, the statuettes were almost always notable for the elegance of the proportions and the workmanship of the highest quality. The Pharaohs had the ushabtis too; for example, the ushabtis of Ramesses II were made of the copper, and the ushabtis of Tutankhamun were wooden, with the metal patches, and the symbols of the Pharaoh’s authorities made of the wire, in the hands.

The comparison of the ushabtis with the Sumerian temple statuettes

In order to distinguish the Egyptian culture from the cultures of other great civilizations, one can compare the ushabti with the Sumerian temple statuettes. The Sumerians were not as skillful in shaping the materials as the Egyptians; therefore their statuettes are more stylized and formal. For the Sumerians, the internal content was more important than the outward shape. The vast majority of the Sumerian statuettes are made of stone and gypsum; they are men and women with their hands overlapped on each other and crossed in awesome position over their chests.

Men are in the static position; they are wearing only some kind of the skirt of woven wool. The men’s hair is long; the beards are heavy and wavy. The female statuettes wear something like a headgear, sometimes their hair can be covered with the linen cloth. One of the most noticeable features of the Sumerian figures is their large eyes.

There was the clear hierarchy considering the size of the statuettes: the largest ones were dedicated to the Gods (who looked like the reptiles rather than humans), and then the size lessened according to the importance of the believers (“Ancient Sumerian Culture” par. 20-21). This custom shows that the religion had the strong influence on the Sumerian sculptural art, and this feature is similar to Ancient Egypt. However, the Sumerian figures were kept only in the temples and had nothing to do with the afterlife or the funeral rituals. Moreover, the Sumerian statuettes had no inscriptions, because the writing in Sumer was not as developed, as in Egypt.

In conclusion, it is important to notice that the religion played the significant role both in Egyptian and Sumerian civilizations. Nevertheless, in contrast to the Sumerians, the Egyptians paid much more attention to the afterlife, were more skillful in using and shaping different materials, had the developed writing due to the invention of the papyrus. In Sumer the mortals, even the rulers, could not be equated with the Gods when in Egypt the Pharaohs were worshiped as the living Gods. The art of Ancient Egypt was more diverse and refined, and the ushabtis are the perfect examples of this art.

Works Cited

. 2012. Web.

Dunn, Jimmy. . 2012. Web.

Mark, Joshua. . 2012. Web.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Egyptian Ushabtis and Shumerian Temple Statuettes'. 16 August.

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