Out-of-Place Ushabtis in Roman Karanis
Curated by Terry G. Wilfong, Director and Curator of Graeco-Roman Egyptian Collections
It can be satisfying to identify an artifact with a historical figure, but it sometimes creates problems. Take the case of the rather worn faience ushabti shown here (no. 1). This object received no special attention when it came into the collection in 1928, and has for several years been on display as part of a group of ushabtis—servant figurines found in ancient Egyptian burials.
But, it turns out that this modest object had a distinguished past. Recent research reveals that it was made for a man named Pahemnetjer, a High Priest of Ptah at Memphis during the reign of King Ramesses II. He died around 1275 BC and was buried at Saqqara. (Pahemnetjer’s name, incidentally, means “The Priest,” suggesting that his parents were confident of his future career.) The Kelsey’s ushabti would have been one of many buried with this important official, designed to provide labor and service for his afterlife. Pahemnetjer’s tomb was destroyed in the nineteenth century, but artifacts and reliefs from the tomb survived.
The problem with this ushabti is its source. University of Michigan excavators found it in a street context in the Graeco-Roman town of Karanis, over 100 miles (160 km) away from its original burial place at Saqqara. Associated artifacts date to the 3rd–4th century AD, some 1,500 years after the ushabti was made. How did an already-ancient ushabti from Saqqara end up being found at Karanis?
In fact, Michigan excavators discovered seventeen ushabtis at Karanis, all likely pre-dating the foundation of the town. They were found in a range of contexts in streets and houses, none in burials. Only two of these ushabtis came to Ann Arbor in the division of finds: the Pahemnetjer figure and a very fragmentary purple faience figure likely made for a man named Horudja during the Late Period (662–332 BC) (no. 2).
How did these ushabtis get to Karanis and why were they there? Earlier ushabtis and similar artifacts do sometimes turn up in later non-burial contexts in Egyptian sites, suggesting that they were saved as curios or even actively collected. People might have found them in cemeteries and carried them away as souvenirs, or traded them as antiquities. Certainly, Egyptian artifacts from earlier times were actively collected and traded outside of Egypt in the Roman period. The presence of ushabtis in seventeen separate contexts at Karanis suggests that the practice of saving or collecting already-ancient artifacts may have been widespread in Roman-period Egypt as well.
To learn more read Terry's article in the CIPEG Journal.