Monday, 24 January 2011

EXCLUSIVE: Servant of the Deep: The mystery of the Titanic Shabti

Once part of a cache of Egyptian treasures destined for display in an American museum, a solitary, battered and forgotten ushabti figure, which survived the sinking of the Titanic, has emerged from years of obscurity to take its place in the public eye. Paul Boughton reports. 

Above: The ‘Titanic ushabti’.
Of all the disasters and tragedies that have dogged human existence, the sinking of the RMS Titanic on its maiden voyage between Southampton and New York still maintains a powerful grip on the imagination. On 14th April 1912 at 11.40 pm, the world’s most luxurious ocean liner hit an ice- berg off the Newfoundland Banks. Within two-and-a- half hours, the Titanic sank. Of the two thousand, two hundred passengers and crew on board, only seven hundred and five souls were saved.

This story has been re-told over and over again in newspapers, books, magazines, television programmes, films – and even computer games. Surely there is nothing new to tell? But there is one story that has, I believe, been neglected.

It is the tale of a 2,700-year-old ushabti figure carried away from the stricken liner by the woman known to history as the ‘Unsinkable’ Molly Brown (1867-1932), otherwise the Denver millionairess Mrs. Margaret Tobin. The ‘unsinkable’ title was supposedly given to her after a press interview when she was safely on dry land in America. She put her survival down to “Typical Brown luck.” And she added, “We’re unsinkable.” For her, the ushabti was a lucky talisman.

This surviving ushabti was just part of a cargo of Egyptian antiquities being shipped to the United States by Molly following a visit to Egypt.

When she boarded the 46,328 ton Titanicon the evening of 10th April, 1912 in Cherbourg, France, Molly brought with her one crate of Egyptian souvenirs and three crates of ancient Egyptian figurines, the latter ultimately destined for the Denver Museum in the USA.
Above: The RMS Titanic departs Southampton on 10April 1912. Later that day, at Cherbourg,  Molly Brown would board the doomed liner with her Egyptian ‘treasures’.

Ushabtis (also known as shabtis or shawabtis) are figures placed in burials from the Middle Kingdom, between about 4,000 and 3,500 years ago, until the Ptolemaic Period, around 2,300 years ago. They evolved from the belief that the afterlife would be similar to the living world. In death, people believed, they would be surrounded by friends and family and would therefore need food and drink; the gods might even call on them to work. The ancient Egyptians hoped that a ushabti would magically do the work for them. They were servants for the afterlife.

Obviously this ushabti must have been of some importance to Molly. She kept it with her, either as a lucky talisman or as an exotic curio to show to her fellow passengers. But, strangely, she does not mention it in her descriptions of that tragic night when she escaped the Titanic in Lifeboat 6. However, according to The Molly Brown House Museum, based in Denver, Colorado, it is known that “she grabbed $500 in cash, strapped on a life jacket and grabbed a blanket from the bed”.

“Molly thought to take her treasured three-inch turquoise-colored Egyptian statue purchased in Cairo and placed it in her pocket for luck.”

The 13,564 ton Carpathia was three days out of New York, heading for Gibraltar and a Mediterranean cruise, when her radio operator picked up the Titanic’s distress calls. The sinking liner’s position was fifty-eight miles to the north west of the Carpathia. With a top speed of fourteen knots, it would take the Carpathia four hours to reach the scene. Captain Arthur H. Rostron guided his ship at night through ice and reached the Titanic’s last reported position at 4.00 am. It had taken three-and-a-half hours – thirty minutes quicker than estimated.

Above: Captain Arthur H. Rostron, of the Carpathia, and the ‘Unsinkable’ Molly Brown (Mrs. Margaret Tobin).
As day broke, he saw the Titanic’s lifeboats scattered over a four-mile area of sea. The Carpathia returned to New York on 18th April with the survivors.

Tributes were heaped on Captain Rostron – scrolls, loving cups, testimonial dinners – and a medal honouring him was struck by the U. S. Congress. But the strangest ‘thank you’ gift of all came from Margaret Brown. She presented him with her lucky talisman. The ushabti remained in the possession of Captain Rostron until his death in 1940. What happened to it next is unclear. I have been unable to trace a copy of Rostron’s autobiography, which may provide more details about the figure. 

The ushabti next appears in the possession of the American Titanic artefact collector Stanley Lehrer, who is also the founder of the USA Today newspaper. The next traced public sighting of the ushabti is in 1998, when an exhibition called Titanic: Fortune and Fate was mounted at The Mariner’s Museum, Newport News, Virginia, USA. The catalogue to the exhibition, published in book form, prominently displays the name of Stanley Lehrer and, although it is not specifically stated, I suspect he was one of the main authors of the publication.

A small picture of the ushabti appears in the catalogue. It is described as “An Ancient Egyptian Figurine, Shawabti or Ushabti, ca. 700 BC”. The material is stated to be faience with a turquoise glaze and the figure appears “courtesy of the Stanley Lehrer Collection”. Following the exhibition, the figure appears to have disappeared back to wherever Mr. Lehrer keeps his Titanic collection.

It was not until early 2006 that I heard rumours that the Titanic ushabti was again going to be publicly displayed – at a new purpose-built permanent venue,

Titanic-Branson Museum in Branson, Missouri, USA. This museum houses a small-scale replica of the Titanic, complete with a real iceberg, and features “400 priceless artefacts and historic treasures”. I contacted the museum to see if the ushabti would be displayed. I received a brief reply from a museum administrative assistant: “To answer your question – yes, we will have the artefact in question.”

The story of the Titanic ushabti, for the moment, ends here. But what of the other Egyptian antiquities that Molly Brown left behind on the Titanic and now rest on the sea bed two-and-a-half miles below the Atlantic waves? Is anything known about them?

Following the sinking, Molly Brown made a claim for $27,007 against the liner’s owners White Star Line for loss of personal items. These included souvenirs (Egypt)  – $500 and three crates of ancient models for Denver Museum – $500.

But, frustratingly, very little is known about the exact nature of the items contained in the cases. I have received no information from the Denver Art Museum as to what the crates may have held. Indeed, it is possible the museum did not even know about Molly Brown’s planned gifts. It appears she left no records as to what she had purchased.

Katie Roach, of The Molly Brown House Museum, Denver, told me, “We are aware that Margaret and her daughter, Helen, visited Giza, but beyond that, we do not have any solid information about where the Browns visited in Egypt.

“Margaret had intended on donating three crates of ancient models to the Denver Art Museum; however, because of the Titanic disaster, we do not have knowledge of what was exactly in them. Unfortunately, we do not have any written accounts from Margaret that mention specific items in the crates.”

Visits to the rotting hulk of the Titanic by manned and unmanned deep-sea submersibles are almost commonplace. Artefacts from the ship have been retrieved and displayed in travelling and permanent exhibitions. Is it possible that Molly Brown’s lost cargo of artefacts will one day be rediscovered and brought to the surface?

Will it be treasure or ‘tat’? Will the ‘Titanic ushabti’ ever be reunited with this strange cargo?

Further Information

Barczewski, Stephanie, Titanic, A Night Remembered, Hambledon and London, New York, 2004.

Gardiner, Robin and; van der Vat, Dan, The Riddle of the Titanic, Orion, London, 1995.

Iversen, Kristen and Brown, Muffet, Molly Brown: Unraveling the Myth, Johnson Books, 1999.

Lord, Walter, A Night to Remember, Penguin Books, London, 1978 (first published 1956).

The Loss of the Titanic, 1912, The Stationery Office, London, 1999 (first published 1912 and 1913).

Titanic: Fortune and Fate, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1998.

Titanic: The Official Story, April 14-15, 1912 (facsimile documents from the archives of the Public Record Office, London), Random House, Inc, New York, 1997.

Titanic - The Artefact Exhibition is running at The O2 Bubble, London, England until May 1, 2011.

This article first appeared in the August/September issue of Ancient Egypt magazine.


  1. Interesting article but nobody calls them ushabtis since the mid-20th century.

  2. I've never heard this story before, very interesting indeed ;)

  3. Thanks, Tanja. I discovered the story while reading about the Titanic. Molly Brown certainly had other Egyptian artifacts with her. And other of the Titanic's wealthy passengers had also visited Egypt - so one wonders what the might have picked up. The answer lies on the seabed.

  4. Do you know what exactly were some of those other artifacts? Have you been able to track them? I am sorry cause we might never find out what lies down there :(
    And anyway, here in Serbia we still call them ushabtis figurines :)

  5. Hello. Not sure what is now preferred: shabti or ushabti.
    I've had no luck in tracing what other antiquities may have had. I had no luck with the Denver Art Museum or Molly Brown Museum in US.

    She claimed on insurance but I haven't traced a list of items claimed for. I suspect it will forever remain a mystery.

  6. Hi Paul

    Very interesting article on a subject of complete fascination. As the wreck of the Titanic is being plundered for it's artifacts perhaps the durable Egyptian antiquities will turn up someday but seemingly lost is the recognition that RMS Titanic is a modern grave and this may be best represented by a pair of boots that appear to be all that remains of one of her passengers.

    Some might feel the harvesting of the Titanic's trinkets is disrespectful and I wonder what kind of excavation records have been created of her resting place and her debris field in all of these visits to her?

    PS. I myself might desire to play with the phonetic value of those little servants.


  7. Yes, it's often forgotten that it's a mass grave. There was a Boughton (initial E or B), a first class steward, onboard when it sank. He didn't survive. At one stage I thought this might be a great uncle who vanished from the records at about the same time the vessel sank. It was one of the things that first interested me in the Titanic story. He turned out to be unrelated.

    It's the 100th anniversary of the sinking next year, isn't it, so there will be lots of Titanic-related information being prepared at the moment,

    Got another idea myself but I am not sure if it would fit with this blog. I'll have to think about it.

  8. I have just been looking at property in sharm el shake, This was helpful thank you


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