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Collection Highlights

Canopic jar with human-headed lid

Canopic jar with human-headed lid
© BA Antiquities Museum/M. Aly, R. Ali and M. Magdy

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showcase 8

Canopic jar with human-headed lid

Category:
Tomb equipment, Canopic Jars
Date:
Ancient Egyptian period
Provenance:
Upper Egypt
Material(s):
Rock, limestone
Total height: 
32.5 cm;
height of the jar: 
10.8 cm;
height of the cover: 
11 cm

 

Hall:
In the Afterlife, showcase 8


Description

Canopic jar with a lid taking the features of «human-headed», one of the sons of the God Horus.

Ancient Egyptian Canopic jars

Four canopic jars were intended to contain the viscera extracted from the body during the process of mummification. Each organ was protected by one of the Four Sons of Horus, whose heads form the lids of the jars: the human-headed “Imsety” (liver), the baboon-headed “Hapy” (lungs), the jackal-headed “Duamutef” (stomach), and the falcon-headed “Qebehsenuef” (intestines). As an additional safeguard, the Sons of Horus were also linked with four powerful goddesses: Isis, Nephthys, Neith, and Selket; respectively.

When the internal organs were first removed from the body in the process of mummification, they were wrapped with linen in four separate parcels and deposited in a recess or pit at the southern end of the burial chamber. These recesses were first observed in tombs at Meidum (72 km south of Cairo) starting from the 4th dynasty (2613–2494 BCE). The tomb of Hetepheres, wife of Senefru (2613–2589 BCE) and mother of Khufu (2589–2566 BCE) at Giza, provides the earliest example of a canopic chest divided into four compartments; each containing a mass that almost certainly was a part of her internal organs. The earliest canopic jars were found in the 4th dynasty tomb of Queen Meresankh III at Giza, during the reign of Menkawre (2532–2503 BCE). Jars with convex disk lids, made of limestone, or Egyptian alabaster, regularly appear thereafter in the Old Kingdom. They were usually uninscribed.

By the time of the 9th and the 10th Dynasties, the lids of the canopic jars started to take the shape of human heads. At this period, the human heads seem to have represented the dead, rather than the Sons of Horus who were invoked on the jars.

During the New Kingdom (1550–1069 BCE), the iconography of three of the four jars’ lids were modified to include the heads of a baboon, jackal and falcon; thus, replacing the uniformly human faces used on earlier specimens. This marked the definitive shift from the jar embodying the dead person to embodying the relevant Son of Horus.

The Jars we have here date to the Third Intermediate Period (1069–664 BCE). They contain no traces of human remains. This is because most mummies; starting from the beginning of this period, if not somewhat earlier; had their viscera returned to the body cavity after embalmment. The canopic jar had become so fundamental to the funerary outfit; however, that high status individuals still used them, even though they were left empty. By the twenty-second Dynasty (945–715 BCE), they were superseded by solid dummies which had not been hollowed out.

Canopic jars during the Ptolemaic Period

A few Ptolemaic jars are known; yet, they were superseded by small but tall shrine-like chests which included painted images of the Sons of Horus, and topped by a three-dimensional hawk figure squatting on its haunches.

The term canopic

The term canopic derives from a case of mistaken identity: one form of the visceral containers was a human-headed jar. According to writers of the Classical period, the Greek Hero and sailor “Canopus”, was worshiped at Abukir (Canopus) in Alexandria in the form of such a jar. Early Egyptology enthusiasts saw a connection between that object and the quite separate visceral jars and began calling them “Canopic”. The name has stuck and has been extended by scholars to refer to all kinds of receptacles intended to hold viscera removed for mummification in ancient Egypt.
 


The information given here is subject to modification/update as a result of ongoing research.

References
  • Sue D'Auria et al., Mummies and Magic: The Funerary Arts of Ancient Egypt (Boston, MA: Museum of Fine Arts, 1988).
  • Andrey O. Bolshakov, “Offering tables”, in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, edited by Donald B. Redford, vol. 2 (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001): 572-576.
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