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The Canopic Equipment in Ancient Egypt

Canopic jars meaning :

The word Canopic is a misnomer or a mistake for the name of these jars as it was driven from the word Canopus who was a Greek sailor forced to reach the Egyptian shore because of a great storm. When he reached the Egyptian shore (near Abu Qir nowadays), he lived there for a while then he was bitten by a scorpion and died.

 Later, he was deified and identified especially with god Osiris, who was worshipped in this place in the form of a human-headed jar. The image of ‘Canopus of Osiris’ appeared on some Roman coins produced in Alexandria and the name was therefore chosen by early Egyptologists to refer to any jar with a stopper in the form of a human head.
Canopic jars names
The Canopic Equipment in Ancient Egypt

The Canopic Equipment in Ancient Egypt

The Canopic Equipment in Ancient Egypt

The Canopic Equipment in Ancient Egypt

The Canopic Equipment in Ancient Egypt

 The function:

Its function is to house the viscera or internal organs of the deceased after mummification.

Historical Development of Canopic chest and jars:

·        The first Canopic chest found dated back to the 4th dynasty belonging to queen Hetepheres, mother of king Khufu (Cheops). It was made out of calcite and was divided into four compartments housing the viscera of the queen. The viscera included: liver, lungs, stomach and intestines. This chest is displayed in the Egyptian museum collection of Hetepheres from the Old kingdom.

·        By the end of the 4th dynasty, the organs were sometimes placed inside simple stone or pottery jars with flat or domed lids. The earliest Canopic jars found belonged to queen Merseankh III, wife of Khafre (Chephren) of the 4th dynasty at Giza.

·        At the beginning, during the Old Kingdom or even earlier when the Canopic jars first appeared, they used to be either placed inside the chest or simply stood on the floor of the burial chamber always at the foot of the coffin or sarcophagus (They were sometimes placed in niches, we found examples for that at the cemetery of Saqqara in tombs of the second dynasty). The canopic jars were made either of stone or pottery and were generally uninscribed. However, a few examples carried the names and titles of the deceased.

·        By the 1st Intermediate Period and beginning of the Middle Kingdom the stoppers of the Canopic jars started to take the shape of the head of the deceased. In parallel, the wrapped bundles of viscera (to be put inside the jars) were adorned sometimes with cartonnage masks again with human heads. They treated each jar as if it is the body of the decease to the extent that we found some examples with carved arms and even feet attached to the jar.

·        The development of the Canopic chest followed the design of the contemporary sarcophagi and coffins, thus its lid took the shape of Pr-Nw or Pr-Neser ‘ancient shrine of Lower Egypt’.

·        By the 2nd Intermediate Period, Anubis was shown on the sides of the chest over the hieroglyphic sign of cloth and vegetation referring to the bandages and herbs used during mummification.

·        The focus on Anubis did not continue into the New Kingdom, instead attention shifted towards the 4 sons of Horus and the protective goddesses associated with them:

1.     Imesty protected the liver associated with Isis
2.     Hapy protected the lungs associated with Nephtys
3.     Dwamutef protected the stomach associated with Neith
4.     Qebehsenwef protected the intestines associated with Selket

·        During the New Kingdom, the shape of the lid of the chest started to be different as it took the shape of ‘Pr-Wr’ or “the ancient shrine of Upper Egypt”. This was decorated with cavetto cornice, torus moulding and a sloping lid that is rounded towards the front. Another innovation was that the 4 protective goddesses started to be sculpted on the corners of the chest in raised relief.

The Canopic Equipment in Ancient Egypt

The Canopic Equipment in Ancient Egypt

The Canopic Equipment in Ancient Egypt

The Canopic Equipment in Ancient Egypt

·        The idea of the human-headed stoppers for the jars extended towards the New Kingdom but they were placed inside the chest and even “carved as one” with the chest (drilled within the chest). However towards the end of the 18th dynasty, the stoppers started to take the shape of the 4 sons of Horus, this was especially obvious in the Ramesside Period:

1.     Imsty……. Human head.
2.     Hapi……... Baboon head.
3.     Dwamutef….. Jackal head.
4.    Qebehsenwef…. Falcon head.

·        We know that the viscera used to be taken out during the process of mummification and then embalmed and placed inside these jars and sometimes inside little coffins or coffinettes and then inside the jars. But by the beginning of the 21st dynasty, after dehydration and wrapping, the internal organs were placed again inside the body cavity. Sometimes they were accompanied by small statuettes of the 4 sons of Horus. Yet this doesn’t mean that there weren’t any Canopic jars at the time, examples were found but empty (just dummy jars as they didn’t contain any viscera)

·        While most of the jars were empty, Sheshonq II of the 22nd dynasty went as far as placing dummy viscera inside the dummy jars. This is an excellent example for how an item can gain importance far exceeding its original function. This may indicate that the Canopic jars must have been considered as actual manifestations of the 4 sons of Horus, whose funerary significance certainly went beyond their canopic role.

·        Towards the end of the 25th dynasty, the function of the Canopic jars returned to the original use and some examples were found containing real viscera, but after the 26th dynasty, the widespread use of the Canopic jars diminished again. Very rare examples were found dating back to the rest of the Late Period and early Ptolemaic Period.

·        During the Ptolemaic Period, jars were replaced by small, very tall brightly painted Canopic chests taking the form of the shrine with the cavetto cornice and surmounted by a figure of a falcon with two feathers. These Canopic chests don’t seem to have been used beyond the middle of the Ptolemaic Period when the practice of removing the internal organs finally came to an end.