Sunday, August 7, 2016

Ancient Egypt Glossary #3: Canopic Jars etc. – Stories from the Museum Floor

Stories from the Museum Floor

by the Visitor Team at Manchester Museum

Ancient Egypt Glossary #3: Canopic Jars etc.

Today's post is by Becca from the Visitor Team at Manchester Museum. We are sharing our passion and interest in the museum and its objects.

For more about Ancient Egypt and Sudan, please visit the Curator's blog, Egypt at the Manchester Museum.

Canopic jars and the four sons of Horus

So in the last few blog posts I've done we covered mummification, coffins, and tombs. However, what we didn't cover is what goes inside the tombs with your mummy and its coffin.

There are a lot of different funerary items that can be placed into the tomb with your mummy in the hope for a comfortable afterlife, today I will be focusing on some of the most important items you need – canopic jars.

Canopic Jars

Canopic jars contain the mummy's organs that will be needed in the afterlife. Now not all organs made it into the jars, the heart was left in the mummy as were the kidneys, and the brain was thrown away – who needs a brain anyway?! – The Egyptians did not fully understand or value higher brain function, believing instead that the heart was the seat of intelligence. The liver, lungs, intestines and stomach were placed into separate specific jars to be preserved for the mummy to use in the afterlife. So you couldn't just go popping random organs into jars as the mood took you … although there are actually some cases of this! But hey, if we're doing it we may as well do it right!

Set of four limestone canopic jars from Thebes. Third Intermediate Period, c. 1069-664 BC. Manchester Museum (No.: 2193-6)

These jars are commonly made from limestone or pottery and were used from the Old Kingdom all the way up until the Ptolemaic period to store the organs. Even during periods when organs were returned to the mummy's body, empty canopic jars, or models of them, would be placed in the tomb for protection.

In the Old Kingdom the jars had plain lids, by the Middle Kingdom they had human-headed lids, and in the New Kingdom, by the late 18th early 19th Dynasty, they were shown with the heads of the Four Sons of Horus.

The Four Sons of Horus

Now, Four Sons of Horus? I hear you ask, well these are the lids you commonly see when canopic jars are depicted. The baboon, hawk, jackal and human heads each represent one of the sons of Horus.

Faience amulets depicting the Four Sons of Horus. (Photo:

Their earliest mention comes in the Old Kingdom where they are mentioned not only as the god's sons but as part of Horus' soul. The sons of Horus are the protectors of each organ, but they themselves may also need protection, so each son is protected by a female goddess (this kind of divine teamwork between gods and goddesses is common in Egyptian religion).

The four sons also became associated with the cardinal compass points according to spell 148 in the Book of the Dead, where they are referred to as 'the four pillars of Shu'.

So, which organ goes where? I hear you all ask. Well, here is a handy breakdown of the sons of Horus for you;

Hapi is the baboon-headed son of Horus, he protected the lungs, he was associated with the North and was protected by Nephthys.

Imsety is the Human-headed son, he protected the liver, he was associated with the South and was protected by Isis.

Duamutef has a jackal's head, he protected the stomach, he was associated with the East and was protected by Neith

Qebehsenuef is the hawk-headed son, he protected the intestines, he was associated with the West and was protected by Serket.

But it is worth noting that the application of this rule is far from consistent!

Faience canopic jar (restored) belonging to a woman named Hathor, a chantress of Herishef. From Sedment, Tomb 260. 19th Dynasty, c. 1250 BC. Manchester Museum (No.: 6869.a). A jar from this set with jackal head of Duamutef is now in Pennsylvania (E14227a-b)

Canopic Chest

Now that we have all our organs in the right place and they are protected, they should have their own little storage chest don't you think? Time to introduce another piece of funerary equipment, the Canopic chest (imaginative name isn't it?).

The two brothers tomb group in the museum has a canopic chest, complete with jars, showing how it would've looked when placed into the tomb.

Painted wooden anopic chest of Nekht-ankh, from the tomb of the 'Two Brothers' at Deir Rifa, Egypt. 12th Dynasty, c. 1985-1773. Manchester Museum (No.: 4726)

Right back in the 2nd Dynasty, nearly 5,000 years ago, there are indications that canopic chests were being used even before the jars, there are examples of a canopic chest divided into four, holding neat organ bundles. When the jars were introduced (some of the earliest examples coming from the 4th Dynasty) it became common practice to place these jars into the chests that originally held the organs.

The inscriptions on the outside of the chest would be very similar to those on the canopic jars themselves, proclaiming the virtues of the deceased and invoking the protection of the goddesses.

So now in addition to your mummy, coffin, and tomb you have somewhere to put those pesky organs so your mummy can make good use of them in the afterlife.

Rebecca Horne

For more on Ancient Egypt at Manchester Museum, visit the Curator's blog, 'Egypt at the Manchester Museum' –

Read more ancient Egyptian stories from the Visitor Team:
Flinders Petrie, Father of Archaeology
Being Human # 3: Experimental Archaeology – Egyptian Stone-working
Mother's Day Special: How to make a mummy
Encountering Corpses