Egypt: Canopic Chests and Jars

Canopic Chests and Jars

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Taylor Ray Ellison

Canopic chests, and particularly canopic jars, represent some of the most beautiful artwork of the ancient Egyptians. They were used to contain the internal organs of individuals removed during the process of mummification. The most common form was four jars held within a chest, but canopic equipment could comprise, at times, miniature coffins and masks. Very often, canopic equipment was made from calcite (Egyptian alabaster).

Tutankhamun's canopic chest and lids in the form of human heads

Tutankhamun's canopic chest and lids in the form of human heads

Like so many terms related to ancient Egypt, "canopic" is really derives from a misunderstanding. The ancient, classical writers believed that the Greek hero, Kanopos, helmsman for Menelaeus, was worshipped at Canopus in the form of a jar. The very early Egyptologists, are rather explorers, saw a connection between that object and the actually unrelated visceral jars discovered in tombs, and began calling them "canopic". Obviously, the name stuck and eventually was used to describe all kinds of receptacles intended to hold viscera removed during the mummification process.

The very earliest canopic equipment consisted of simple chests, or even a specially built cavity in the wall, where wrapped visceral bundles were placed. We find the first possible canopic installations at Saqqara in tombs of the 2nd Dynasty, but proven canopic burials date from the 4th dynasty reign of Senfru. Tombs dating from this period at Meidum near the Fayoum Oasis have niches that, in size and position, correspond to later canopic usage. In the case of Hetepheres, Snefru's wife, and actual chest was discovered carved from calcite, and divided into four square compartments, each of which contained a biological mass that almost certainly was part of her internal organs. However, the first indication of a king's canopic equipment was discovered in the paving blocks to the southeast of the sarcophagus of Khafre, at the second pyramid of Giza.

Typically, the earliest canopic niches in burial chambers may have held wooden boxes, but by the end of the 4th Dynasty, organs were sometimes placed inside simple stone or pottery jars, with flat or domed lids. The earliest examples of canopic jars come from the 4th dynasty tomb of Queen Meresankh III at Giza, from the reign of Menkaure.

The canopic chests which held the jars were cut from soft stone, or carved from the actual wall or floor of the tomb. However, from the 6th Dynasty, granite examples have been discovered in royal tombs which were sunk into pits in the floor at the southeast foot of the sarcophagus. Fragments of just such a chest, together with its contents, were discovered in the tomb of Pei I. The viscera remains had been soaked in resin and when solidified, took the shape of a jar.

While the First Intermediate Period was a time of Chaos in Egyptian history, it was during this time that the lid of canopic jars started to take on the form of a human head instead of a flat or domed shape. Also, the wrapped bundles of viscera placed in the jars were now sometimes adorned with cartonnage masks with human faces. And while previously, inscriptions on canopic equipment had been limited to the name and title of the deceased, wooden canopic chests now followed the design of contemporary coffins, with strings of text that run around the upper part of the chest, with some examples of more extensive text. Design elements linking the coffin or sarcophagus with the canopic chest continued until near the end of the New Kingdom.

A gilded wooden statue of the goddess, Selket (Selkis)

A gilded wooden statue of the goddess, Selket (Selkis)

At the end of the Middle Kingdom, a classical pattern for canopic equipment was achieved. While not all canopic installations could conform to the ideal standards, now we find an outer stone chest, associated with the stone sarcophagus and an inner wooden chest representing the coffin and divided into four sections. These four sections held four separate jars, though in some cases, the jars were omitted, replaced with painted representations of the jars, complete with texts, on the inner lid of the canopic chest. The four jars were meant to hold four major organs. These four human organs were identified with specific deities, each of whom was referred to as a genius. They included the liver, identified with the genius Imsety, one of the four sons of Horus who could claim protection form the goddess Isis, the lungs, identified with a pair of genius, Hapy, the second son of Horus and the goddess Nephthys, the stomach, identified with Horus' third son Duamutef and the goddess Neith, and the intestines, associated with Kebehsenuef, the fourth son of Horus and Selket. Note that the heart was never removed from the body during the mummification process.

On the inner wooden chest, text would be inscribed invoking the protection of the four tutelary goddesses, Isis, Nephthys, Neith and Selket. This text would call on these goddess to wrap their protective arms around their paired genius, and would proclaim the honor of the deceased. The individual jars would also be adorned with similar text. A typical example from a jar containing the liver found in the 13th Dynasty tomb of king Hor stated, "Isis, extend your protection about Imsety who is in you, O honored before Imsety, the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Awibre (Hor)".



In the 17th Dynasty, there was a change in the traditional coffins used to bury the dead (particularly royalty) in Egypt. No longer were all coffins rectangular, but rather they actually took on the form of the human body. Now, the canopic chests were decorated with the recumbent figure of Anibus, the jackal god of death. The first such examples of canopic chests took on the form of a rectangular coffin, with a back varnished background. Some of these chests have exaggerated vaulted lids, with raised end pieces which wee characteristic of late rectangular coffins.

Early in the eighteenth dynasty, canopic decoration changed once more, focusing on the image of the four goddesses and their genii. Now, the genii are usually identifiable from the jar tops, shaped as heads. Imsety has a human appearance, while Hapy takes the form of a baboon, Duamutef that of a jackal and Kebehsenuef that of a hawk. At the same time, the chests became more elaborate. Now, rather than simple boxes with flat or vaulted lids, they began to imitate the naos shrines, usually mounted on a sledge. The top section of the box sometimes had a flaring cavetto cornice, while the lid was rounded at the front and sloped down to the rear. Like the coffins and sarcophagi, they were painted with a white background, shifting to a gold tent on black, and then to polychrome on yellow at the very end of the 18th Dynasty.

Canopic Jars

As the New Kingdom pressed on into its maturity, the lids on the canopic jars seem to have become somewhat more rigged in form, sometimes taking on the form of animal and bird heads. This was apparently due to the more mature nature of the religious evolution surrounding this form of funerary equipment. Prior to this period, the jars were sometimes thought to embody the dead person and at other times that of the relevant genius, a mater of some confusion. This issue was apparently resolved in favor of the genius. During this time (18th Dynasty), jars were made of various materials including calcite, limestone, pottery, wood and cartonnage.

The New Kingdom saw a divergence between the canopic equipment of royalty and that of the private sector that was not as distinct in prior periods. However, from the reign of Amenhotep II we find an elaborate calcite chest with four jars carved from the box itself, and raised figures of the protective goddesses covering each of the corners of the box. The stoppers themselves represented the king. This more complex chest was used by the kings of Egypt until the early part of the 19th Dynasty.

The canopic chest of Tutankhamun

The canopic chest of Tutankhamun

However, it should be noted that, along with the rest of Egyptian religion, even the customs related to canopic equipment were altered during the reign of the Heretic King, Akhenaten, during the 18th Dynasty. Text on these objects provide the names and titles of the king, as well as those of Aten. However, the traditional gods and goddesses of burial are omitted. Here, a hawk, the earliest embodiment of the sun god, acted as protector at the canopic chest's corners. But the divine ladies reappear in the equipment of his probable son, Tutankhamun.

With Tutankhamun's canopic equipment, the goddesses not only cover the corners of the stone chest, but as gilded wooden statues, they guard the great gilded wooden shrine that enclosed the canopic chest. The chest itself was a solid block with four cylindrical compartments sealed with lids in the shape of the king's head (though probably not of Tutankhamun himself). Within the cylinders of the box were four solid gold miniature coffins which held the packets of viscera. Horemheb and Sti I's canopic chests followed the general design of Tutankhamun's equipment, but with the addition of wings on the arms of the goddesses. Ramesses II's chest was similar, though it also incorporated glass inlays. However, after Ramesses II's reign, it appears that the human lids of the canopic jars were definitively replayed by faunal forms of the genii. However, Merenptah, Ramesses II's thirteenth son and heir, no longer displayed corner goddesses.

The face from one of the lids that sealed the canopic compartments in King Tutankhamun's canopic chest

The face from one of the lids that sealed the canopic compartments in King Tutankhamun's canopic chest

Interestingly, by the early 20th Dynasty, we no longer find canopic chests, but rather large, individual jars bearing the heads of the goddesses. We are not sure how the jars were stored. Only one example of these have been found, belonging to Ramesses IV, but there were similar jars found for the burials of sacred Apis and Mnevis bulls.

Sometime around the 21st Dynasty, funerary customs took and interesting turn. No longer were the viscera of most mummies interred separately from the body. During the mummification process, they were returned to the body cavity. Still, the customs related to canopic equipment were so strong that jars remained part of the funerary equipment (for the wealthy), but were left empty. However, by the 22nd Dynasty, the jars were superseded by solid dummy jars, and in at least one example, that of Sheshonq II, the dummy jars held dummy packets of viscera, a true apex of form over function.

From the 22nd Dynasty on, the text associated with canopic equipment became much simpler, often only naming the deceased and the genius. Now we find much more variety, in both the form and decoration of canopic jars. In the 23rd Dynasty, we find this equipment painted with bright polychrome, for example.

During the 25th Dynasty and the Saite period, the text once more changed. Now, there were formulations and the text varied according to which deities were invoked. The jar's shapes also tended to become more rotund, with the widest sections lower then in prior examples. However, they all seem to bear the usual faunal genius heads, though there was apparently a brief reversion back to the human heads during the early 27th Dynasty, but we do not posses enough evidence to say that there was any trend in this regard.

Solid, wooden canopic dummies

Solid, wooden canopic dummies

Canopic equipment, which had now been in use for thousands of years, finally came to and end sometime during the Ptoloemaic (Greek) period. A very few Ptolemaic jars are known, but they appear to have been superseded by small but tall chests resembling shrines. They were brightly painted and decorated with images of the genii, and were surmounted by small statues of a squatting hawk. However, even prior to the Roman occupation of Egypt, these too disappeared forever from the funerary practices of the ancients.






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