• English
  • Cymraeg

Canopic Jars

W1024The Egypt Centre has one jar with lid and base and four canopic jar lids on display in the House of Death. We also have a number of lids in store.  

The term ‘canopic’ comes from the incorrect belief that such jars were connected with human headed jars worshipped as personifications of Kanopus, a Greek hero regarded as a form of Osiris by the people living in Canopus in the Delta. However, canopic jars used to contain internal organs had no connection with Canopus. The ancient Egyptians called these jars ‘jars of embalming’ and they were used to contain internal organs removed from bodies in the mummification process.  

The earliest known occurrence of the preservation of internal organs separate from the body is the burial of Hetepheres at Giza in the 4th Dynasty (c. 2600 BC). Her innards were stored in a travertine box divided into four compartments. Later chests were made in the shape of a shrine.  

In later 4th Dynasty burials, each of the four internal organs which were removed, were put in individual jars, each guarded by one of the Four Sons of Horus, deities who also guarded the four cardinal points and supported the deceased king. Interestingly, there is evidence that one of the Four ‘Sons’, Imsety, was originally conceived of as female (some Egyptologists have suggested others too). The earliest known canopic jars were those made for Queen Meresankh III (c.2500 BC) at Giza. Such jars were usually made of pottery, travertine or limestone and had shallow, convex disc-shaped lids and most were undecorated. The jars were usually placed in canopic chests.  

The Four Sons of Horus comprised Imsety, Duamutef, Qebehsenuef and Hapy. Imsety, the human-headed deity generally protected the liver; Hapy, the ape-headed deity, generally cared for the lungs; Duamutuef with the jackal head usually looked after the stomach; and falcon-headed Qebehsenuef usually looked after the intestines. However, this association of particular deities with particular organs may have varied from time to time and region to region. There are exceptions to the traditional pattern.  

During the 1st Intermediate Period (2181-2055 BC) the jars started to be given stoppers with human heads. Innards were at the same time sometimes wrapped in bundles with human faces. By the late Middle Kingdom a set of canopic equipment would consist of an outer stone container and a wooden inner one holding four jars with human heads.  

By the later 18th Dynasty the jars started to have the heads of the Four Sons of Horus. They were made of clay, wood or stone. Occasionally blue glazed faience was used.  

By the Third Intermediate Period (1069-747 BC) the innards were returned to the body sometimes with models, usually in beeswax, of the Four Sons of Horus. Dummy canopic jars were still sometimes put in rich burials. Such jars were fully functional but empty. By this period Duamutef and Qebehsenuef sometimes appeared with the heads of falcon and jackal respectively (in contrast to their earlier associations. This is probably not a mistake but rather an alternative tradition).  

Canopic jars can be seen under the funeral bier of Tashay in the Egypt Centre (W650) despite the fact that at this date jars would not have been used (see also EC1055).   

The practice of putting the innards in the jars was reintroduced in the late 25th Dynasty and the latest known canopic jars date to 589-570 BC.

EC388 A 26th Dynasty canopic jar lid of Qebehsenuef

W498 A canopic jar head of Imsety with base of Qebehsenuef

An unedited undergraduate student project on EC146, a wooden jar lid in the shape of Hapi.

EC385 Part of a 26th Dynasty canopic chest