The Purpose of Canopic Jars

Canopic jars are used to store mummified internal organs. In general the jars have lids in the form of the heads of the Four Sons of Horus: Amset, Duamutef, Hepi and Qebehsenuf. Horus was the sky-god and one of the most important of the Egyptian gods, with a long history of worship. He is often represented as a falcon. Amset is the protector of the liver, and is the only Son of Horus to always be depicted with a human head. However, as the other Sons may also be depicted with human heads, it is not always clear if a canopic jar with a human head lid is representative of Amset or not, as is the case here. Duamutef was tasked with the protection of the stomach, and is portrayed as a man or a man with the head of a jackal. Hepi guarded the lungs, and was represented as a man or a man with the head of a baboon. Finally Qebehsenuf protected the intestines, and was depicted as a man or a man with the head of a falcon. These gods were in turn protected by the four goddesses Isis, Neith, Nephthys and Selkis. These goddesses were associated with the cardinal points south, east, north and west respectively.

The first preservation of internal organs during the mummification process is attributed to Queen Hetepheres, who was the wife of Seneferu and the mother of Khufu. Queen Hetepheres ruled from the beginning of the fourth dynasty. An alabaster chest divided into four compartments was discovered in her tomb. The remains of her internal organs preserved in natron were found in three of these compartments, while the fourth compartment contained dried organic material. Natron is a combination of sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate which occurs naturally. It was primarily used for purification, both in daily life and for religious purposes.

The name ‘canopic jar’ originates from the name of the Greek sailor Canopus, who was reputedly buried in Canopus in the Delta, and worshipped as a jar with a human head in the Graeco-Roman period. Despite the ‘jar’ in Canopus being in the shape of the god Osiris and having no known association with internal organs, the name of canopic jar has become widespread in its use.

This canopic jar is one of a set of four belonging to General Ptahirdis, son of the lady Ankhnesites. It is made of calcite, or alabaster, which is a type of limestone. It was quarried by the Egyptians from the Early Dynastic period onwards. This stone is to be found primarily in Middle Egypt, particularly in the region between Miniya and Asiut. The Hatnub quarry near El-Amarna was the most famous and important source of alabaster. An Old Kingdom quarry is located in the Wadi Gerrawi, near Helwan.



Canopic Jar of General Ptahirdis


Alabaster was used for a variety of objects in ancient Egypt, such as chapels, sarcophagi, altars, pavements in chapels, and particularly statues. It was an ideal choice of material for objects of religious and ritual significance, such as canopic jars. This was because it was believed to be a pure stone, due to its pale colour and durability.

The techniques used to create this jar were as follows: firstly, a slab of quarried alabaster was selected. This slab was sculpted into the required design and shape, and then polished until its surface was smooth. The hieroglyphs were then engraved into the front of the jar. These hieroglyphs show that the jar belongs to General Ptahirdis, son of the lady Ankhnesides.

Once the jar was finished, as well as the mummification process, the embalmed internal organs were wrapped in bandages and placed in the jar. The jar may have contained the remains of General Ptahirdis’ mummified liver. This supposition is due to the fact that the lid is human-headed, and as such may represent Amset, who was the protector of the mummified liver. In any case, the organs, be they liver, stomach, lungs or intestines, were placed in the jar after being mummified. The jar was then sealed, and ready for placement within the tomb of General Ptahirdis. It would have been placed with the three other canopic jars, the General’s sarcophagus, and all the other associated funerary objects of a tomb, such as shabti. The set of canopic jars may have been placed in a chest or canopic box. The jars would have been placed beside the sarcophagus in the burial chamber of the tomb. In the tomb of Tutankhamen, the canopic jars were placed in a canopic box, which was encased in a gilt shrine-shaped chest inscribed with formulae relating to the Four Sons of Horus.

As the canopic jar is unprovenanced, the location of General Ptahirdis’ tomb is unknown. However, many tombs of ancient Egypt were broken into, and had their contents sold and distributed around the world, which may be the case here. This artefact is part of the National Archaeology Museum of Ireland’s collection. The majority of this collection came from excavations completed in Egypt between the 1890s and the 1920s. Artefacts were also given to the museum from excavations carried out by the Egypt Exploration Fund, from sites including Hieraconpolis, Riqqa, Tarkhan, Oxyrhynchus, Deir el-Bahri and Ehnasya. Given the vast quantity of artefacts received from these sources, it is possible that the canopic jar in question came from one of these excavations, and that is how it came to be in the National Archaeology Museum’s possession. It is part of the ‘Ancient Egypt’ exhibition, which opened in 1996, and remains there to this day. The display case in which the canopic jar is housed contains three other canopic jars, numerous shabti, and other Egyptian funerary artefacts.


There can be great variety in the make and design of canopic jars. General Ptahirdis’ canopic jar of alabaster is a high quality object, and jars of such quality indicate the importance and wealth of the individual. Not all canopic jars were made of alabaster; for example, those of Imnesty and Kebhsenuf. These jars date to the eighteenth dynasty, and were bought in London in 1954. They were part of a set of four, and are the only jars surviving. The jars are not identical, with one being bigger than the other. Such jars often have variations within the set, as is the case here. These jars were made of pottery using a wheel, and are inscribed in hieratic. They have human headed lids, similar to the jar of Ptahirdis. The faces on the lids were carved out, and pigmented- black was used for the eyelashes and wigs. These jars predate the latter part of the New Kingdom, which is when the animal head lids of canopic jars became popular. Such lids were more obviously representative of the Four Sons of Horus.


Canopic Jars of Imnesty and Kebhsenuf

Another example of a canopic jar is one which was given to the Royal Ontario Museum in 1994 by Mrs. Nora E. Vaughan. Its tall, narrow/flaring design is similar to that of jars from later in the eighteenth dynasty; however, it is missing the shoulder usually evident in such jars. It also lacks the ‘waist’ which is also typically found on such jars, which is evident into the Ramesside Period. Eighteenth dynasty jars with straight sides and round shoulders, as in this example, do exist, but they are usually squatter in their overall proportions. This squatness is typical of earlier vases, from the beginning of the eighteenth dynasty back through the Middle Kingdom. Much later Kushite and Saite jars bulge much lower down than this example- this, along with an increased rotundness, is a fashion which dates back to the middle of the twenty-second dynasty. Notably, the hieroglyphs on the jar make no mention of its owner. This example most likely dates to the twenty-first dynasty.


Canopic Jar of the Royal Ontario Museum

A royal example of a canopic jar of the twenty-first dynasty is that of King Nesu-Ba-neb-Dedet. It is made of alabaster; this is coarse and not the best quality, which is surprising for a royal jar. The jar is believed to be one of a set of four or more from the royal tomb, and to have had a lid in the shape of a falcon head, representing Qebehsenuf.  This would mean it housed the mummified intestines of the king.


Canopic Jar of King Nesu-Ba-neb-Dedet

The canopic jar of Senebhenaef of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford belongs to the latest jars of the late Middle Kingdom, or the Second Intermediate Period. It is composed of clay and painted in blue, red and yellow and has a human headed lid. Clay canopic jars with human headed lids are evident in the Middle Kingdom, although stone examples are more typical. Canopic jars are common into the thirteenth dynasty, but not very much so in the Second Intermediate Period. The examples discussed here show the great variety in the style of canopic jars throughout ancient Egypt; however, their function remained the same, and their importance is still evident today.



Canopic Jar of the Senebhenaef

Why Should We Care: The Significance of the Canopic Jar

The significance of canopic jars is clear from their long period of usage, with alleged beginnings in the fourth dynasty, and the myriad insights they give into ancient Egyptian society. From their study much has been learned about religious beliefs, social standing and other aspects of ancient Egyptian culture. Even at their most basic study, one can learn the capabilities of this society in acquiring the raw materials needed for the creation of canopic jars, and in actually creating the jars themselves. The hieroglyphs generally found on the jars can also give insight into religious beliefs, and even the person who the jar belonged to. This example gives information on the profession of Ptahirdis, and some knowledge of his family. Canopic jars are clearly valuable tools in learning about ancient Egypt, and continue to deepen the comprehension of ancient Egyptian society.




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