Canopic jars 1884.57.13-17 and 1884.67.28

Beth Asbury, Pitt Rivers Museum

Canopic jar lid 1884.57.15 with canopic jar 1884.57.17 .1, Egypt.

The founding collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum contains no less than five canopic jar lids and one canopic jar. 1884.57.13 and .14 are both human-headed and sit together on a low shelf in case C.122.C (Human Form in Art) below 1884.57.16, which has a baboon’s head, and sits in the upper case, C.122.A. 1884.57.14 is made of painted pottery, but all of the others are of pale limestone with only 1884.57.13 decorated with black painted outlines to highlight its features. 1884.57.15 has a human head and sits on top of canopic jar 1884.57.17.1 in Treatment of the Dead case C.7.A (Fig. 1). Lastly, 1884.67.28, also human-headed, sits slightly crookedly on a shelf in Human Form in Art case C.147.A, possibly after having been sawn off its jar.

All of these objects are ancient Egyptian in origin, but their original collectors and the regions within Egypt that they came from are unknown. What is known is that all of these lids were in the first batch of objects that Pitt-Rivers sent for display in the Bethnal Green Museum probably in 1874, and they are listed in the Delivery Catalogues of objects packed for Oxford as having been transferred from South Kensington Museum in 1884. Canopic jar 1884.57.17.1 (Fig. 2) was not in the first batch like the lids, but is listed in Delivery Catalogue I, so was probably also on display at some time between 1874 to 1884. Lid 1884.57.15 and jar 1884.57.17.1 are displayed with the complete canopic jar 1908.64.5.1-.2, bought from J.C. Stevens Auction Rooms as Lot 407 on 27 May 1908. 1908.664.5.2 is a falcon-headed lid.

According to Ikram (1998: 276, 2003: 125), canopic jars get their name from Canopus, near modern day Abu Qir on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast. Here, Menelaus’s pilot, Koptos, was worshipped as a form of the god, Osiris, as a human-headed jar filled with Nile water. Classical authors’ references to Canopus and these jars were read by Renaissance scholars who wrongly connected them to the containers used to hold ancient Egyptians’ mummified internal organs, which are often found in tombs. They were known as qebu en wet, ‘jars for embalming,’ and generally put near the foot of the mummy, sometimes in specially built niches inside the tomb (Ikram 2003: 125).

The oldest example is that of the 4th Dynasty Queen Hetepheres (c. 2575-2465 BC) [1] at Giza, which was a plain square box of Egyptian alabaster with four compartments and a lid (Ikram 2003: 127). The earliest jar version is that of Merysankh III of the same Dynasty, also at Giza, and they appeared with heads, possibly representing the deceased person, in the Middle Kingdom (c. 2030-1802 BC) (Ikram and Dodson 1998: 278). In the Middle Kingdom the internal organs were put under the protection of one of the Four Sons of Horus and in the New Kingdom (c. 1550-1070 BC) the jars took on the heads of these gods (Ikram 2003: 127). Horus was the son of Isis and Osiris, and represented the rightful, living heir to Osiris, the god of the Afterlife. Duamutef, the jackal-headed, protected the stomach; Qebhsenuef, the falcon, protected the intestines; Hapi, the baboon, the lungs; and Imsety, a human, protected the liver (Brier 1996: 27).

Canopic jar lid 1884.57.15 with canopic jar 1884.57.17 .1, Egypt

Why the ancient Egyptians developed the mummification technique is still a debated topic. Egyptian cemeteries are usually on the west bank of the Nile Valley, on the desert’s fringes, avoiding the fertile floodplain used for farming. In exceptional circumstances – arid, waterlogged or frozen conditions, where aerobic bacteria cannot function – organic material and therefore, potentially, whole human bodies, can survive. It is generally believed that the discovery of naturally desiccated bodies buried in shallow graves in the sand during the Predynastic Period (c. 4000-2960 BC) gave the ancient Egyptians their ideas of life after death and inspired them to develop artificial mummification techniques later in the Dynastic Period (c. 2960 BC-AD 332) (Ikram 2003: 49-50). However, burials from the Naqada II Period (c. 3650-3300 BC) at Hierakonpolis have been found with partial wrapping of the body, especially the head and hands, with linen (Friedman 1999: 7) and Badarian (c. 4500-4000 BC) burials commonly contain pottery vessels, slate palettes and stone beads (Murray 1956: 89, 94), which could mean that the religious belief in an afterlife and desire to preserve the body came first and not the other way around (Ikram 2003: 50).

Either way, although the ancient Egyptians did accept physical death, perhaps they saw that to some extent the person who had died still survived, but could not imagine their survival without the body (Frankfort 1948: 93). I think that they perceived that caring for the body when the person died, that is, taking the time to bury it away from the flies and scavenger animals, had this effect and that by trying even harder to look after it, they would be even more likely to survive. This would explain why in the Early Dynastic (c. 2960-2649 BC) graves became brick-lined or bodies were wrapped in reed matting (Brier 1996: 20). Unfortunately, this had the opposite effect because it meant the bodies lost contact with the hot, drying sand for longer and decomposed more (Brier 1996: 20). The Egyptians did not understand the important role of the desert sand and did not revert to it (Tyldesley 2000: 146), this meant even more drastic measures of preservation had to be developed, and by trial and error over a long period of time, they developed the famous technique familiar to all British school children today.

The ancient Egyptians’ belief in the afterlife is reflected in the myth of Osiris, the epitome of the good king and the good god (Plutarch, De Iside 13, 49). His story was what everyone aspired to follow (Brier 1996: 21), although it appears to have been a taboo subject for Egyptian texts because mentions of it are very brief despite their frequency (Lichtheim 1976: 81). The 18th Dynasty Hymn to Osiris is the fullest ancient Egyptian account (Lichtheim 1976: 81-86), but the most famous version of his myth is Plutarch’s De Iside et Osiride. In summary, the Egyptians believed that before humans ruled Egypt, it was ruled by the gods. Osiris taught people how to farm, but his evil brother, Seth, was jealous of him and decided to kill him. He managed to get Osiris’ measurements and had a box made that only he would fit into. He held a party and told his guests that whoever fitted into it would win it and, of course, Osiris fitted perfectly, but did not realise it was a trick. Seth slammed the lid down and threw the box, now Osiris’ coffin, into the river.

Osiris’ good wife, Isis, found the box stuck in a tree and rescued him. Seth found out and tore Osiris’ body to pieces and scattered them all over the country. Isis carefully collected all the bits together again, wrapped him up in bandages and hid the body in the marshes with the help of her sister, Nephthys, guarded by the jackal-headed god, Anubis. Isis turned herself into a bird and breathed the breath of life back into Osiris long enough to become pregnant with Horus. The other gods eventually decided that Osiris could be the god of the Afterlife and the Underworld, but the battles between Seth and Horus continued, colourfully described in a text known as the Contendings of Horus and Seth (Lichtheim 1976: 214-223). It was the ultimate triumph of good over evil – Osiris overcame death by having his body preserved and protected by Isis – and the ancient Egyptians aspired in their deaths to do the same and to live forever with him in the Afterlife.

The living body was known as a khet and a dead body a khat (Ikram 2003: 24), but the ancient Egyptians also believed that everyone had a ka (the life force of a person) and a ba (personality of a person). To survive after you had died, the ka and ba needed the same provisions, like food, as they did in life and to be able to return to the body (Ikram 2003: 23). It was therefore essential for the body to be preserved [2], which is why the ancient Egyptians invested so many resources in mummification and tomb building – tombs were known as ‘houses of the ka’ (Ikram 2003: 27). The role of the Four Sons of Horus is also specifically mentioned in relation to the ka in a text at the end of a Ptolemaic (Greek) Period (332-30 BC) copy of the Book of the Dead belonging to a lady called Tentraty or Teret, and called the Lamentation of Isis and Nephthys (Lichtheim 1980: 116-121):

“Thoth recites your liturgy,
And calls you with his spells;
The Sons of Horus guard your body,
And daily bless your ka.”

Unfortunately, no ancient Egyptian accounts of the mummification process have been found, possibly because it was never written down as embalmers learnt on the job, like other craftsmen (Brier 1996: 38). Herodotus (2. 86) and Diodorus (1. 91) do say it was a professional trade. Herodotus was an ancient Greek historian and the first person to write an account of mummification, but at a time when the process was just passed its height and beginning to decline. His work is supplemented by Diodorus (1. 91 and 19. 98-99), Strabo (16. 2. 41-2 and 45) and Pliny (16. 21, 24. 11, and 31. 46). These date to c. 484-420 BC, the 1st century BC, c. 63 BC- AD 21, and AD 23-79, respectively (Shaw and Nicholson 1995: 126, 22, 280, 197), not, then, the height of the Egyptian empire.

Herodotus’ (2. 85-88) account says that after the initial mourning rituals, the embalmers showed the deceased person’s relatives wooden ‘sample corpses’ to help them decide which method they wanted. In the first method, the brain was taken out with a hook, the side of the body cut with an Ethiopian stone [3] and the viscera (internal organs) removed. The body cavity was cleaned with palm wine and spices, filled with myrrh, cassia and more spices, then sewn up. The body was packed in natron for 70 days, then washed and wrapped in bandages and gum. The second method was cheaper and involved injecting the body with cedar oil through the anus and packing it for 70 days, after which the cedar oil would have dissolved the guts and the natron the flesh. The embalmers then returned the body without doing anything else to it. The third method was the cheapest and simply involved the entrails being cleaned out with myrrh and the body being left in natron for 70 days.

Herodotus was a foreigner and a tourist, so might not have been told the whole truth of what was going on, might have had translation issues, and might not even have been to Egypt. He might have heard these things third hand from soldiers or sailors, and some of the stories he tells in other parts of his book, The Histories, are quite unbelievable (see 3. 101-105). This all puts into doubt his other descriptions, but, despite this, he is the best written source we have. Diodorus (1. 91) adds details, like the family being given a price list beforehand, the prices of the three methods being a talent of silver, twenty minae and the third, ‘very little indeed.’ Coinage was not used in Egypt until Greek times (Smith and Dawson 1924: 174), so we do not know how much mummification would have cost prior to this, but according to the British Museum in 1930 (1930: 229), Diodorus’ prices equated to £250 for the first method and £60 for the second. Lists of prices from the Greek period have survived and Brier (1996: 74) has published one example.

Diodorus (1. 91) says the ‘scribe’ marked the place for the embalming incision, which was on the left side of the body, and the ‘slitter’ did the cutting, but was then chased away with stones for harming one of his ‘tribe.’ Herodotus does not mention this. Could this be because Diodorus visited Egypt around 59 BC (Brier 1996: 71), during the Roman Emperor Nero’s reign (Shaw and Nicholson 1995: 312), whereas Herodotus visited around 450 BC (Shaw and Nicholson 1995: 126, 311), and before the Graeco-Roman conquests (332 BC and 30 BC, respectively)? The Greeks were not allowed to dissect bodies (Smith 1914: 190, Brier 1996: 100), so it could be that this ritual was an introduction after Herodotus’ time. It must have been a very ritualised process because they need not even have used a ‘sharp Ethiopian stone’ as they had bronze knives too at this time (Brier 1996: 63).

Diodorus (19. 98-99) and Strabo (16. 2. 41-2 and 45) say that tar from the Dead Sea was used in the process, Pliny adds that ‘cedar juice’ (16. 21) and cedar ‘pitch’ (24. 11) were used, and also mentions natron (31. 46). Natron is a naturally occurring compound of sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate (often with impurities of sodium chloride (common salt) and sodium sulphate), and its main source is Wadi Natrun (Lucas 1932: 62, 66). It was known as netjry, ‘divine salt’ (Ikram 2003: 54). Many Late Period (c. 688-332 BC) mummies are thought to have been made by simply being covered in bitumen and it is often said that the modern word ‘mummy’ comes from a Persian word, mumiya, meaning bitumen or mineral pitch (Pettigrew 1834: 1), but Lucas (1914) questioned this. He (1931: 20) argued that what was identified as ‘pitch’ was tree resin and the cedar oil of Herodotus’ second method was impure oil of turpentine. On the other hand, work by Spielmann (1932) did detect the presence of bitumen in some mummies.

There is also some inconsistency in descriptions of the length of time the mummification process took. Herodotus (2. 86, 87 and 88) says it took 70 days, but Diodorus (1.91) says it was 30 days. Inscriptions on Queen Merysankh III’s tomb (mentioned above) record that there were 273 days between her death and burial (Dunham and Simpson 1974: 8), but Brier (1996: 57) believes this delay could have been due to her tomb being unfinished. In the Bible (Genesis 50. 2-3), Jacob’s embalming took 40 days and the mourning period 70 days. The consensus today though, is that the whole procedure took 70 days, but the mummification part of it probably did not take that long and was padded out with rituals and the time it took to wrap the bodies.

Diodorus (1. 93) says that the kidneys and heart were left inside the body, and the mummies worth so much to people, that they could use them as security on a loan and were disgraced if they could not pay it back. Porphyry (4. 10) says the entrails were put in a box and held up to the sun, and this is the only ancient source to mention the canopic chest (Brier 1996: 77). Filce Leek (1969) was sceptical about being able to extract the brain through the nose (known as excerebration [Ikram 2003: 62]), but his experiments on sheep showed, to his surprise, that the technique was perfectly viable, very effective, and quite necessary as removal of the internal organs means the body is less likely to decompose (Ikram 2003: 62-63). Some questions yet to be answered, however, are how much natron was used, what was done with the blood, bladder and spleen, and what order the organs were removed in (Brier 1996: 323).

The physical study of mummies shows that the technique changed over time and this can be useful for dating purposes (for example, Gray 1972). Brain removal was not common until the New Kingdom (Ikram 2003: 63) when mummies started to be really well preserved. In the 20th Dynasty (c. 1186-1070 BC) there was a decline in central state power and a series of famous tomb robberies (Peet 1930). The court moved north and the royal tombs at Thebes in the south were left vulnerable, but the priests of the god, Amun, opened them, rebandaged the kings and moved them to secret caches (Tyldesley 2000: 110-12). This had the advantage that the embalmers could see the previously poor results of their work and thus the 21st Dynasty (c. 1070-945 BC) technique saw mummification at its peak (Brier 1996: 92-93). In this period, many are described as being packed with a ‘cheeselike substance’ under the skin, which stopped it shrinking and helped make the body look more lifelike (Smith and Dawson 1924: 116, Brier 1996: 269).

By the end of the 20th Dynasty, canopic jars were not always put near the mummy’s feet, but were sometimes placed on either side of it (Ikram 2003: 128). During the 21st and 22nd Dynasties (c. 1070-712 BC), the viscera were usually wrapped and put back inside the body cavity, but canopic jars, sometimes, solid, ‘dummy’ jars, were still used (Brier 1996: 85, Ikram 2003: 128), so important were they as part of the traditional funerary assemblage by then. Giving another twist to this, King Shoshenq II (c. 890 BC) even had dummy viscera made for himself in silver coffinettes! In the 3rd Intermediate Period (c. 1070-660 BC), the visceral parcels were sometimes accompanied by wax figures of the Four Sons of Horus (Ikram and Dodson 1998: 289). The proper use of canopic jars was revived briefly in the 25th Dynasty (c. 712-653 BC), but during the 26-30th Dynasties (c. 688-343 BC), the viscera were placed between mummys’ legs (Ikram 2003: 69) and the mummification technique declined (Brier 1996: 94).

The use of canopic jars further declined during the Graeco-Roman Period (332 BC-AD 364) (Ikram 2003: 128), but the bandaging technique used on mummies improved however, and became an elaborate ‘art form’ (British Museum 1930: 233, Brier 1996: 99). The Romans also introduced realistic portraits into the wrappings and most examples come from the Fayum area in the first two centuries AD. The best were done in encaustic (pigments mixed with beeswax) (Brier 1996: 100-1) and although only a very small number of mummies had portrait panels, they do show how the local elite had adopted Roman trends (Montserrat 1993; Doxiadis 1995). Due to these new influences, however, there was a decline in the previously held religious beliefs. When Christianity arrived in the 1st century AD, ancient Egyptian funerary practices declined even further and church leaders, such as Athanasius and St Anthony, spoke out against mummification (Brier 1996: 78). The practice was banned in AD 392 by Emperor Theodosius (Brier 1996: 100), but hundreds of crude mummies indicate that it still existed until Islam’s introduction in the 7th century (Smith 1914: 195).

Looking into the development and accoutrements of mummification, ancient Egyptian tombs and gravegoods, is to look into the development of their religion, science, craftsmanship and affluence. Canopic jars are the tip of an iceberg of industry and theology the depth of which Egyptologists are still working hard to fully understand. Although some observers may criticise this ancient civilisation for being obsessed with death, many others see their beliefs as a reflection of a life they enjoyed and subsequently wished to lead forever. In the words of Diodorus (1.93), ‘a person may well admire the men who established these customs…and affectionate care of the dead.’

Beth Asbury
Pitt Rivers Museum
August 2012


[1] The chronology used is that of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as of August 2010.

[2] Knowing this makes it sad that the contents of canopic jar 1884.57.17.1 have been identified as ‘burnt matter…likely the embalmed viscera’ on the object database (

[3] For a discussion about an ancient Egyptian knife that Pitt-Rivers thought might have been used in mummification, see my object biography of Flint Knife 1884.140.82.


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