The Canopic Jar of Amset

The Canopic Jar of Amset

Ancient Egypt, also called the land of the Pharaohs, is among the countries with the oldest civilization in the entire world. The country’s greatest source of admiration is the monumental tombs, the pyramids, and the temples, decorated with relief and hieroglyphs (Unwrapping the Secrets of Ancient Egypt: Canopic Jars & Chests np). Their art and beauty as well as the preserved evidence, the mummies, contribute to the country’s great fascination. The Egyptians took special care of the dead so as to ensure that they would be able to make it to their material world. This was done due to their firm belief in the existence of an afterlife (Unwrapping the Secrets of Ancient Egypt: Canopic Jars & Chests np). The process included the making of the mummy with various ritual rites, so as to protect the body of the dead. This also entailed preservation of the other body parts in four different Canopic jars, which represented the four different gods. The jars were used as containers during the mummification process to hold the internal organs of the victims. The four Canopic jars had lids and stoppers that were shaped in different forms to represent various functions. The paper explains the functions of the Amsety Canopic jar and the materials selected from the jar in the nineteenth dynasty which determined their ability to portray movement after death.

Fig 1: The Canopic Jars

Canopic jars were just referred as embalming vessels or jars. Canopic is a modern term used that comes from the Canopus town situated in the Nile Delta. This was the place that the local god was known as a jar. However, the jar had no direct connection to the jars that were used for embalming, only that the term became popular.

The ancient Egyptians had strong believed on the dead. They believed that after a person passes on, their spirit will continue with the journey to live in eternity forever and the afterlife. Therefore, their bodies were well kept and preserved (Unwrapping the Secrets of Ancient Egypt: Canopic Jars & Chests np). There were various processes employed by the Egyptians during embalmment. This usually depended on the person’s status and wealth and the cost of preservation required. The brain was extracted through the nostril, using the special equipment after injection of a chemical preparation.   Part of the preservation process was to remove the internal organs which they believed the deceased did require on the journey to the afterlife. This was done by making incision in the body using a stone knife (Unwrapping the Secrets of Ancient Egypt: Canopic Jars & Chests np). They included the liver, intestines, lungs, and the stomach. The organs were differently treated and maintained according to their purpose and importance. Therefore, they believed that the organs were only required by the deceased in their afterlife. However, organs such as the brain were removed and thrown away as their purpose was not identified and understood (Unwrapping the Secrets of Ancient Egypt: Canopic Jars & Chests np). The heart which was vital to the deceased’s next life was left as it was the center of intelligence and soul (Unwrapping the Secrets of Ancient Egypt: Canopic Jars & Chests np) The organs were, therefore, mummified and preserved separately from the entire body and placed in canopic jars for protection (Unwrapping the Secrets of Ancient Egypt: Canopic Jars & Chests np). These was done by drying the body and staffing it with powder and covered with natron for seventy days before it was washed and carefully placed in a large coffin. The coffin was decorated with various sacred symbols with figures of the dos and goddesses. The cheaper alternative of mummification for poor people was the injection of the chemical before covering the body with natron (Treatment of the Dead – Animals and Belief – Ancient Egypt-Ancient Egypt np). The internal organs were then removed after seventy days so to retain bones, dried flesh, and the skin. However, the primary aim of mummification was purely for the transformation of the body into its new life and new existence, rather than to maintain it as it used to be in life (Treatment of the Dead – Animals and Belief – Ancient Egypt-Ancient Egypt np).

The canopic jars were then kept in canopic chests so as to offer extra protection. The culture of keeping the internal body organs in the canopic jars begun during the Old Kingdom up to the Ptolemaic period, however, the process of mummification changed slightly during the other period (Unwrapping the Secrets of Ancient Egypt: Canopic Jars & Chests). This was where the body organs were dried after removal and then returned inside the body afterward. Fake wooden jars were then placed and buried in the tomb so as to represent a basic protection of the canopic jars (Unwrapping the Secrets of Ancient Egypt: Canopic Jars & Chests). The organs, such as the liver, were dried using natron, a type of salt with high drying properties before they were wrapped and kept inside the Amset canopic jar, which was secured and guarded by a god, Imsety, the son of Horus. The god was also protected by the s different goddess, which was always depicted on the canopic chest. For Imsety who protected the liver, the separate goddess that protected it was called the Isis, who was the goddess of households, service, death, and night (Unwrapping the Secrets of Ancient Egypt: Canopic Jars & Chests np).

At the start of the 4th dynasty, the removal of the internal organs from the deceased became the most important step during burial and mummification (Treatment of the Dead – Animals and Belief – Ancient Egypt-Ancient Egypt np). The internal organs were deposited in a special place with the walls of the tomb after initially being soaked in linen with resin. Also, they could be kept in the tomb floor pits or a canopic jar which was a special compartment container (Treatment of the Dead – Animals and Belief – Ancient Egypt-Ancient Egypt np).

The Canopic jars were, therefore, used for the storage of internal body organs that were removed from the deceased for the purpose of preservation (Faulkner np). Only the heart was not removed as it was believed to contain the Ab characteristic of the soul. However, the removed body parts were still considered to be required by the dead in their afterlife. Therefore, they were sealed in the Canopic jars and kept in the Tomb (Seawright np).  The Canopic jars were shaped in the form of the four mummy-form sons of Horus (Treatment of the Dead – Animals and Belief – Ancient Egypt-Ancient Egypt).

The Amset Canopic jar in the ancient Egyptian mummification process was among the vessels used to keep internal organs, the liver (Mark np). The Amset jar represented the human-headed god of the south that was believed to guard the liver. Traditionally, the organ is placed in Amset’s jar.  Thus, our jar is an artifact from the nineteenth dynasty because it portrays the head of Amset (Seawright). The role of Amsety (Imsety) was to assist in revivifying the corpse of the dead person as according to Horus; he is asked to lift up. “You have come to me; betake yourself beneath him and lift up, do not be far from him, in your name of Imsety” (Faulkner np).

Fig 2 Amset Canopic jar Artist Unknown: Egypt, c. 1550 BCE – 1070 BCE Alabaster

According to him, to stand up means become active and hence alive, while prone means death (Seawright np).

Various Copious numbers of sets of jars survive from this period as they were frequently used to keep body organs (Mark). Before the nineteenth dynasty, the canopic jars were made from some raw materials such as wood, pottery, common stone, and even glazed composition. The styles of the materials differed with time (Unwrapping the Secrets of Ancient Egypt: Canopic Jars & Chests np). The tall wooden chests looked like shrines were painted with brightly on their sides with a crouching falcon at the top. Wooden canopic jars were often painted with gaudy colors and were found in several wooden models (Seawright np). However, they were coated with gesso that prepared them for pigments for painting.

The top drawing of the falcon represented Sokar, a goddess of the funeral, with various pictures ant the sides of the chest depicting the deceased worshipping Osiris, the goddess of the afterlife (Unwrapping the Secrets of Ancient Egypt: Canopic Jars & Chests). However, the paintings were not as perfect as they used to be initial as the culture and of the Egyptians were decaying with time due to civilization (Treatment of the Dead – Animals and Belief – Ancient Egypt-Ancient Egypt). The existence of several poor-model wooden jars was due to various factors including poverty of friends and relatives of the deceased, or simply the dishonesty of the person furnishing the funeral. The Canopic jars date from the old and the new kingdoms. From the New Kingdom, the Canopic jars or vessels were made with plain simple lids before adopting the human heads that represented the dead in the Middle Kingdom (Unwrapping the Secrets of Ancient Egypt: Canopic Jars & Chests np).

The New Kingdom canopic jars featuring the four sons of Horus. They included Hapy, the ape head that protected the lungs; Dwamutef, the jackal with the head of a jackal and guarded the stomach; and finally the Qebhsenuef, falcon-headed jar that protected the intestines; and finally our jar of focus, the Imsety, human head who guarded the liver. The early jars were kept inside a canopic chest that was buried with the corpse (Ancient Egypt: Canopic Jars).

Fig 3 Wooden Amseti canopic jar

During the nineteenth dynasty, materials that were applied in the design and creation of the jars ranged from alabaster to aragonite, sometimes blue or green porcelain was used (Seawright). These materials were stratified. Alabaster has white streaks parallel to each other. Aragonite has beautiful altering layers of brown and white veins. Green porcelain, while not stratified, has a network of dark green webs that crisscross the material (Seawright).

Fig 4 Blue Painted porcelain Amset Jar

Our jar happens to be in the medium of alabaster. Note the particular choice of how the artist chose to chisel the material. The layers of the alabaster are oriented horizontally instead of vertically, which is a design choice that emphasizes several aesthetic points (Unwrapping the Secrets of Ancient Egypt: Canopic Jars & Chests). First, the layers seem to be “overflowing” from the jar. Because of the random curvature of the mineral veins in the alabaster, the stone gives off a natural look (Ancient Egypt: Canopic Jars). This natural look combined with the domed shape of the jar itself contributes to a ‘waterfall’ effect, where the stone seems to be a fountain of white, where the streaks represent layers of water falling upon one another. The jar looks like it is a water fountain, with the head continuously spouting water and the water tumbling down the sides. It portrays movement (Unwrapping the Secrets of Ancient Egypt: Canopic Jars & Chests np).

Fig 5 Alabaster Amsety Canopic Jar

This water effect may or may not pay tribute to the aqueous journey across the river, usually river Nile, into the afterlife. Because the jar represents a flowing form of water, it may help the liver and thus the deceased and the soul in their journey into the eternal afterlife (Ancient Egypt: Canopic Jars). Of course, the canopic jars and specifically the Amset jar were made with a variety of materials, so this metaphor may not hold up under every circumstance. Instead, let us assume that the canopic jars were made out of stone –not wood, which is homogenous – but the stratified stone which as a raw material is already interesting. The stone provides beauty to the jar, where the eye has many things to consider (Unwrapping the Secrets of Ancient Egypt: Canopic Jars & Chests).  The randomness makes the finished jar product unpredictable. In other words, every single jar will be different because no single alabaster or porcelain stock is the same (Ancient Egypt: Canopic Jars np).

In conclusion, the ancient Egyptians respected ad had a great emphasis on death and afterlife. The ones that were in a position to afford it spend most of their time preparing for their end. This is depicted in the decorated tombs and a proper selection of the Amset jar and other canopic vessels to be used in the burial ceremony that was meant to ensure their safe journey to the other side. Nothing was more particular and important to the Egyptians than death and their preservation methods.

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