Jars for the afterlife

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Canopic jarsThe first in a series of blogs from Marion Servat-Fredericq, Assistant Curator of Antiquities, reveals aspects of the fascinating culture of Ancient Egypt through some objects from our collection. "We have put some of the most popular objects from our Egyptian collection on display online while the Ancient Egypt gallery is closed for extensive refurbishment.  This beautiful set of Egyptian canopic jars, also on display in the atrium, give us insight into Egyptian beliefs about the afterlife. Wah-Hor's name "Wah-Hor the justified, son of Path-hotep" in hieroglyphs. These canopic jars once contained the mummified organs of a man called Wah-hor who lived about 600 BC. He was the son of a man called Pat-hotep, and must have been a very wealthy man to afford such costly objects to be made for his tomb. These very heavy jars were carved in Egyptian alabaster, a stone commonly known as travertine, which was obtained from quarries in Middle Egypt. We have discovered a total of 9 ancient quarries of Egyptian alabaster so far between Cairo and Esna. The most famous quarry site is that of Hatnub in the Eastern desert, 18 kilometres away from the ancient city of Amarna which was created by Akhenaton. Inscriptions discovered at the quarries of Hatnub reveal that Egyptian alabaster was quarried at this site for over 3000 years, from the Old Kingdom to the Roman Period. The alabaster used to make the canopic jars for Wah-hor may have come from such quarries. It is thought that Wah-hor’s lungs, stomach, intestines and liver were removed from his body, individually wrapped and then placed inside these canopic jars. The Egyptians believed that these four organs played an important role in sustaining the deceased in the afterlife, and every effort was made to protect them from disintegrating. Each jar was made in the shape of one of the Four Sons of Horus to magically protect the organs of the deceased:
  • Baboon-headed Hapy protected the lungs.
  • Jackal-headed Duamutef protected the stomach.
  • Hawk-headed Qebehsenuef protected the intestines.
  • Human-headed Imsety protected the liver.
In turn, each son of Horus was protected by a goddess: Nephthys, Neith, Selkis and Isis. A magic spell was also inscribed on the jars to provide extra protection. The four canopic jars would have been placed next to the body of Wah-hor in his tomb, together with everything he would need to live a happy afterlife." Find out more about the canopic jars and other selected items from our Ancient Egypt collection, newly available online. Our Ancient Egypt gallery is currently undergoing extensive refurbishment to make it the second largest in the UK. The new gallery will open early 2017 and will feature many new objects never displayed before, including a Mummy Room presenting mummies that have not been seen since they were evacuated from the museum in the Second World War.