Canopic chest & jars of Gua

This wooden chest with four painted Egyptian alabaster canopic jars belongs to somebody called Gua. They date from the 12th Dynasty of Ancient Egypt’s Middle Kingdom, approximately, 1939-1760 B.C.

Discovered in Deir el-Bersha, they are inscribed with funerary texts on behalf of Gua, invoking the Four Sons of Horus, Isis, Nephthys, Selket and Neith. Three of the jars retain remains of linen packages inside.

Canopic chest & jars of Gua
Canopic chest & jars of Gua
Middle Kingdom, 12th Dynasty, c. 1939-1760 B.C.
Deir El-Basha
British Museum. EA30838

Deir El Bersha (Arabic: دير البرشا; also written as Dayr al-Barsha, Deir el-Bersheh) is a Coptic village in Middle Egypt, in the Minya Governorate. It is located on the east bank of the Nile to the south of Antinoöpolis and almost opposite the city of Mallawi. During the pharaonic period, there was a vast cemetery, which is most well known for its decorated Middle Kingdom tombs on the north flank of Wadi Nakhla.

In the winter of 1891–1892, a survey of tombs at Deir el-Bersha funded by the Egypt Exploration Fund was undertaken by Percy E. Newberry, George Willoughby Fraser, Howard Carter and Marcus Worsley Blackden. They recorded ten of the Middle Kingdom tombs across two volumes, one volume is solely dedicated to the tomb of Tehuti-Hetep (Djehutyhotep), a twelfth-dynasty nomarch whose tomb is well known for its depiction of the “colossus on a sledge,” a tomb wall painting depicting the transportation of a colossal statue.

The canopic jars were four in number, each for the safekeeping of particular human organs: the stomach, intestines, lungs, and liver, all of which, it was believed, would be needed in the afterlife. There was no jar for the heart: the Egyptians believed it to be the seat of the soul, and so it was left inside the body. These organs were removed from the body and carefully treated with natron (a natural preservative used by embalmers) and placed in the sacred canopic jars.

The Mummification Process in Ancient Egypt. Illustration by: Christian Jegou
The Mummification Process in Ancient Egypt.
Illustration by: Christian Jegou

The design of canopic jars changed over time. The oldest date from the Eleventh or the Twelfth Dynasty, and are made of stone or wood.[8] The last jars date from the New Kingdom. In the Old Kingdom the jars had plain lids, though by the First Intermediate Period jars with human heads (assumed to represent the dead) began to appear. Sometimes the covers of the jars were modeled after (or painted to resemble) the head of Anubis, the god of death and embalming. By the late Eighteenth Dynasty canopic jars had come to feature the four sons of Horus. Many sets of jars survive from this period, in alabaster, aragonite, calcareous stone, and blue or green glazed porcelain. The sons of Horus were also the gods of the cardinal compass points. Each god was responsible for protecting a particular organ and was himself protected by a companion goddess.

They were:

Hapi, the baboon-headed god representing the North, whose jar contained the lungs and was protected by the goddess Nephthys.

Hapi is often used interchangeably with the Nile god Hapi, though they are actually different gods.

Duamutef, the jackal-headed god representing the East, whose jar contained the stomach and was protected by the goddess Neith

Imseti, the human-headed god representing the South, whose jar contained the liver and was protected by the goddess Isis

Qebehsenuef, the falcon-headed god representing the West, whose jar contained the intestines and was protected by the goddess Selket.

Early canopic jars were placed inside a canopic chest and buried in tombs together with the sarcophagus of the dead. Later, they were sometimes arranged in rows beneath the bier, or at the four corners of the chamber. After the early periods there were usually inscriptions on the outsides of the jars, sometimes quite long and complex. The scholar Sir Ernest Budge quoted an inscription from the Saïte or Ptolemaic period that begins: “Thy bread is to thee. Thy beer is to thee. Thou livest upon that on which Ra lives.” Other inscriptions tell of purification in the afterlife.

In the Third Intermediate Period and later, dummy canopic jars were introduced. Improved embalming techniques allowed the viscera to remain in the body; the traditional jars remained a feature of tombs, but were no longer hollowed out for storage of the organs.