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Work Red terracotta canopic jars decorated with two arms

Department of Egyptian Antiquities: Religious and funerary beliefs

Red terracotta canopic jars decorated with two arms

© Musée du Louvre/C. Décamps

Egyptian Antiquities
Religious and funerary beliefs

Author(s):
Varry Sylvie

This incomplete series of three canopic jars, missing the lids, dates from the Middle Kingdom and belonged to a civil servant name Hepy. The jars are made of high quality red ceramic and feature a remarkable relief carving of two arms, one of which holds the ankh symbol, the other a uas scepter. These are the oldest canopic jars in the Louvre.

Technique and decor

These three canopic jars, part of a series that belonged to Hepy, are in good condition, although the lids are missing. They are fairly squat, wide-shouldered, and have no necks.
During the Middle Kingdom, canopic jars were made of various materials; these were fashioned from terracotta.
These jars are extremely well made: the clay was coated with a red slip and polished. This polishing step, performed prior to firing but after the piece had dried, re-arranged the crystals in the slip, creating the high gloss on the fired piece.
The most exceptional aspect of these jars is the decor featuring two arms sculpted in light relief. This design exists on only a very small number of jars. The arms are holding an ankh symbol and a uas scepter.
These arms may be those of the four goddesses who protected viscera, whose names are written on contemporaneous chests containing canopic jars. Or, given the uas scepter, they may be attributes of male deities; indeed, the arms may be those of Horus's sons.

A missing canopic jar

An engraved text runs around the mouth of each of these canopic jars. It indicates the name and title of the deceased, Hepy, as well as the name of one of the "Four Sons of Horus," the four deities that protected viscera. Only three jars remain, each one citing a different son of Horus: Imsety, Hapi, and Duamutef. When the series was made, it certainly included a fourth jar, now missing, with the name of Qebehsenuf.

Origins and developments

The term "canopic jar" is a Greek, not Egyptian, term. It comes from the city of Canopus in the Egyptian Delta, where a form of Osiris (represented as a jar featuring a human-headed cover) was worshiped during the Greco-Roman period. As viscera jars may appear to be similar, the name "canopic jar" or "canopic" was used, improperly, for all recipients containing viscera.
Entrails were removed during the mummification process starting in the Early Kingdom, and installations designed to hold the dried viscera, wrapped in linen, have been found in the tombs of royal family members. This was often an alcove carved into the ground or wall of the funerary chamber; sometimes a chest, divided into four compartments, was used. The first canopic jars appeared in the late Fourth Dynasty; they were made of stone and had flat or rounded lids.
During the First Intermediate Period, some lids featured a human head. During this period and the Middle Kingdom, these jars evolved: many different materials and shapes were used; one or two chests to contain the canopic jars were added; and especially, texts were included, placing the deceased and the viscera under the protection of the "Four Sons of Horus" and the four goddesses.

Technical description

  • Red terracotta canopic jars decorated with two arms

    Middle Kingdom, c. 2033-1710 BC

    Qaou el-Kebir (?), Egypt

  • Terracotta vase, slip, polished bas-relief.

    Under the protection of Hapi: H: 28.10 cm; Dia: 23.50 cm.Under the protection of Duamutef: H: 28.70 cm; Dia: 23.70 cm.Under the protection of Imsety: H: 28 cm; D: 23.50 cm.

  • Under the protection of Hapi, Under the protection of Duamutef: purchase 1912Under the protection of Imsety: purchase 1952.

    E 11257

  • Egyptian Antiquities

    Sully wing
    Ground floor
    The Book of the Dead
    Room 17

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