Why these 3,000 year-old fakes were just as good as the real thing.
For the ancient Egyptian, to get to the afterlife in one piece required a well-preserved, preferably mummified body. This wasn't a procedure for the faint-hearted. To ensure that the body would dry out nicely, the vital organs, needed for life beyond the grave, had to be removed and preserved separately.
It was a messy business. The four major organs were removed, dried out in natron and wrapped in linen packages. These were then placed in containers known today as Canopic Jars. From the 19th Dynasty on, the jar stoppers were crafted in the form of one human and three animal-headed deities. These heads represented the four 'Sons of Horus'; gods called upon to each safeguard one precious embalmed organ.
Qebehsenuef, with the head of a falcon, looked after the intestines, Hapy, with the head of a baboon, safeguarded the lungs, Duamutef, with the head of a jackal, protected the stomach, and Imsety, with a human head, looked after the liver.
In ancient Egypt, just as today, traditions evolved, and by the Third Intermediate Period (21st-24th Dynasties, 1069-715 B.C.) the embalmed organs were wrapped and returned to the body, making it more 'whole'. The only purpose for the canopic jars now was in the protection that each jar's god provided.
During this time, a man named Padiouf, a royal carpenter and priest of Amun at Karnak Temple, began stocking his tomb in readiness for a glorious afterlife. Included in the tomb equipment were four canopic jars. However, to save on the cost of actual fine limestone jars, Padiouf ordered these false jars , each made from a single block of solid wood. Their white, painted exterior imitates the texture of stone. In the Egyptian mind, the shape that was copied was as effective as the object that inspired it.
Today, Padiouf's false canopic jars are in the Louvre, Paris (N2952A-D).
So why are they called 'Canopic Jars'?
The origin of the name relates to the coastal Delta town of Canopus, situated on the western end of Alexandria's major harbour near modern Abu Qir.
Kanopos was the name of the Greek helmsman for Menelaus, king of Sparta and husband of Helen. After the fall of Troy he was allegedly buried in Egypt, where he was revered as a form of Osiris at Abu Qir, and worshipped in the Ptolemaic Period in the form of a jar with a human head. When the jars containing deceased's organs were found in tombs by early Egyptologists, they associated their shape with the Kanopos vases; hence 'Canopic Jars'.
Photo: Georges Poncet