Many of the objects that survive from ancient Egypt were originally made for rituals or ceremonies associated with the belief in the afterlife. ‘From an early stage in the development of their beliefs in the afterlife, the Egyptians linked the preservation of the body with eternal life. If the body was damaged or destroyed then continued existence after death was affected. Whilst substitutes for the body might be placed within the tomb in the form of models or statues, or depictions of the deceased carved upon the tomb walls or a stela, the preservation of the physical remains was always of paramount concern. It was as a result of this that the process of mummification developed’ (Hope 2004, p. 24).

This Canopic chest was made to hold the wrapped and dried remains of the internal organs of the owner after mummification. On the outside of the chest, hieroglyphic symbols and images offer prayers for the wellbeing of the deceased. On the front of the chest, the deceased kneels before the gods Osiris and Ra. On the sides, the four sons of the god Horus protect the internal organs and the symbols of Djed (stability) and Tyet (the knot of Isis) appear together to represent eternal life.

Classroom discussion:

  • What evidence can you see in this chest that the ancient Egyptians used a highly symbolic visual language?  In your answer consider how the figures are presented, including why some are larger than others.
  • The falcon with the double-plumed headdress on the lid of the chest is Sokar. Find out why Sokar, Osiris, Ra, and the sons of Horus are important in ancient Egypt mythology. Based on your findings suggest why they are represented on the chest.

Dr Colin A. Hope in A. Dunsmore, A. Fyfe, C. A. Hope, H. Jackson, M. Miller, & J. Ryan, Ancient Civilisations in the International Collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2004.