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Preserving the soul for the afterlife

Posted on April 6, 2020 at 4:00 PM by Allison Sheridan

Many visitors are surprised to learn that we have ancient objects in the collection, including this Canopic Jar Lid from Egypt, one of many highlights of the current exhibition Creating a Global Understanding. Though the exhibition is currently closed to the public, learn more about this amazing work of ancient art.

Ancient Egypt was likely one of the first civilizations to believe in an afterlife. Beliefs relied heavily on the preservation of the soul, Ka, and the body, Ba. Within this belief system lie the roots of the embalming and mummification practices used to preserve an individual’s body for use in the afterlife.

Vessels, known today as canopic jars, were core components in these practices to contain the internal organs of the deceased. There would typically be four canopic jars per mummified body—one with the head of a baboon (Hapi or Hapy) for the lungs, the head of a jackal (Duamutef) for the stomach, the head of a falcon (Kebechsenef or Qebehsenuef) for the intestines, and one jar, like this one, with a human head (Imset or Imseti) for the liver. 

This lid depicts Imset, a god illustrated by the human head and one of four sons of the god Horus. The liver in ancient Egypt was seen as the part of the body containing emotion, a quality that would be needed in the afterlife of the mummified person. The afterlife, A’Aru (The Field of Reeds), according to ancient Egyptians, was a divine place without illness, pain or suffering.

This canopic jar lid is made of Travertine (Egyptian alabaster) which was viewed as a sacred mineral in ancient times. Travertine was quarried in Alabastron, Egypt and was frequently utilized in the creation of canopic jars. Once the liver was excised from the body, it would be packed in natron, an agent for preservation, and wrapped in linen. Natron would have been sourced from salt flats in Egypt and was used to dry out and prevent bacteria from compromising the organ and the body to be mummified.

Natron was also used for centuries in ancient Egyptian glass making and as “Egyptian blue” in ceramic glazes (faience). Several examples of both glass and ceramic objects using Natron are in the University Museums’ permanent collection.

In polytheistic ancient Egypt, symbolism and iconography were heavily relied upon for many reasons; to teach about the individual deities and their roles, to protect the pharaohs on their trip to the afterlife, and in funerary rites and rituals. This Imset lid to a canopic jar captures the devotion to the gods, the reverence for the body, and the veneration for a life after in the Field of Reeds.

Primary source objects like this canopic jar lid help bring history to life, transporting viewers to a time of mummies and the spiritual beliefs of the lives of ancient Egyptians.

Imset (Imseti) Canopic Jar Lid, 1500 BCE, Egyptian. Gift of Ann and Henry Brunnier. In the permanent collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 6.1.1

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