Louvre’s jars never held the organs of Rameses II

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From The Times
May 28, 2007
A century ago the Louvre proudly received an important addition to its notable Egyptian collection: the canopic jars of Rameses II. Such jars were used to hold the viscera of the embalmed mummy, and these bore the name cartouche of one of the most famous pharaohs, reputed to be the opponent of Moses in the Book of Exodus.

Although they were bucket-shaped rather than closed jars with stoppers, like the canopic jars found 20 years later in the tomb of Tutankhamun, they contained “linen impregnated with organic substances”, as Armélle Charri-Duhaut and her colleagues point out in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

One of the packets was sliced open in 1906, and “a muscular nodule was identified as a piece of heart from its histological structure”. This specimen has since been lost. But for many years the jars were accepted, as they are still labelled in the Louvre, as having held the organs of Rameses II, who reigned from 1279 to 1212BC.

However, it now appears that they were not Rameses’ canopic jars, but were recycled, and took on a canopic use long after his reign.

When Rameses’ mummy was subjected to detailed anatomical study some 20 years ago, his heart was found to be still in place. It had already been suggested that the jars’ real function was to hold the linens used during the embalming process. Organic residue scraped from inside one of the jars, believed to be derived from a tree of the Pistacia genus, and on a lump of resin-like material from its bottom, originally identified as embalming material, has been subject to new analysis. The residue was dated to between 1085BC and 985BC, which is more than a century later than the reign of Rameses II, while the “embalming substance” dated to 325-225BC, in the period of the Greek Ptolemaic rulers who ruled Egypt after the conquest by Alexander the Great.

The fatty acids from the jar residue seem to have come from an animal, likely to have been pig, mixed with a coniferous oil. There seems to have been no taboo on the use of pig products in funerary ritual, in spite of the passage in the Book of the Dead that says “Seth took the form of a black boar”, and the assumptions that have been based on it. Pine oil was one of the “canonical oils” used in offerings since the Old Kingdom, and may have been imported from Lebanon.

The whole set of jars seems to have been used to hold unguents: a similar open vessel, of a shape technically known as a situla, was found in the tomb of Tutankhamun and was filled with a precious unguent in which the fingerprints of looters were still visible. These substances were used for religious purposes, not for mummification: their shape is that of temple equipment, not funerary vessels. The team conclude that “originally, the jars were used to stock sacred cosmetics in the Temple of Rameses II”, although this would have been after his death.

The organic analyses enable the jars’ complex history to be reconstructed: their first use was linked to temple worship in the Third Intermediate Period, “probably to stock precious cosmetics . . . Later, the jars were reused for the storage of viscera embalmed with Pistacia resin,” the team concludes. The famous blue-glazed faience jars can no longer be described as the canopic vessels of Rameses II. Journal of Archaeological Science 34: 957-67. Some of the world’s earliest jade ornaments have been uncovered in northeastern China. Some 8,000 years old, the jades show a variety of manufacturing techniques and ritual uses.

Jade is so hard – about 25 per cent harder than a steel knife blade – that few materials can be used to work it: often, jade dust in a sludge is used as an abrasive to create the final polished surface which allows the stone’s colour and texture to show through.

Most early Chinese jades are of nephrite, although in late imperial times Burmese jadeite was used as well.

The finds, made by artisans in a village in Inner Mongolia, about 200 miles from Beijing, were found in a series of pit-houses of the Xinglongwa culture (6,0005,500BC). Burials below the house floors at the Xinglongguo site and deposits in adjacent pits included numerous nephrite jades, and similar artefacts made from chalcedony, which these early farmers seem to have considered as a sort of “social jade”, of similar ritual signficance.

The most striking jades were “slit-rings”, spools in the shape of napkin rings with a slit by which they could be slid on to the wearer’s ears, although they may have been suspended from the earlobes by cords.

“These are the oldest jade earrings known,” said Liu Guo-xiang, of the Chinese Institute of Archaeology.

Other jades were in the form of “scoops”, perhaps imitating the clam-shells found in one pits, and arc-like pieces which may copy the tusks of wild pigs. One striking ritual deposit at the Xinglongguo site consisted of two pig skulls to which were attached S-shaped “bodies” made up from potsherds, broken stone tools and pebbles, which Liu interprets as a “pig-dragon” ancestor of the dragon, which is such a striking feature in later Chinese art.

Other ritual objects included two plaques made from human skulls, perforated and decorated: although the economy of these Neolithic pig-farmers was simple, their conceptual life and cosmology were complex, and show in early forms features that mark later Chinese civilisation.