King Tut’s Canopic Shrine: Exception or Anomaly?


  1. Introduction
  2. Exceptionalism of Tutankhamun’s Canopic Equipment
  3. Mistakes, Misconceptions, and New Kingdom Society



Tutankhamun’s Canopic Shrine, Western Thebes, ca. 1325 B.C.


Ancient Egyptians believed that the physical preservation of various bodily organs was quintessential for passage to the afterlife and the spiritual sustenance of his or her ba in the netherworld. This preservation was particularly important for pharaohs because they took on the persona of Osiris upon death and it was crucial that their vital organs were intact and complete for complete transformation to take effect.[i] The liver, lungs, stomach, and intestines of the pharaohs were each removed and carefully placed in individual canopic jars, protected by the four sons of the Horus: Imsety, Hapy, Duamutef, and Kebehseneuf. As an added layer of protection, the four canopic jars would be placed in a chest with separate compartments. However, the canopic equipment featured in King Tutankhamun’s tomb in KV 62 defy this seeming tradition and stands as anomaly on its own: all four lids of Tutankhamun’s canopic jars feature his face rather than the sons of Horus and the canopic chest is placed into a larger canopic shrine. This leads us to consider two related questions; first, why were Tutankhamun’s canopic jars treated differently from the other pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings? And second, from a functionalist lens, what could it possibly reveal about his reign and society’s perception and beliefs about death during the Eighteenth Dynasty period?

Lids of Canopic Jars, Western Thebes, ca. 1325 B.C.


Exceptionalism of Tutankhamun’s Canopic Equipment

Tutankhamun’s Canopic Shrine, Western Thebes, ca. 1325 B.C.

Tutankhamun’s canopic shrine stands at 90.5×89.5x136cm and is constructed out of gilded wood; it has a naos roofed shrine, pillars at the four corners, and the interior is coated with resin. The four sides of the shrine features the four protective goddesses Isis, Nepthys, Neith, and Selket, individually with their hands stretched out and faced inward to the shrine. Martin and Silverman suggest that similar to the four sons of Horus, the four goddesses were also associated with the protection of the viscera.[ii] The shrine also features hieroglyphs on the four pillars. In one such pillar, there is a recitation by Isis, “My arms conceal what is mine. I protect Imset, who is in me, the Imset of the Osiris king Tutankhamun, the justified one.”[iii] The combination of evidence; the association of Isis as a protector, her arms outstretched as though guarding the shrine, and the inscription, suggests that on top of the sons of Horus, the goddesses served as an additional layer of protection of the precious contents within the jar.

Protective Goddess, Tantankhamun’s Canopic Shrine, Western Thebes, ca. 1325 B.C.

Schulz and Seidel underscore that the canopic chest was an essential part of the basic furnishings of every New Kingdom royal tomb,[iv] however the presence of a canopic shrine is a funerary feature unique to KV 62. Dodson et al. share a similar sentiment and they argue that “the complexity of Tutankhamun’s canopic installation naturally raises the question of how far it reflected the original situation in the other royal burials…likewise the gilded goddesses are without parallels, unless any of the battered resin-coated figures found in some royal tombs are such protective ladies.”[v] In fact, any attempt at trying to construct a pattern or establish a sense of continuity with regards to the concept of the canopic shrine comes to an immediate halt when one considers the evidence found at the next royal burial after Tutankhamun, the tomb of Ay (KV 23), where there were no traces of canopic equipment and according to Dodson et al. “not one scrap of material which could come from a canopic box was found.” This has only led the authors to speculate that either Ay’s burial was sub-standard, or else, those who desecrated the tomb took special pains to remove certain items and not others.[vi]

Tutankhamun’s Canopic Chest, Western Thebes, ca. 1325 B.C.

Raven suggests that the adoption of human-headed lids for canopic jars was a bid to emphasize “humanization” – to stress the close connection between the body and its parts.[vii] In the same breath however, he also highlights that the sons of Horus were regarded as protectors of Osiris “as birds flying out to the four corners of the cosmos where the sky was seen as a large vault, or a belly of a cow, and the four sons would be identified with the four supports of the vault and the legs of the cow” – they would serve as the bridge between sky and earth, and could help others ascend to heaven.[viii] Why, in the case of Tutankhamun’s canopic jar lids, was the aspect of “humanization” chosen over notion of bridging the gap between earth and the netherworld? What was going through the thought process of the Egyptians at that point in time – was the fact that Tutankhamun died as a boy king either from a fall off his chariot or as a result of foul play warrant that he had to have a closer connection with his vital organs?


Mistakes, Misconceptions, and New Kingdom Society

On the surface, the fact that the canopic shrine is unique to Tutankhamun’s burial suggests that from a functionalist point of view, it could allude to something “special” about his reign or exceptional about Egyptian society in the Eighteenth Dynasty period. The presence of several protective mechanisms – both physical and spiritual – also indicates that perhaps the contents within the shrine were truly precious, and worth guarding more so than those belonging to the kings before and after Tutankhamun. Another piece of evidence of the shrine related to the cardinal positions of the goddesses lends us some clues of this “exceptional” funerary item in the New Kingdom funerary narrative and sheds light on societal attitudes towards religious conformity.

Although the figurines of Isis and Nephthys are on opposition sides of the canopic shrine, the shrine was installed in such a way Isis was on the west side and Nephthys on the East. Should it be rotated to its correction position, such that Isis is to the South and Nephthys to North, the orientation would still be wrong, with Neith to the West and Selkis to the East, not the reverse as suggested in the Middle Kingdom coffins and chests.[ix] According to Raven, this aspect reveals that New Kingdom Egyptians were utterly confused as to the associated cardinal points of the different Egyptian deities and were not strict about adhering to the exact orientations.[x]  Dodson et al. echo the notion of the lack of conformity in the New Kingdom period, suggesting “eccentricity in the pairing of goddesses and genii,” something which occurs in Horemheb’s burial as well.[xi]

Diagram of Tutankhamun’s canopic equipment showing positions of divinities, in Maarten J. Raven, “Egyptian Concepts on the Orientation of the Human Body Source.”

Apart from the lack of conformity in inscriptions and depictions in funerary objects, shortcuts or discounts were taken in the “substantive” elements contained within the canopic jars as well. Goyon’s investigation into embalming methods and procedures reveal that it was not always easy to extract the four organs in their entirety and modern analysis has suggested that often something goes wrong in the process.[xii] This has led Raven to conclude that over time, rather than attempting to safeguard the entire organ, the purpose of the ritual evolved into simply taking a symbolic sample of each of the organs and storing them in their respective canopic jars.[xiii] In that sense, embalmers need not strive to maintain the entire organ, something which would require great skill, and instead could conveniently just take a fragment of it – indicating diminishing standards in funerary practices. This notion of symbolic storage is congruent to the lekythoi in Greek tradition where small portions of precious oils are stored within the jars rather than being stored to the brim.

Restoration Stela, Ca. 1336 B.C.

This notion of “confusion towards tradition” in Egyptian society has to be seen in the context of Tutankhamun’s reign in order for us to ultimately make some sense of it. During his reign, Tutankhamun made several alterations to his father, Akhenaten’s, religious innovations and he most notably ended the worship of the god Aten and reinstituted the god Amun to supremacy. As way to also break away from his former life in Amarna, he changed his name from Tutankhaten to Tutankhamun and erected a stela in Karnak to declare a return to tradition.[xiv] Under these circumstances, the state of society in “confusion” begins to become clearer because of the “renovation” that was going on in Egypt at that time and the return to pre-existing tradition. Therefore, insomuch as the perspective of functionalism allows us to understand the state of Egyptian society in the Eighteenth Dynasty period, the lens of structuralism allows us to draw up possible explanations of the unique albeit mistaken exceptionalism of the phenomenon that occurred in KV 62 in the Valley of the Kings.




[i] Regine Schulz and Matthias Seidel, Egypt: The World of the Pharaohs, American Map Corporation, 2008, 235.

[ii] Richard A. Martin and David P. Silverman, “Mummies” Anthropology Leaflet 36, Mummies (1945), pp. 1-18, 7.

[iii] Schulz and Matthias Seidel, Egypt: The World of the Pharaohs, 240.

[iv] Schulz and Matthias Seidel, Egypt: The World of the Pharaohs, 236.

[v] Aidan Dodson, The Canopic Equipment of the Kings of Egypt, London: Kegan Paul International Ltd, 1994, 64.

[vi] Dodson, The Canopic Equipment of the Kings of Egypt, 64.

[vii] Maarten J. Raven, “Egyptian Concepts on the Orientation of the Human Body Source” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 91 (2005), pp. 37-53, 44.

[viii] Raven, “Egyptian Concepts on the Orientation of the Human Body Source,” 42.

[ix] Ibid., 45.

[x] Ibid., 44.

[xi] Dodson, The Canopic Equipment of the Kings of Egypt, 66.

[xii] Raven, “Egyptian Concepts on the Orientation of the Human Body Source,”48.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] David Silverman et al., Akhenaten and Tutankhamun: Revolution and Restoration, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2006, 161.