An Egypto-Roman alabaster vase

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Screen Shot 2017-02-23 at 12.35.33.png
Image 31.jpg

An Egypto-Roman alabaster vase


This is a fine vessel from Italy, probably dating to the 2nd century AD.  It has an ovoid body, tapering to the flat base, rounded shoulder, curving to a rim, with a conical lid.

The exterior surface is polished, with the horizontal banding of the brown-veined calcite skillfully exploited. Interior completely hollowed. 

Height 44.5 cm, diameter 21.5 cm

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Like most vessels of this type, it is made of an Egyptian alabaster. In technical terms it is calcite, and not an alabaster as referred to by the modern geologists (who use this name for the compact fine-grained variety of gypsum, a mineral composed of hydrated calcium sulphate). Archaeologists use the term alabaster for a fine-grained banded deposit of calcite, a mineral composed of calcium carbonate. It was deposited as flowstone, stalagmites and stalactites. Similar compact banded rocks are deposited by hot springs. Geologists refer to these stones as compact banded travertine, but also use the term ‘oriental alabaster’.

The Egyptians quarried this stone from the Early Dynastic Period onwards in the Nile valley. The most important quarry, and the principle source of the Egyptian alabaster, exploited from the reign of Khufu (4th Dynasty) was Hatnub (the name meaning ‘mansion of gold’) located 18 km from Amarna, on the eastern side of the Nile in the middle Egypt.

When held close to the light the stone displays a wonderful effect, becomes almost translucent and seems to glow, and its veins are clearly visible. The luminous property was highly priced in Egypt, and used in sarcophagi, temples and sacrificial vessels.


Egyptians believed that death was not the ultimate act of a human being with greater conviction than any other ancient people. And thus, a great portion of the Egyptian art was concerned with the specter of death and the problem of how best to undertake the passage to the other side.

Canopic jars were used during the mummification process to store and preserve the internal organs of the deceased owner for the afterlife. They were commonly either carved from stone or were made of pottery. The name "canopic" reflects the association by the early Egyptologists with the Greek legend of Canopus, who was the pilot of the ship of King Menelaus of Sparta during the Trojan War, and a handsome young man, who was loved by Theonoe, the Egyptian prophetess, but never reciprocated her feelings. According to the legend, while visiting the coasts of Egypt, he was bitten by a serpent and died. Canopic jars were used from the time of the Old Kingdom up until the time of the Late Period (664-332BC).

The Old Kingdom, best known for the pyramids of Giza and Saqqara, was one of the most vibrant and innovative periods for Egyptian culture. Not only did the Egyptians master the art of building in stone, but over a period of 500 years they established artistic canons that will last for more than 3,000 years. Canopic jars of the Old Kingdom were simple stone or pottery jars, with plain lids, flat or domed. They are almost never inscribed. 

In the Middle Kingdom inscriptions became more usual, and the lids were often in the form of heads. The viscera were not kept in a single canopic jar: each jar was reserved for specific organs. By the Nineteenth Dynasty each of the four lids depicted one of the four sons of Horus, as guardians of the organs. (One invokes the protection of the god Hapy, associated with and the protector of the lungs, the other invokes the goddess Neith, associated with and protector of the stomach; a third jar would have been inscribed with an invocation by Isis to the god Imsety, associated with the liver, and a fourth jar would have had an invocation by Selqet, to Qebehsenuef, associated with the intestines.) 

By the Late or Ptolemaic Period the internal organs were simply wrapped and placed with the body.


The outside has a patina, which indicates that it was excavated approximately a hundred years ago. For similar vessels cf. F. Petrie, The Funeral Furniture of Egypt, London, 1937.