An ancient Egyptian alabaster vase
An ancient Egyptian alabaster vase

An ancient Egyptian alabaster vase

2500 BC Egypt

Offered by James McWhirter Antiques

£9,800 gbp
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An ancient Egyptian alabaster vase

This is a fine vessel from Egypt, dating most likely, to the Old Kingdom (second half of the third millennium BC). It has an ovoid body, tapering to the flat base, rounded shoulder, without a neck, curving to a roughly-worked rim, with a . A conical lid made from a slightly darker veined stone. The exterior surface is polished with the horizontal banding of the brown-veined calcite skillfully exploited. Interior completely hollowed.

Like most vessels of this type, it is made of calcite, and not of 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. Rocks formed by both mechanisms are referred to as €˜alabaster€™ in archaeology. Rocks deposited in cold-water cave environments tend to be relatively pure in composition, and are typically colourless, white or brown. The ones deposited by hot springs may be richly patterned by bushy growths tinted red, yellow and brown by iron oxides, the result of the action of cyanobacteria living in the warm water. Geologists would refer to these stones as compact banded travertine, but might 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. Figure 2 shows the sample of a medium-grained compact banded travertine from Hatnub.

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.

Purpose
There was neverEgyptians an ancient people who believed believed that death was not the ultimate act of a human being, that "it is not death to die," with more conviction than the Egyptiansany 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 answered 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 dynamic and innovative periods for Egyptian culture. Not only do the Egyptians master the art of building in stone, but over a period of 500 years they define the essence of their art, establishing 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, 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 Ninettnth 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.
Good although minor losses to the lid.
For similar vessels cf. F. Petrie, The Funeral Furniture of Egypt, London, 1937
Dimensions
Height 18.75 inch (47.62 cm)
Diameter 8.75 (22.22 cm)
Stock Code
MTS127
Signed/Inscribed
Old Kingdom, second half of the third millennium BC
James McWhirter Antiques

James McWhirter Antiques
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London
SW10 0AQ
United Kingdom

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