Today’s prompt for Story a Day’s May challenge is to take an object from a museum’s website and write about its significance or value. You can read the full prompt here.
I have chosen to use these canopic jars from the British museum.
From the moment that my parents created their greatest mistake (which, of course, is me), I have been fascinated with one particular ancient culture: Egypt. In particular, kid-Laura gaped in awe at images of the jackal-headed God Anubis, because he was just plain awesome and that was that. As Anubis was the God of embalming, funerals and death, somebody probably should have noticed at that point that I had a peculiar fascination with dark concepts surrounding the underworld and the afterlife.
I was also extremely interested in the story of Osiris, who was chopped into pieces by his brother Seth – not because of the violence, but because I found the tale that his wife impregnated herself when she found his dismembered penis hilarious.
Kid-Laura was the original, basic version of adult-Laura who still finds the tale that his wife impregnated herself when she found his dismembered penis hilarious.
One of the earliest things I remember actually finding interesting at school was learning about Ancient Egypt. We drew a map of the country and studied some common artefacts, amongst which were canopic jars. For those of you who do not know, canopic jars stored the four main organs of the deceased before they were mummified (which is where the film The Mummy got their facts wrong – there were five jars in that movie, not four). The four organs that were considered sacred enough to be placed in these jars were: the stomach, the intestines, the lungs and the liver. The brain and the heart were not given this special treatment.
I have always felt disheartened about the fact that I did not study Ancient Egypt – or, indeed, a great deal about any ancient civilisation – after I left primary school. From then on, history lessons focused on subjects like the Cold War, Women’s Suffrage and Victorian England, which (although interesting and important) were repeated again and again as though there was nothing else in the world that could possibly be studied.
Sometimes I went back to my old notes and read up on what I had studied as a child. Sometimes I went online to read whatever I could find on the subject of Ancient Egypt, and in doing so I became increasingly aware that my education in history lacked significant depth. When I later went on to study history at university, my interest in the medieval world was thankfully allowed to grow, and at last the syllabus presented me with something exciting again.
Without those lessons studying Ancient Egypt at primary school, I may never have discovered something to be interested in during my history lessons. The subjects I covered at secondary school and in sixth form were not only repetitive, they also seemed to have been designed specifically to sound as dull as they possibly could. It was knowing the facts and the arguments back then, rather than forming them as I did at university. The subject was bland and it was only by looking back at my lessons on Ancient Egypt that I maintained my interest in history at all.
That is the significance of these canopic jars. They are a memory that led me to my degree, and they present the question of what I might have studied (even – if I might have gone to university), and who I might have been, if the history curriculum at my primary school had been tedious.