Customs Officials Seize a 3,000-Year-Old Egyptian Artifact in Tennessee

The stone sculpture depicts the Egyptical funeral deity Imsety

Imsety canopic jar lid
The 3,000-year-old Imsety sculpture is a lid to a canopic jar, which held organs during mummification. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol

On August 17, the United States Customs and Border Patrol seized a 3,000-year-old Egyptian artifact in Memphis. (That’s Memphis, Tennessee, by the way, not Memphis, Egypt.)

Customs officials intercepted the item after its shipper made contradictory statements about its declared value, says the agency in a statement. To find out more about the artifact, they contacted subject matter experts at the University of Memphis’ Institute of Egyptian Art and Archeology.

These specialists determined that the stone sculpture is the lid to an Egyptian canopic jar, depicting the funeral deity Imsety. Egyptians used canopic jars to hold organs that were removed from a body during the mummification process, including the lungs, liver, intestines and stomach. 

Early canopic jars had no decorations; when decorations first appeared, they generally depicted human heads, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. But with time, by around the 16th century B.C.E., canopic jars were usually carved with one of the Four Sons of Horus—Imsety, Hapy, Duamutef and Qebehsenuef—and each guarded a different organ. Imsety looked over the liver in the afterlife. Intricate jars depicting these deities are on display in museums around the world, including at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the British Museum.

The lid intercepted in Memphis is likely from Egypt’s Third Intermediate Period, experts say, which lasted from around 1069 to 653 B.C.E.—meaning it is probably around 3,000 years old.

Per the customs agency, the shipment was sent from a dealer to a private buyer in the U.S. and listed as an “antique stone sculpture over 100 years old.” As it turns out, the much-older canopic jar lid is protected by bilateral treaties and falls under a federal law that subjects certain archaeological objects to seizure and forfeiture. The law stems from the 1983 Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act, which regulates culturally significant artifacts.

Historical items such as canopic jars can be used by archeologists to deepen our understanding of ancient Egypt. Earlier this year, archaeologists in Egypt unearthed a large collection of mummification materials, which date to the sixth century B.C.E. The items included empty canopic jars, with inscriptions indicating they belonged to a man named Wahibre-Mery-Neith, son of Lady Irturu, wrote the Greek Reporter’s Patricia Claus.

According to the customs agency’s statement, the artifact in Memphis has been transferred to Homeland Security Investigations for further examination.