Skip to content Skip to main navigation Report an accessibility issue

A Curious Sealed Pottery Jar

by Elaine A. Evans, Curator, Adjunct Assistant Professor, McClung Museum


Figure 1. Pottery Jar. McClung Museum: 2001.2. Gift of Jon Manchip White, 2001.


An ancient Egyptian, earthenware jar has been given to the McClung Museum. Although small and of unknown provenance, it proved to have a fascinating story to tell. Pottery vessels have been important in revealing much about ancient Egyptian culture. So, too, does the McClung Museum jar (Figure l).

The bulbous-shaped vessel has a stamp-seal closure at its mouth and contains loose material that rattles when it is shaken. Questions arose as to its function. Due to its size and contents that made a soft, soothing noise, it was thought to have been used by an ancient Egyptian child as a rattle. Or was it a container to hoard seeds, dried beans, sherds, precious amulets, metals, or stones worth keeping? Might it have been a homespun, musical instrument? To answer these questions an examination was undertaken to identify the jar type, its contents, its date, and interpret the stamped signs on the seal. These investigations provided significant data.

Stamp seal

Figure 2. Detail of the Stamp Seal of the Jar

The jar (8.5 centimeters high; 3.5 centimeters diameter at mouth) is in good condition. The clay used was most probably alluvial Nile clay, which is easier to work, shape and fire than jars made from desert or marl clays, which demand more control of the kiln and higher temperatures during firing. Finger-fashioned, the reddish-brown, globular body, with a rounded bottom, tapers into a smaller, slightly bulbous upper body, which flares to a short neck and an unrolled rim. Around the neck are traces of a black band. Under 10x magnification the body material was found to have small, various shaped impressions and shallow cavities due to silica and chaff in the clay being burned out when fired. A few cracks were caused from shrinkage. There is evidence the jar had been polished. The mouth of the jar is completely sealed by grey-brown Nile mud, placed on the mouth when wet, smoothed over to the mouth edge, and sun-dried. A small chip (5 x 6 millimeters) is on the seal edge. This closure for the vessel had been stamped creating several raised shapes resembling hieroglyphic signs (Figure 2).

The Mud Seal

We know that in ancient Egypt there was no such thing as a burglar-proof lock. Instead mud seals were used to serve that purpose. Impressed seals were both a lock and method of identification, including validation of the contents, or to identify the owner. Also, officials used a stamp as a guarantee of their approval and to safeguard valuables inside.
There were three principal types of seals employed in ancient Egypt. The earliest was a stone ‘cylinder seal,’ which when rolled on damp clay or any similar substance, left its carved design or inscription upon it. By the end of the Middle Kingdom, circa 1991 BC, the rolled seal was almost entirely replaced by the ‘stamp-seal,’ made in a variety of shapes. More common, however, was the ovoid, scarab-shaped seals.1

Pebbles or Treasure of Great Worth?

There is evidence that as early as the Badarian period, circa 5000–4000 BC, a variety of oddments were placed in jars, including natural flint pebbles, polishing pebbles, as well as wood fragments, seeds, dom-dom fruit, and other such assortments. Little pots found in a neolithic settlement, circa 5040-4350 BC, in the West Delta called Merimda, were described as “…small barrel-shaped rattles of red polished pottery flecked with black contain in their hollow interiors small pebbles.”2 No doubt it was due to their size they were deemed children’s toys.Larger pots containing oddments found in the same settlement area, were thought cult objects for religious ceremonies.

Could the secrets of the McClung jar be revealed? Obviously, it is impossible with the naked eye to examine and identify the contents of an opaque, sealed jar. Happily, modern technology came to the rescue. The use of such non-destructive methods as x-rays and Computer Tomography scans allowed the interior of the jar to be seen. Three types of scans were used to distinguish the composition of the contents, without destroying the seal.

Enter Modern Technology

X ray

Figure 3. Three-dimensional Image of the Interior of the Jar. Courtesy of the Dept. of Radiology, UT Medical Center.

First, conventional x-rays were taken in the knowledge of their inherent limitations. This method showed the vessel contained many, tiny, irregular, moderately dense, nonspecific objects. Also observed was the shape and thickness of the jar wall, which conformed to the exterior shape, and the shallow depth of the mud seal. Second, computed tomography was performed revealing far more by improved, clearer interior views. The computer scans clearly showed the bottom of the mud seal as flat and not plug-shaped. Also, just below and touching its bottom, was a dense, globular mass, or stopper. In addition, there was a clearer definition of numerous, small, noise making objects. Slim, rectangular and tiny donut-shaped objects emerged, resembling jewelry components. However, they could not be identified.3

Third, a computed tomography investigation was performed on a multi-detector scanner at a slice thickness of 1.25 millimeters. This more clearly delineated the internal structures, including their shape and density. The bottom of the mud seal was nearly flat and rested on a less dense globular mass most probably a wad of papyrus coated with clay or mud. Such stoppers of rushes were formed while still relatively soft and placed in the neck of a jar to prevent anything falling into the interior. Present at the jar bottom were approximately thirty to forty 2-8 millimeter structures. These small objects were predominately of two types. About half were hollow tubular structures ranging in length from 4 – 8 millimeters, and conformed to small jewelry beads. The second type of object was more random in shape, ranging from triangular, to square, to irregular. They were somewhat denser in composition than the beads. Although nonspecific, the density suggests they may be small stones, shells or bony fragments. It was additionally observed that many of the small fragments were embedded in a lower density material at the bottom of the jar. Finally, 3-dimensional reconstructions were performed using surfaced, shaded displays, and volume rendering techniques (Figure 3). This further imaging provided conclusive data for the rectangular and donut shapes being faience jewelry fragments. There was no evidence of amulets or metal items of any kind. 4

The Data Adds Up

Pottery in ancient Egypt was not made primarily as decorative objects, but rather for the storage of food or liquids, including grains, or oils. Once pottery making was achieved in the Neolithic Period (8000–4000 BC) it was slowly perfected and in following periods, was produced in a wide variety of forms as an everyday commodity.

At first glance the jar seemed to date to the Predynastic Period, circa 3100 BC, when a type of pottery called black-topped redware was produced. The ware is distinguished by the black decoration on the upper body, or around the usual, straight rim. The characteristic, irregular black decoration was produced by the jar being turned upside down into the fuel ashes at some point to stop any oxygen contacting the slip. A burnt black color resulted where the inverted pot was covered by the ashes. As with an undecorated jar, the vessel was finished by polishing with a hand held pebble, or it was left unpolished.

Upon close examination it was observed the black color around the neck did not permeate the clay as in true black-topped redware. The color had been applied as a surface decoration, which in some areas has flaked off exposing the reddish-brown pottery underneath. Painted details such as black bands added around the mouth of pottery vessels was in style in late Second Intermediate Period in Dynasty XVII, circa 1567 BC, up to the New Kingdom in Dynasty XVIII, circa 1450 BC. Also, the jar shape was uncharacteristic of early pottery, rather it reflected pottery shapes dating from dynasties VII to XVIII. 5

Jar Neck

Figure 4. Close-up of Jar Neck

Doubts arose as to whether the mud seal was ancient. Further investigation showed its flat application differs and is inconsistent in form and technique and material from known, provenanced vessels (Figure 4).

The seal does not correspond in shape and style to those on ancient jars. Also important to note were the stamped signs. They proved unreadable and the impressions indeterminate. 6


3 jars

Figure 5. Some Methods of Sealing. From Percy E. Newberry, Scarabs. London: Archibald Constable and Co., Ltd., 1906.

This study confirms the jar dates to dynastic Egypt, circa dynasties XVII-XVIII. The mud seal, however, does not reflect those produced during those dates, or any other dynastic period. It is believed an attempt had been made to impove upon a simple, ancient jar by a hand lacking knowledge of hieroglyphic signs. It is well known that thousands of bogus seals, scarabs, and objects ‘doctored’ with fanciful inscriptions, are of modern manufacture, long proffered as genuine antiquities.

Man with jar

Figure 6. Man Sealing Honey Jar. From Percy E. Newberry, Scarabs. London: Archibald Constable and Co., Ltd.,1906.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has in its ancient Egyptian collection two small pottery rattles thought to be children’s toys, but with their tops in the form of horned animals, dating to the late Dynasty XVIII. Inside are believed small pebbles or some other tiny hard items, which create a soft rustling noise when the rattle is shaken. Simple, unsealed, narrow-mouthed, bottle-shaped pottery rattles were produced during the Amarna Period in the New Kingdom. Tiny gourd-shaped, pottery rattles are known as late as the Greco-Roman Period. None resemble the McClung jar.

In this writer’s opinion the little jar is a composite, part ancient and part modern.7Athough at first it seemed convincing, it proved not to compare to any known ancient Egyptian rattles. The residue on the bottom indicates it had originally been a storage vessel for oil, honey, or other, prior to its being filled with oddments and plugged.

Tall vases

Figure 7. Two Types of Jar Sealings. From Percy E. Newberry, Scarabs. London: Archibald Constable and Co., Ltd., 1906.

Such an altered jar held in the hand could have functioned as a homespun child’s rattle, or even as an adult musical device, enjoyed for its soft rhythmic sounds. The stopper and contents have ancient characteristics, but data is lacking as to when the objects were actually made and placed in the jar, or when the jar was first used as a rattle. Although future discoveries may alter these conclusions, it is believed the small, ancient jar, quasi rattle, was ‘dressed up’ in modern times by a mud seal to make it look more important and convincing to a buyer’s eye.


  1. William C. Hayes, The Scepter of Egypt. Part I. New York: Harper & Brothers in cooperation with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1953, p. 38.
  2. William C. Hayes, Most Ancient Egypt. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1965, p. 107.
  3. My appreciation goes to Mrs. Cathy Graves, RT (R), U.T.K. Health Services, for x-raying the jar for me. Also a hearty thanks to Gregory Daniels, U.T. K. Small Animal Clinic, for the initial CT scans, views, and Computed Image disk of the jar.
  4. A special thank you to Judson R. Gash, M.D., Dept. of Radiology, U.T. Medical Center, for providing 3-D, CT scans, x-ray images, and related technical terminology and identifications.
  5. See W. M. Flinders Petrie, Diospolis Parva. The Cemeteries of Abadiyeh & Hu, 1898-9. London: Egypt Exploration Fund, 1901, Pl. XXXIV, 46, for a Dynasty XII-XVIII example; cf., Pl. XXXVI, 169. For other examples see Petrie, Dendereh 1898. London: Egypt Exploration Fund, 1900, Pl. XVII, 96, and Petrie, Gizeh and Rifeh. London: British School of Archaeology in Egypt and Egyptian Research Account Thirteenth Year, 1907, Pl. XXV, 5, 48.
  6. My sincere thanks to Henry G. Fischer for his opinion the largest sign could be “NBW (Gardiner’s S12), but the other signs are unrecognizable.”
  7. I am grateful to Janine Bourriau, Cambridge University, for her judgement that the jar is ancient, but the seal may be modern.


Aston, David A. 1999. Pottery from the Late New Kingdom to the Early Ptolemaic Period. Mainz: Philipp von Zabern.

Bourriau, Janine,Umm el-Ga’ab. 1981. Pottery from the Nile Valley Before the Arab Conquest. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gibson, McGuire & Robert D. Biggs (eds.). 1977. Seals and Sealings in the Ancient Near East, in Bibliotheca Mesopotamica, vol. 6. Malibu: Undena Publs.

Hickmann, Hans. 1954. Die Altägyptische Rassel in Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde, 79, ii.

Hope, Colin. 1977. Jar Sealings and Amphorae of the Eighteenth Dynasty: A Technological Study. Warminster, Wiltshire: Aris & Phillips, Ltd.

Selected Web Resources

Dynasty I Jar Sealings, McClung Museum, University of Tennessee.