Packaging History: Packaging in Ancient Egypt

Imagine a world where the preservation and transportation of goods relied on the ingenious use of natural materials crafted with skill and artistry . . . and, no, we aren’t talking about 2024—we’re talking about 2600 BCE in ancient Egypt. 

Today, packaging is a $1 trillion dollar industry and one of the foundations of global supply chains. But did you know that some 4,000 years ago in ancient Egypt, packaging played a similar and equally important role in society and trade? From the collection of taxes and storage of food to mummification, packaging and containers touched all aspects of Egyptian life.

Join us as we explore the use of ancient Egyptian packaging, with a particular focus on pottery-based canopic and storage jars, amphorae jars, glass water and beer jars, baskets, and more. 

Canopic Jars

Canopic jars were designed to hold the lungs, liver, intestines, and stomach removed from the body during the mummification process and were subsequently buried with the mummified body; their use dates back to the Old Kingdom (2649-2130 BC). 

Many canopic jars were made of limestone or pottery. During the Middle Kingdom (2040-1782 BC), the lids of the jars were designed to resemble human heads. In the New Kingdom (1550-1070 BC), canopic jars were topped with intricate lids that represented gods meant to guard the intestines in the afterlife. Pictured below is a canopic jar made of limestone on display at The MET in NYC—it is from the Late Period and is dated somewhere between 525 and 664 BC.

Jars and containers made of limestone, pottery, and more were an essential part of the mummification process, but their use evolved over time. In the Old Kingdom, the jars stored the organs, but as Egypt moved into the Middle Kingdom, the canopic jars became more symbolic as organs were simply placed inside the mummified bodies and the jars were a symbol of protection against the gods. 


The amphora was a packaging system primarily used in trade to transport goods like taxes, oils, wine, honey, vegetables, and more. Amphorae were used as a vessel for trade and storage in many ancient societies including ancient Greece and Rome. In Ancient Egypt, amphora were used to preserve materials like wine, birds, fish, perfumes, and other precious items. 

Amphorae in Egypt were typically pottery made from materials such as clay, mud, linen, and others. Pictured below is an amphora holding oil that is on display at The MET and dates back to the New Kingdom (1492–1473 BC).

Similar to modern-day packages, amphorae were stamped and denoted with important product information. The amphora above is marked with a transcription that notes the jar contains “two measures of setwy oil.” Aside from the product information, amphorae were typically stamped and labeled with information regarding the date and place of production, and, sometimes, a seal related to the rulers at the time.

The amphora above has a seal giving recognition to the joint reign of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III which states, “Hatshepsut, God’s Wife of Every Land.” Wine was an important part of ancient Egyptian life, especially for the elite class. Due to the opaque nature of amphorae, the ancient Egyptians found a method to label wine using labels and inscriptions that gave information on how much wine was stored inside and if it was “good, great, or excellent quality.” 

Amphorae packaging systems were the foundation to many aspects of life in ancient Egypt—from the storage of food and beverages for personal use and trade to their significant place in burial ceremonies. From sustaining life to honoring it, amphorae were a commonly used packaging system that helped support the growth and prosperity of Egypt’s kingdoms. Today, researchers at the Austrian Archeological Institute are researching amphorae artifacts to understand trade networks and international relations in ancient Egypt and the mediterranean region. 

It makes you wonder if archaeologists will study the non-biodegradable packaging we currently use in the next thousand years or so. 

Storage / Pottery Jars 

Aside from amphorae, Ancient Egyptians used smaller jars made of pottery and other materials to store wine, food, and other belongings for personal use. Amphorae were typically used for larger storage and trade, while smaller clay pots were used for personal storage. 

The jar below is on display at The MET and dates to the New Kingdom (~1360 B.C.) from the palace of Amenhotep III at Malqata. 

The jar, similar to other smaller storage containers, is made of mud and pottery and is said to be closed by “placing a reed mat, a cloth, or a small pottery dish over the mouth of the jar and then sealing it with mud—often opened by knocking off the neck.” 

The top of the jar is denoted with a seal stating, “The House of Amenhotep”—signifying the jar was held at Amenhotep’s palace. Additionally, the stamp on the side (in blue) serves to identify the contents within, stating it is a liquid referred to as hedbet (a white liquid associated with offerings and rituals).

Baskets for Storage

Beyond storing food and beverages in amphorae and jars made of pottery, ancient Egyptians transported and stored items in woven baskets made of native plants and fibers including reeds, palm ribs, grasses, palm leaf, flax, and more. Baskets were primarily used for the safe storage of household goods and personal items for all social classes, as most homes were not designed for storage. 

In chapter ten of William H. Peck’s The Material World of Ancient Egypt, Peck explains that a large portion of basket artifacts from ancient Egypt are collected from tombs, as tombs offer a dry atmosphere that preserves the natural fibers of the basket. Baskets were often stored in tombs alongside the dead, serving as a symbolic vessel of the deceased carrying material goods with them to the afterlife. 

The basket below is from the New Kingdom (~11570–1070 BCE) and is on sale by Sands of Time. The basket is made from reeds and heavy grasses, palm leaf, halfa grass, flax, and more, and was recovered from the Fayum A Neolithic settlement. According to the site, the basket was made using a common technique referred to as twining, in which the “primary strands made from two-ply flaxen cord, run horizontally and are tied at intervals by wrapping two strings about the fibers, twisting them around one another whenever they intersect.”

Glass Jars and Pots

When it comes to the use of glass as a packaging material, Egypt is considered a pioneer. The Egyptians used glass jars and pots to store and consume water, beer, and other beverages. Around 1500 BC, during Tuthmosis I’s reign, Egyptians began making glass water bottles and pots. Glassmaking took off and was carried out on a larger stage during the reign of Thutmose II (1479–1425), as artisans began pressing glass into molds to make cups, bowls, and other packaging forms. 

Beyond glass’s presence in food and beverage packaging, it also served to make ornate vessels that would hold precious liquids and perfumes, usually reserved for the royal class. NBC News claims these vessels, “were often made of blue colored glass, colored to emulate precious stones like turquoise or lapis lazuli, inlaid with white and yellow lines.”

The Ancient Egyptian process of making glass included the following steps: 

  • In the primary production stage, glass was made from the raw materials of plant ash and crushed quartz dust. These materials were made into ingots for the secondary stage.

  • The secondary production stage involved melting the ingots and reforming the melted mix into specific objects.

Pictured below is an example of a glass drinking chalice on display at The MET, dating back to 1479–1425 BC during Thutmose III’s reign. The chalice is said to belong to “three foreign wives of Thutmose III, the nephew and co-ruler of Hatshepsut.” 

Lotiform chalice, Glass, gold

The chalice is made from glass and gold, an example of how glass packaging and glassware were often reserved for the royal classes, while the lower classes used packaging made of clay and other materials. The inscription on the ornate chalice states, “The Good God, Menkheperre, given life.” 

Outside of glass’s use in serving and storing beverages, it was used to create luxury oil jars to hold the perfumes of the Pharaohs and royal classes. The jars were decorated with precious metals and jewels, signifying the wealth and status of the wearer. 

Pictured below is a photo from Ekta Yadav of an oil jar replica from Cleopatra’s personal collection from the Cleopatra Museum Exhibit of 2010 in Cincinnati, Ohio. 

From Ancient Egypt to Modern Times

After exploring an array of the intricate packaging systems that existed in Egypt thousands of years ago, it is clear that packaging is TIMELESS!

Packaging has been a foundational part of mankind’s daily life, trade, food preservation, and more for many centuries. As the world scrambles to find packaging innovations that are sustainable and efficient, we must remember to look to, and learn from, the past! For example, a recent trend in the packaging industry is the use of mono-material solutions to help boost recycling and recovery rates. While this may seem like a new and innovative idea, it is really, at its core, just making packaging simple again—a common theme in ancient Egypt packaging where single materials like clay, glass, or plant-fibers were often used to create packaging solutions. 

If you enjoyed this piece, stay tuned for more packaging history content as we plan to dive into other ancient civilizations and explore their unique packaging systems. Have a particular society you would like us to cover? Message us your thoughts at 

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