The Art of Darkness

Making a Mummy

May 19th, 2011 by Cobwebs

Tomb PaintingI’m veering into science-fair territory a little bit here, but bear with me.

I recently ran across this article on BoingBoing which discusses a chicken mummification currently in progress at the Science Museum of Minnesota. I was struck by several things: 1) The comments on the article which indicated that this is a common elementary school science project (and also that it shouldn’t stink); 2) The comments which discussed other animals that could be given the same treatment. 3) The fact that they named the mummified chicken Nefertweety.

I did a bit of research and found that there are a bazillion pages devoted to mummifying chickens,* and no two of them seem to agree on a method. So here’s an amalgam of instructions from a number of sites, with notes about differences in technique. In addition to being an interesting educational project to do with kids, you could also use mummified bits as jewelry or art. It might also be possible–perhaps by practicing on chickens until you’re sure of your technique–to send a beloved pet into the afterlife this way.

You will need:

  • A small animal to mummify. A chicken or game hen seems to be the standard, but I’ve also seen projects that use fish, squid, and mice/rats. All but the last are available at the grocery store. Frozen mice and rats are available at many pet stores and via mail order; they’re used as reptile food.** Note that animals can’t be mummified with their internal organs in place, so if you’re squeamish about the idea of gutting an animal you should probably stick with a grocery-store chicken.
  • A drying agent. You can use salt, a mixture of salt and baking soda (a ratio of 2 parts salt to 1 part soda seems to be the standard), or sodium carbonate. The latter is natron, which is what was traditionally used for Egyptian mummies. It’s available at grocery stores (look for “washing soda” or “soda ash”) or at swimming pool supply stores.
  • Disposable plastic or rubber gloves.
  • Several resealable plastic bags, large enough to contain both your mummy and plenty of drying agent.
  • Lots of paper towels.
  • Rubbing (isopropyl) alcohol. This is an optional component, but it appears that using it will reduce the odor significantly. Its use also jibes with the Egyptian practice of washing the body in wine.
  • Spices such as cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and allspice (whole rather than ground) and/or dried rose petals. These are optional, but can be mixed into the drying agent to help perfume the mummy. They can also be used to scent anointing oil.
  • Oil to anoint the finished mummy (optional). You can use food-grade oil like canola oil or olive oil, mineral oil, or even baby oil. To perfume unscented oil with spices or rose petals, fill a small lidded jar with whole spices or dried petals and then pour in enough oil to cover. Close the lid tightly and place in a sunny location for a week. Give the jar a good shake a couple of times a day. Strain and discard the spices/petals. If you prefer, you can also perfume the oil with essential oils: Just add them until the desired scent is achieved.
  • Strips of gauze, cheesecloth, plain cotton, or linen, if you wish to wrap your finished product.

General method:

  1. Wear plastic gloves whenever handling the animal and make sure that you don’t contaminate any work surfaces that will come in contact with food (this goes triple if you’re doing a mouse instead of a chicken). You may want to work outside or use a disposable plastic tablecloth to protect your work surface.
  2. If necessary, remove any internal organs. With a grocery-store chicken this may be as simple as removing the wrapped packet of giblets inside the body cavity. (Note: You can preserve the heart and liver like the Egyptians did if you want, but apparently they smell even when they’re dry.) With a whole fish or a mouse, you’ll need to open the abdomen with a sharp knife and remove the innards. Unless the fish is unusually large its brain is probably small enough to not bother with, but if you’re doing a mammal you should remove the brain as well. (Really, if you’re squeamish just stick with a chicken.)
  3. Wash the animal inside and out using cold water, then dry thoroughly with paper towels. Any additional moisture will interfere with drying, so get it as dry as possible. If the animal you’re mummifying has fur you may have to resort to a hair dryer set on low to get it thoroughly dry.
  4. Next is the optional step of soaking the animal in alcohol. Fill a resealable bag with water and hold it up to check for leaks. Pour out the water, put the animal in the bag, and then pour an entire 16-oz bottle of isopropyl alcohol over it. Seal the bag, pressing out as much air as possible. Lay the bag on its side (protect whatever surface it’s laying on) and leave for an hour. Turn the bag over and leave for another hour. Repeat twice more, so that the animal is left in the alcohol for a total of four hours. Remove, discard the alcohol and bag, and thoroughly dry the animal again.
  5. Now it’s time to begin the drying process. Start by putting three or four layers of paper towel in the bottom of another plastic bag. Put a thick layer of drying agent (salt or natron or whatever you’ve chosen to use; going forward I’ll just refer to it as natron) on top of the paper towels, then add the animal.
  6. Mix some spices into the rest of the natron if you want (not too much, lest you reduce its effectiveness; an ounce of spices for two pounds of natron is more than enough), then completely cover the animal: Pack plenty of it into the body cavity, make sure it’s tucked into crevices around wings and legs, and ensure that there’s no place where the animal’s skin is sticking to the plastic bag.
  7. Seal the bag, pressing out as much air as possible, and then place inside a second bag and seal that as well. If you’re particularly concerned about odor, you might also place the bags inside a lidded plastic bucket (available at hardware stores) and seal the lid.
  8. Store in a cool, dry place, such as a closet. For the first week, check the bag every day. If the natron is wet discard it, brush off the mummy (wear gloves), then re-pack in fresh natron.
  9. After the first week, you only need to check the bag once a week. If the natron is wet discard and re-pack as above.
  10. The mummy should be dry after about six weeks, with perhaps a bit less or more time needed for smaller/larger animals. Remove it from the natron and dust it off as thoroughly as possible. You can use a barely-damp cloth to remove any lingering natron; just dry very thoroughly afterwards.
  11. The mummy is technically done at this point, but you can optionally rub oil into it, inside and out.
  12. If you plan to wrap the mummy, begin by stuffing the body cavity with strips of cloth (you can also use sawdust).
  13. Wrap long cloth strips around the mummy, beginning at one end and knotting them at the other. You can simply wind the strips, or wrap in elaborate patterns; do a search for photos of animal mummies to help guide your wrapping. Traditionally limbs were wrapped separately from the main body, and amulets were placed between layers to help protect the dead in the afterlife.

There are many other optional things that can be done to your mummy, from sealing it with resin to building it a nifty sarcophagus. You could also experiment with animal parts such as chicken feet (available at ethnic groceries) to decorate things like voodoo dolls. It’s definitely a unique project, and would certainly be educational.

*And an almost-equal number devoted to “chicken mummies” made of chicken strips and pastry dough, which makes for some cognitive dissonance, let me tell you.

**It goes without saying–but I’ll say it anyway–that you shouldn’t use wild rodents such as might be found in a mousetrap due to the risk of serious disease.

Posted in Bittens | 1 Comment »

One Response

  1. xJane Says:

    1. Nefertweetie is the cutest name for a mummified chicken, ever; even if she comes back to haunt everyone who giggled at the thought.
    2. I am going to take the entertaining thought of you and your children blowdrying a dead animal’s fur after having washed it.
    3. I might have to make some [edible] chicken mummies just because that’s awesome.

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