Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Chicken Mummy

"The Pharaoh" from "Chickens of the World" by Matthew Meyer
I mentioned in my recent post about our home school that for our unit on Egypt we mummified a chicken. This turned out to be such an unusual experience that I think it deserves its own post.

We have been using The Story of the World curriculum (which I adore) for our history lessons this year. One of the suggested activities for the lesson on Egypt was to get a chicken from the grocery store and send it through the mummification process. This sounded so cool to me, and without really thinking the whole process through or what would actually be involved in mummifying a chicken, I eagerly jumped into the project.

My first sign that the mummification process might not be as smooth sailing as I'd thought was when I went to purchase a chicken. Our grocery store is a bit old fashioned, and you have to buy your meat from a butcher at the meat counter. The activity manual had said that the smaller the chicken you could get the better, because it would fit in the bag better. So I was a bit discouraged that all the chickens at the meat counter were on the largish side rather than the smallish side.

"Do you have any chickens smaller than these?" I asked the man behind the meat counter.

"Hmm... a small one? " he asked, as he smiled and sorted through the pile of poultry, " usually people are asking me for the biggest one, not the smallest one."

"Yes, I know", I chirped enthusiastically, " but we are going to mummify it, and so I need it to be small so it will fit in the bag."

The meat counter man froze, with a chicken in his hand, and just stared at me.

"Oh, yes, well, we home school," I hurriedly tried to explain, "and we have been studying Egypt, and our book suggested to make a chicken mummy, and so um... yea and it is a suggestion in our book... and um... because it will be educational...." The more I tried to explain the more bewildered the look on his face became. He stared at me, the gaggle of children around my cart, and then back at the chicken he was still holding in his hand. I realized I probably sounded like a crazy lady and that it was time to grab my chicken and run.

"Thanks, that one looks just great. It's a bit big but I think I can find a box instead of a bag," and I took the largish chicken and ran off as quickly as I could, trailed by a line of squabbling children. As I hid myself in the chip aisle I realized that my recent interaction hadn't done much to improve the stereotype of homeschoolers as being socially awkward or weird. So, fellow homeschoolers, sorry for perpetuating that one.

Like I said, my experience at the grocery store should have been my first indication that this project was destined to be strange.

After bringing the chicken home I washed it in the sink and had the kids help me dry it and pack it full of salt. I bought a big box of pickling salt to pack the chest cavity of the chicken and Asher held it's legs open while I dumped salt into it. It felt like making a Thanksgiving turkey, but with salt.


Then we rubbed the whole chicken with spices, in our case nutmeg because I had a TON of it and I don't really like nutmeg. The directions said that this step was optional but I'm really glad we did it because, even though the salt kept the chicken from getting too stinky, it didn't exactly smell pleasant and the nutmeg helped mask the smell.

Then, because our chicken was quite large (around 7lbs), we put it in a cardboard box and packed it in water softener salt. I used water softener salt because we happened to have a bag of it sitting in the barn, and I think it was a great idea. You have to change the salt every few days for the first few weeks you are mummifying the chicken and so it was nice to have a big bag of salt. With how big our chicken was it would have got a bit expensive if I had used normal boxes of salt!

It was about this point in the activity that I suspected that it was going to be ME mummifying a chicken and the kids watching. Which is exactly what happened.

Every couple of days, for the first week or two, I'd pull out the salt packed chicken from our mud room, dump the wet salt into the garbage can, and then re-pack the chicken in new salt. The kids would run in, curiously look at it, and then run out again making fake gagging sounds and screaming, "Ewwww."  It was kind of disgusting, and it gave me a new appreciation for what it would have taken to mummify a human body. Kudos to those Egyptian priests, because that would not have been an easy (or clean) process.

After the first two weeks I could really see a change in the chicken, it was less juicy and was starting to dry out. It was interesting and also meant that I could leave the chicken in the salt longer before changing it. We kept it packed in salt for about four more weeks and when we got back from Thanksgiving Holiday we had ourselves a mummified chicken.

I showed Asher how to rip up an old sheet to make strips of cloth to wrap the mummy in, Rose drew and cut out pictures of jewels to place between the layers of cloth, and Abraham helped me mix up some spices in olive oil to scent the mummy with. We spent first part of our school that morning wrapping up our chicken mummy, and when we were done we had this.

Asher and Rose named him King Bock Bock the First, proud ruler of Chicken Egypt. They even built him his own little sarcophagus out of Amazon Prime boxes, and for a whole day he lay in state on our kitchen table. 

When Jon got home the kids were excited to show off their chicken mummy. They danced around him throwing King Bock Bock like a football, until they got bored and ran off.  When at long last it was just me, Jon, and King Bock Bock in the kitchen, Jon gave me a funny smile and asked, "So.... what are you going to do with it now?" 

Exactly. What in the world do you do with a chicken mummy?

See, when I started the process I hadn't really thought about the end result-- that I would then have a chicken mummy. Kind of like the time last year when I bought tadpoles, thinking only of the great learning experience they would be, only to forget that I would then end up with a tank full of frogs

Jon jokingly replied that we could build a pyramid for it in our backyard. "Oh, yes," I quipped back, "Then we'd be known in the neighborhood as the homeschooling Mormons who mummify chickens and build shrines to them in their backyard. Not quite the image we want to send." 

So for a few days King Bock Bock and his Amazon Prime sarcophagus got moved around the house;  the top of the fridge, the bookshelf, the table, any where out of the way. Until one night, after the kids were in bed, I went out and very un-ceremoniously threw it all in the garbage.

And so, my friends, that is why if archaeologists of the future find the remains of a mummified chicken amid the ruins of Central Iowa, leading them to speculate that the people of that region practiced ancient animal mummification... you alone will know the truth. 

What is the strangest thing you have ever found yourself-- unexpectedly-- doing?


  1. Ha ha ha ha ha haaaaaaaaaaa! This made me laugh so hard. What a one-of-a-kind memory. You win BIG mom points for mummifying a chicken!

  2. Heather, this post gave me the late night giggles! I love the name King Bock Bock. I really laughed out loud. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Haha. This made my whole day. We are studying ancients this year too and I saw this in the activity book when I was planning over the summer and thought "no way will I ever do that." Thanks for confirming my thought that this would be gross and smelly. Love the chicken's name and your speculation about archaeological discovery in Iowa. Too funny.

  4. This made me giggle... a lot. It's making me extra excited to start homeschooling next year. But we'll probably skip mummifying a chicken ;)

  5. We've run through the 4 year SOTW cycle twice and I never mentioned or attempted the chicken mummy because I didn't think I could handle it. However, I think your kids will remember it forever. Great job as a teacher/mom!

  6. I assumed you used one of your chickens, which would have avoided the grocery store!

  7. My friend did this, but she used a cornish game hen (it is smaller...Wikipedia says about 2.5 lbs). They also built sugar cube pyramids and some replica of the Nile. I went over to feed their fish while they were on vacation and was amused by it all, then had to ask about what all the stuff was when they got back. Her boys thought it was awesome. She enjoyed the mummification enough that they did it again 4 or 5 years later when they studied ancient Egypt again.

  8. We did that same project about 6 years ago but my youngest doesn't really remember it, so he has asked if we could do it again. Our mummified chicken was Chick-man-Rah. They loved him and he not only got wrapped, but he was bejeweled as well. He lived on our table, and book shelf for a few years and finally he was the prized white elephant gift at a family party. I still wonder where he is now.

    1. Oh man that is the best idea for a white elephant gift! I'm kind of regretting I got rid of him now :)

  9. We did that same project about 6 years ago but my youngest doesn't really remember it, so he has asked if we could do it again. Our mummified chicken was Chick-man-Rah. They loved him and he not only got wrapped, but he was bejeweled as well. He lived on our table, and book shelf for a few years and finally he was the prized white elephant gift at a family party. I still wonder where he is now.

  10. I keep picturing the butcher the way you described it. Its too funny because we too also had a similar expierence with out butcher. It was on physics though. They asked my child a question after asking why she was not in school and they got a very descriptive answer and the butcher said she was wrong and she continued with why he was only partially right. It was something about the slowing of atoms when it cold and expanded. I was so proud because the butcher in training was taking physics classes in college and said he was super impressed.
    I love both of our experiences with our butchers.