We’ve all seen a mummy before, whether it was Tjeby at VMFA, or on a late-night horror flick when we were kids. I have always been fascinated by the mummies I’ve seen on display at countless museums across the country and also the mysterious stories in books and films. I never once believed that I would come into close contact with a real mummy, let alone be the one to mummify a body, – especially a chicken body!
In the fall of 2010, I was enrolled in an Ancient Art class at Hollins University with Professor Christina Salowey. The class started off as a normal art history lecture course, with presentations on Ancient Egypt and the surrounding civilizations. We were all taken aback when, about halfway through the semester, a PowerPoint entitled “Why Mummify?” flashed in front of the class. Professor Salowey explained the reasons why Ancient Egyptians mummified the dead and why a preserved body was so important in the afterlife. We learned about the embalming process and how the body organs were removed, (not a pleasant subject to discuss after lunch), and even saw graphic examples of human and animal mummies. Then it was our turn.
On a brisk October morning it was time to meet our chickens. We were handed a pair of latex gloves, gallon-sized Ziploc bags, a roll of paper towels, a canister of salt, and a 3 pound, plucked, no-hormones added, chicken. Professor Salowey grinned as we all hesitated with chickens in hand. She immediately started drying off her chicken with paper towels, so I followed suit. The chicken was cold and surprisingly wet. I went through about half a roll of paper towels, stuffing them inside the chicken cavity and out, trying to absorb the moisture. After it was completely dry, I looked around and noticed other students grabbing different spices off the shelves. I snatched up a jar of cinnamon and ground cumin and poured both all over my chicken. It started to smell more like a cooking class than a mummification project! I placed the fragrant bird in a plastic bag and poured the whole container of salt around it. The bag was firmly sealed and placed into a storage container to begin the process.
Through the course of about 45 days, the chicken was re-salted 4 times. The first time wasn’t so bad, the chicken was just a little wet and had gotten a little smaller. Then, the smell started to sink in. Cinnamon and mummified chicken don’t go well together. I had to hold my breath while wiping the chicken down with paper towels and the salt was turning brown from all of the moisture, which didn’t help my nausea. Six weeks later, we were ready to wrap. Professor Salowey brought in old bed sheets with flower prints on them, to make our chickens beautiful for their journey into the underworld. I rubbed my chicken with cinnamon once more, and then tore the sheets into strips for the wrappings. It was a bit difficult to wrap my bird artistically, but I was finally able to place my completed mummy into its shoebox sarcophagus. My mummy was resting in style with its Styrofoam mummy mask and gold painted box, complete with a sequined eye of Horus as its look out!
Professor Salowey has been doing this mummification project for many years now, and she always says that some Ancient Egyptian king is having a feast of chickens right about now in the afterlife. I just hope my chicken lived up to kingly expectations!
-Cassie Bjerke, Hollins University, VMFA Communications Intern