Buried birds teach students a lesson in mummification

Kim Coelho’s students found themselves on the hunt for mummies Friday, the last day of school.

Kim Coelho’s students found themselves on the hunt for mummies Friday, the last day of school.

They were only Cornish game hens, but they had been treated like royalty.

Friday was nearly six months after the sixth-grade history class treated three — then edible — Cornish game hens with the preservation and burial techniques used for Egyptian pharaohs. To finish the experiment, the students dug up the fowl buried in the Draper Middle School courtyard.

Amazingly, the birds didn’t look much different from how they were when the class first interred them. Once unwrapped, the birds appeared free of decay, though they had grown a bit darker and smelled distinctly of the spices the students had bathed them in.

“This is why the Egyptians did this, to preserve the bodies,” Coelho reminded her students.

Students spent parts of two months preparing the birds in the same manner Egyptians did more than four millennia ago. Coelho introduced the hands-on approach toward the subject to attract her class to a subject matter she previously taught from a textbook.

The class used a mixture of salt and baking soda to draw moisture from the birds and help limit any pungent aroma. They also bathed the birds in oil and spices.

Before burying the hens, the students periodically weighed them to gauge how much water weight they had lost from the treatment. They also researched Egyptian hieroglyphics and adorned each makeshift sarcophagus with the characters.

Despite their research, many of the students doubted the experiment would work. Nick Esposito, 11, said he expected to find the mummies to be badly decayed, especially after the sweltering weather the region experienced earlier.

“It didn’t really make sense to me,” he said. “I didn’t think we’d dig them up and they’d be the same.”

The exercise also inadvertently gave students a chance to test their archaeology skills. While two of the chickens were easily marked by a small wooden pyramid the students had fashioned, a third was elusive. So they drew a perimeter around the area suspected of holding the grave and then systematically dug test holes.

“We were digging all around the place,” said Paul Egan, 12.

The exercise also prompted some of the students to consider other experiments that could be derived from the mummification process. Taylor Horton, 11, suggested monitoring the rate at which the mummified chickens would decay in comparison to untreated ones.

“We could do an experiment to see which one would last longer,” she said.

Coelho said she intends a reprise of the exercise with her class next year and hopes to enlist the help of the older students who completed it this year. She said the hands-on activity helps the children to retain what they’ve learned better than if they were only doing reading and writing assignments.

“It’s good any time you can get kids doing something active,” she said.

Categories: Schenectady County

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