Ancient Egyptian graves for the poor consisted of shallow graves with the body of the deceased wrapped in linen and placed in a fetal position with a few simple objects. Tombs of the merchant and skilled classes often mimicked the tombs of the ruling class. The tombs of the ruling class changed over time from sturdy box-like stone structures called mastabas to the better-known pyramids and Sphinx. Before beginning your sarcophagus project, review the teacher directions carefully.
Create the Mummy
The mummy consists of a linen-wrapped body. Use a small doll, or create a body shape using old socks, rags or cotton balls. Wrap the entire body in narrow strips of linen or linen-like material. Linen is fabric made from the fibers of the flax plant. This project mummy could be wrapped in cotton fabric instead, like strips from an old pillowcase. Another option for wrapping uses strips of fabric-like paper towel.
Mummies had various amulets placed within the wrappings to carry messages to the gods. The most important amulet, the heart scarab, was placed over the heart. Hieroglyphics representing prayers from the "Book of the Dead" marked this amulet. The amulet may be represented by a bright slip of paper, a sequin, a jewel, or a plastic beetle (to represent the scarab beetle). Place this amulet under the outermost wrapping so it can be seen in place over the mummy's heart. Place other amulets (brightly colored paper, sequins or jewels) within the wrappings.
Build the Sarcophagus
Once properly prepared, the mummy is placed in a sarcophagus or coffin. Early Egyptian coffins were box-shaped, but later coffins were shaped more like the mummy. A simple box can be made from light cardboard, like from a cereal box, or heavy paper like poster board. Or, the sarcophagus can be built with clay instead, which will let you shape it more like the mummy's body.
For a paper box, use the mummy's thickness to measure the outline for the box, adding 0.25 inch for clearance. Cut out two rectangles, one larger outer rectangle and one smaller inner rectangle. The inner rectangle is the base of the sarcophagus. The outer rectangle pieces should fold up to form the sides of the coffin around the base of the sarcophagus. After decorating the sarcophagus, glue or tape the sides to form a box. Make the lid of the sarcophagus by making a rectangle slightly larger than the base rectangle, decorate the lid, and fold and tape or glue to complete the lid.
For clay, create a box and lid. Whether you create a clay box or a mummy-shaped tomb, outline the decorations into the clay. Let the clay dry, and then paint the sarcophagus.
Decorate the Mummy Coffin Craft
Almost the entire coffin was decorated with religious symbols and scenes representing the gods, the person's life and the person's name. Stylized images and hieroglyphics (picture writing) showed the person's beliefs. Research hieroglyphics and the stylized images to decorate the sides of the sarcophagus and lid.
A mummy's sarcophagus would have been very colorful. Gold, blue, red, yellow, green, white and black symbolized beliefs and represented aspects of the Egyptians' lives. For example, gold represented the gods while blue symbolized birth, fertility and rebirth as well as water. Colors also identified people. Men were painted using reddish-brown while women were painted using a yellowish paint. The gods were always painted with gold skin.
The top of the sarcophagus showed the mummy's face and body, including symbols of their status. Draw the face (or cut out an appropriate sized face from a photo or magazine) with pencil to provide scale. The face was stylized rather than an exact drawing. Use a narrow-tipped black permanent marker to emphasize wide open eyes as well as marking the eyebrows, nose, mouth and chin. Still using the black marker, draw a headdress around the head and down to or past the shoulders, leaving spaces to be filled in with color.
Below the head and headdress, mark the hands of the mummy. The arms of mummies were frequently shown crossed and the hands holding tools. Symbols for rulers were the crook, a shorter version of the shepherd's crook, and the flail, which looks like a short stick with strings at the end. The remaining bodies of many mummies were painted to show criss-crossed linen wrappings.
Use bright colors to paint the symbols on all surfaces of the sarcophagus. Use metallic markers, glitter or glitter glue to add sparkle to the sarcophagus decorations.
Create the Burial Chamber
A shoebox serves as an excellent chamber for the sarcophagus. The box needs to be large enough to hold the sarcophagus and grave goods. Like the sarcophagus, the walls of the burial chambers were decorated with brightly colored pictures and hieroglyphics to represent the mummy's life and anticipated afterlife. Enlarge and repeat the pictures from the sarcophagus, adding more scenes if necessary.
The burial chamber contained the items the mummy would need in their afterlife, including food jars, jewelry, combs, spindles and dice. Other items found in tombs were canopic jars or boxes to hold the internal organs removed during mummification, and shabtis, small figures to serve as servants or slaves in the afterlife. Some tombs had furniture, and mummified animals like cats, baboons, birds and crocodiles have been found in tombs. Make these elements out of clay, paint them and add them to the burial chamber to increase the accuracy of the project.
To complete the Egyptian tomb diorama, paint the exterior. Use tempera paints or spray paint. Consider a spray paint that simulates stone. Use beige to represent sandstone or very light gray to represent limestone. After the paint dries, use the fine-tipped permanent black marker to draw rectangular blocks to suggest stone blocks.
If using spray paint, ask for help from an adult. Follow all manufacturer's directions and precautions. Ensure you're in a well-ventilated area.
- University of South Florida: Tombs of Ancient Egypt
- Ancient History Encyclopedia: Tomb
- Canadian Museum of History: Egyptian Civilization – Architecture
- Australian Museum: Preparation for Death in Ancient Egypt
- Encyclopaedia Britannica: Book of the Dead
- Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Art of Ancient Egypt
- Smithsonian Institution: Egyptian Mummies
- Spurlock Museum, University of Illinois: Mummy Cases, Coffins and Sarcophagi
- Ancient History Encyclopedia: Color in Ancient Egypt
About the Author
Karen earned her Bachelor of Science in geology. She worked as a geologist for ten years before returning to school to earn her multiple subject teaching credential. Karen taught middle school science for over two decades, earning her Master of Arts in Science Education (emphasis in 5-12 geosciences) along the way. Karen now designs and teaches science and STEAM classes.
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