Night of the Mummy: The Museum and Experimental Archaeology

Museum of Biblical History Staff • 04.27.2016


Tyson, the Chicken Mummy drying after the completion of the final stage.

On September 28, 2014, an experiment began at the Museum as part of an idea for an activity that was eventually scrapped during the process of the experiment.  For some time, the Museum staff had been trying to find ways to increase the Museum’s interaction with visitors.  It was decided that experimental archaeology was an excellent method to bring the information we provide in our exhibits to life, and to bridge the gap between our visitors and Biblical history.  The Museum of Biblical History has always tried to find multifaceted ways to offer exemplary information; but also to provide a hands-on approach to bridging the gap of time and culture between our visitors and the Bible.  Traditionally we have accomplished this through Archaeology Field School every summer, tours to the lands of the Bible, multimedia events, interactive presentations, music, and genuine artifacts that you can hold in your hands and touch, and much more.  Experimental archaeology has since become a fantastic addition to our tools in Biblical education.

What Is Experimental Archaeology?


A student examines her core sample after making several “flakes” during our flint knapping activity.

In short, experimental archaeology is the method of conducting experiments in order to recreate aspects of ancient cultures to test hypotheses, interpretations and assumptions about them (Johnston, What is…).  In our case, visitors are not necessarily trying to test hypotheses when conducting their experiments: but they are testing their personal interpretation and assumptions about the cultures and practices of the those in the Biblical text.  Most of our activities, therefore, are designed to simulate to the best of our ability the practices of those in the Bible.  Some of the experimental activities we offer include flint knapping (on certain occasions), the making of mud bricks used by multiple cultures to build homes and other structures, the use of ancient writing systems used on clay tablets, the playing of ancient games, demonstrations of the process of printing using our model of the Gutenberg Press, and making a sling such as David used as a shepherd.  These activities not only broaden visitor’s understanding of the Bible; but they also provide an exciting and interactive way to educate and inspire children and adults alike about life in Biblical times.

“Make a Mummy” was an early concept which was still fresh on the drawing board when the initial experiment began.  Several techniques for the activity were attempted simultaneously; but only one survived through the filtering process, even survived the activity’s demise.  It was quickly decided that the activity could not be done within our desired time frame and remain authentic to the process, and the activity was scrapped.

Tyson, the Museum’s First Mummy

During this process, it was decided that the staff needed to perform an actual mummification which was faithful to the ancient process in order to fully understand the practice ourselves and teach it to our visitors, as we always do when constructing a new activity.  Since mummifying a human was certainly out of the question, we decided to mummify a chicken using the same techniques.  A fresh chicken (affectionately named “Tyson” by the staff) was bought at a local grocery store, as well as all the other ingredients needed for the experiment.  Materials unavailable to us were substituted with materials which we felt were as close to the prescription as possible.  The length of time between stages was compensated for the size of the chicken.  For example, the mummification process for a human was about 70 days total.  Tyson was processed for only 48.

Tools were constructed for the experiment, such as a wooden embalmer’s board on which the body would be set during the mummification process.  The embalmer’s board was designed with spaces between rungs, to allow the body to be completely surrounded, above and below, by the drying agent natron.  On September 22 2014, an obsidian knife was also constructed using flint knapping techniques, with the help of Dr. Ryan Parish of the University of Memphis.


Tyson, after completion of Stage 1’s preparations.

On September 28, 2014, the first stage of the experiment began.  A photo record of the experiment was made throughout the entire process.  The chicken itself was pre-processed at the grocer.  The “organs” (the gizzards) were buried in four makeshift cups filled with natron.  The human mummy’s organs had to be removed from the torso and from the head, including the brain.  The heart, the lungs, stomach and intestine were removed and placed in canopic jars to be mummified as well, just like our chicken’s.  The chicken was then washed with an alcohol-based agent to substitute palm wine, and an incision made with the obsidian knife as per tradition. In Egypt, the incision was made with a stone knife like obsidian to provide a hole from which the organs could be removed.  For us, this was a practically unnecessary step as the chicken was preprocessed; but the step was taken for the sake of authenticity.  Frankincense was also applied, as was traditional.  The chicken was filled with packets of a hand-made natron – a mix of natural salt and minerals, and then buried in a mound of natron.  The packets served to replace the organs in the torso, to prevent the cavity from collapsing, and also to allow the body to desiccate from both the inside and the outside.   The chicken was then covered with a mound of loose natron, and allowed to settle in storage for 13 days.

Stage 2 of the experiment began on October 11.  The natron had naturally solidified, and as expected, parts of the natron had turned a brownish-yellow from absorbing the chicken’s lipids: a good sign of the chicken’s desiccation.  The old natron was removed, the mummy cleaned, and fresh natron was applied.  In Egypt, it was at this stage that the mummy’s arms were crossed at the chest, as they were just malleable to do so still.  Accordingly, the chicken’s wings and legs were bound together before the fresh natron was applied.  It was then returned to storage for another 35 days.

Tyson as he appeared at the opening of the final stage.

Tyson as he appeared at the opening of the final stage.

November 15, 2014 saw the final stage in the mummification process.  The natron was removed from the mummy, which was again cleaned.  Strips of linen which had been previously prepared were wrapped around the mummified body, using an adhesive agent similar to bitumen, but non-corrosive to attach the bandages – beginning with its wings and legs.  A mix of crushed Frankincense and spices was applied between the layers of linen to provide a perfume.  A scarab was placed over the heart, and then covered by the linen strips.   In Egypt, it was traditional to wrap several amulets into the linen wrappings to be protect and serve the dead in the afterlife.  A scarab was placed over the heart to keep it from speaking evil against the dead.  When the wrapping process was complete, a symbol was painted onto the strips – the weighing of the heart.  Tyson was then placed out to dry for a period before being put in storage.

The final wrapping process in progress.

The final wrapping process in progress.

Traditionally, magic spells and incantations were written on some of the linen strips that the dead could use in the afterlife.  According to Egyptian mythology, the journey to the Netherworld ended with a judgment, in which Anubis would weigh the heart against the feather of truth.  If the heart was lighter (that is, the person had lived a good life), he was allowed into the Netherworld.  If it was heavier, a monster would gobble him up.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016 marked day 570 from the beginning of Stage 1 of the experiment.  Tyson was taken out of storage, and examined for any superficial signs of decay.  Though this was certainly not the first time Tyson has been exposed since his mummification, it was the first superficial examination of his condition.

Tyson, as he appeared on day 570.  Compare to above image of the completion of the final stage.

Tyson, as he appeared on day 570. Compare to above image of the completion of the final stage.

The humid environment of Collierville’s climate was an initial concern.  Unlike Egypt’s dry and hot environment; Collierville is located in a very moist region, where the air is hot and very humid; and the Museum’s resources for environmental control is limited. Taking the mummy outside of the box, however, it became clear from the outset that he looked as fresh as the day the process was first completed, and showed no signs of decay or corrosion, etc.  So far, it seems that the mummification was quite successful.

Why Mummification?

Some may wonder why the Museum would perform this particular experiment.  After all, there is no mention of mummies in the Bible, and mummification was certainly not practiced among the ancient Hebrews.  They certainly did not share in the religious beliefs of the Egyptians!

While the second statement is true that the Hebrews did not normally practice mummification, the first statement is not true.  For example, we are told in Genesis 50:2-3 that Joseph instructed that his father, Jacob, be mummified according to the Egyptian tradition.  In verse 26, it says the same of him, as well as the promise to bury his bones in Canaan (v.24-25), which was fulfilled according to Exodus 13:19.

More importantly, however, is the fact that many of the aspects of the mummification process can teach us much about several minor cultural elements found in the process itself.  Not only about Egyptian cultural elements practiced by some in Israel; but also that of the Hebrews themselves, who used many of the same elements in everyday life.

Obsidian knives  Image Credit: Cyber Museum of Neurosurgery

Obsidian knives
Image Credit: Cyber Museum of Neurosurgery pre20th/ treph/trephination.html

For example, the mummification process involved the making and using of a flint knife made of obsidian, which was certainly used in Hebrew culture for many tasks, including circumcision (ref. Joshua 5:2ff); or the use of frankincense and myrrh in funerary practices.  Experimental archaeology such as this provides us with volumes of information about a multitude of applications to Biblical understanding to learn by experience how things like mummification were done.

Tyson has only begun to teach us about the times of the Bible. New data and applications to this experiment are continuing to pour in as we continue to research, drawing connections to the Bible’s sacred text.  Indeed, what began as an idea for a simple activity has certainly become an essential source of Biblical research for us at the Museum of Biblical History.



Works Cited

Johnston, Grahame. “What Is Experimental Archaeology?” What Is Experimental Archaeology? Archaeology Expert, 17 May 2015. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.