Mummies Tell the Story: Linking Learning through Art

By Harvilla, Louise | School Arts, October 1998 | Go to article overview

Mummies Tell the Story: Linking Learning through Art


Harvilla, Louise, School Arts


Each year our sixth grade studies ancient Egyptian history and culture. They are awed by mummies, hieroglyphs, pyramids, and the many myths and stories of the gods and pharaohs.

Lessons and activities in social studies, English, reading, math, and art are deeply entwined, with art as the central focus. Teachers of all these subjects sit down to discuss and plan goals, objectives, and motivational strategies for the units throughout the year.

Introducing Ancient Egypt

We began with research, none of which the students found dry or laborious. Books and articles flowing with pictures of daily life in ancient Egypt stimulated questions and sparked curiosities about dynasties from nearly 5,000 years ago.

The children eagerly memorized the hieroglyphic alphabet so they could send each other secret messages. They also enjoyed making cartouches of their names. We played a game at the end of class that required a student to draw an Egyptian scene or lines of hieroglyphs on the chalkboard or easel. Teams of classmates then tried to guess what secrets the hieroglyphs or pictures revealed.

Projects to Treasure

We used clay to make Egyptian amulets and other jewelry and artifacts. Students made plaster masks using wig heads as forms to personify famous personalities such as Ramses, Cleopatra, and King Tutankhamen. We transformed cardboard boxes into tomb paintings by cutting them apart and painting them.

In math classes students had a problem solving/drawing lesson. They drew pyramids to scale to develop models for 4' (1.2 m) papier-mache, sandcoated replicas that allowed a viewer to open them and peer inside. Equipped with a flashlight, the curious tomb visitor could see the tomb walls adorned with paintings and twenty-five golden hand-painted sarcophagi surrounded by tiny golden artifacts.

Making A Sarcophagus

To begin the sarcophagus project, I showed students a video about mummification. This poignant film placea me learner in a state of reflection about life, the everlasting quest for knowledge about death, and the possibility or beliefs of an afterlife.

After a stimulating discussion, everyone was eager to get out their pencils and draw. Each student drew the front of a symmetrically designed sarcophagus. The sarcophagi could reflect their interests and personalities but they didn't have to. Students used books to study the clothing, headdresses, and Egyptian motifs in order to create their individual designs.

We used oak tag (heavyweight) and a variety of media to color and add details to the front of the sarcophagi. After outlining all the details, we used acrylic paint, colored pencils, and fine point markers to color them in.

Next, we made two exact tracings of the contour of the "front" of the sarcophagus on cardboard. The depth of this coffin was created by using the cardboard that I had precut into strips of 2 1/2-3" wide (6-7.5 cm). The students "softened" the strips by hand so they could bend around corners and hug the contours of the head and shoulders of the sarcophagus. Sometimes two or more strips were needed to complete the contour, depending on the length of the strips and the dimensions of the sarcophagus.

We used a dry mount procedure using rubber cement to anchor the strips to the edges of the cardboard patterns. The strips served as the sides of the three-dimensional coffin. We coated the edges to be glued together very generously with the rubber cement, then we allowed both pieces to dry completely so the rubber cement was very tacky. …

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