Friday, February 17, 2006

History Friday: Fun With Mummification

As a 7th grade history teacher, I've always like Egypt and Things Egyptian. That's why this story about an Arizona high school class's project to mummify a cat caught my eye:
When it comes to high school projects, most students would consider a poem, poster or video to be above the call of duty as far as creativity is concerned.

Not the self-titled "Seven Deadly Sins." On Friday, Feb. 3, this group of students from Rob Thompson's World History class presented an Egyptian-themed project they cryptically referred to as "MFC."

That stands for mummified cat.

Phillip Sullivan, Deric Bagby, Ryan Everett, Brent Mayeaux, Ariel Laughlin, Alanna Williams and Zach Baker said the idea for the project struck like divine inspiration from Bast, the Egyptian cat goddess.

"We were sitting around wondering what we should do for Mr. Thompson's project, when Ryan says, 'Hey! We should mummify a cat,'" recalled Sullivan.

Just like that, it was decided. The next step was gathering supplies, and the group turned to their teachers to collect sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate, sawdust, sand, paint, clay, scalpels, and of course a cat.

"You name it, we found it," Sullivan said.

CHS biology teacher Joe Moody donated a laboratory cat to the cause ("It was not roadkill, I promise," Thompson said), and "dissection master" Zach Baker disemboweled the cat - without wearing gloves. The girls took on the responsibility of sewing the cat back up "because boys don't know how to sew," Ariel Laughlin explained simply.

The group wrapped the cat in gauze dipped in paper mache, but left the heart in the body just like the Egyptians did with their mummification projects. Then the students coated the cat in sawdust, sand and sodium carbonate/bicarbonate to dry out the corpse.

The group next turned to the presentation, adding an artistic touch with gold spray paint. They created a sarcophagus, or Egyptian coffin, for the cat and a pyramid in which to store the mummy. They painted Egyptian-style initials of every group member on the mummy, and pasted pictures documenting the entire procedure on the interior walls of the pyramid.

"Because no one would believe we did it without pictures," Sullivan explained.

The group stayed at school for 14 hours on Feb. 2 to complete the project. On Friday, Thompson stepped outside to the soaring notes of "Also sprach Zarathustra" by Richard Strauss - perhaps better known as the theme of Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" - as performed by Jacob Sosa, Alex Woodbury, Stephen Ludwig and Daniel Gardner of the Coolidge High School band. The pyramid was obscured by a sheet until the group unveiled another surprise: a homemade smoke bomb, set off for dramatic effect, which the students designed based on plans they researched at school. As smoke poured skyward, the students allowed the pyramid to open, revealing the contents of the sarcophagus.

Thompson said his World History class has a Western Civilization focus, and they had just wrapped up a study of the Fertile Crescent and ancient civilizations including Egypt. Students were turned loose to research a component of these civilizations.

"I was so impressed by their passion," Thompson said of the group. "It was powerful social studies; they actually studied and re-enacted the mummification process. They are always going to remember this. Students are going to forget dates; they're going to forget names; but they will always remember this. And so will I."

The students got an A+ on the project, and Thompson replaced a hanging piƱata in his room with the mummified cat. The class will next delve into a study of Rome; Sullivan said the Seven Deadly Sins are already working on plans to build a pair of chariots.
I've gotta hand it to the kids for their creativity. And the fact that they stayed at school some 14 hours in order to complete the project speaks of their dedication. (Although the ancient Egyptians needed some 70 days in order to complete the mummification process.) And I think that I would have enjoyed the suspense produced at the unveiling.

But I believe that I would have taken a pass on watching the kids disembowling that cat.
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