The third-graders at our school know a lot about ancient Egyptian culture, and they are fascinated by some of the mysteries and secrets that were left behind in the ancient tombs of the pharaohs.
When asked what they knew about ancient Egyptian burial practices, the answers came flying with hand after hand raised. With excitement, they shared information, adding to the puzzle that would become this lesson: Students would be creating their own colorful Egyptian sarcophagi that were decorated with the patterns and mysterious symbols of the hieroglyphics.
The students knew a great deal about the fascinating mummification process. They talked about how the organs were removed from the body and stored in canopic jars for use in the afterlife, and how the brain was removed through the nose! They also talked about how the body was specially treated with burial spices and palm wine to help preserve the body, before being carefully wrapped in strips of linen cloth.
Most importantly, the students knew that this meticulous and elaborate process was intended to prepare the person for the afterlife, and that the Egyptians took great care of their deceased. One of the mysteries the students unraveled was that there were many artisans who created beautiful paintings on the walls of the tombs, built sculptures and furniture, and the most beautiful, colorful jewelry wrought by hand.
The priority pieces that the artisans built were the incredible, colorful, patterned and golden “sarcophagi,” which held the mummified bodies. The most famous sarcophagus, which inspired the students for their own drawings of sarcophagi, was the one made for the boy-king Tutankhamen (King Tut). Its discovery by archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922 astonished the world, and the tomb still holds many secrets and mysteries today.
After viewing pictures of King Tut’s beautifully patterned sarcophagus, and learning about the symbols of the Egyptian language known as “hieroglyphics,” the students were ready to make their own sarcophagi! They looked at the patterns, the birds, the striking Egyptian eye, and other patterns and symbols. It was important to the students that their sarcophagi had special meaning, just as they did to the ancient Egyptians.
First, students drew the outside shape of King Tut’s sarcophagus. They practiced drawing the Egyptian eyes on the death mask, and created the outer portion of the King’s mask. After drawing the faces, the next challenge was to design the body portion of the sarcophagus.
Intricacy was the word to describe the patterns and symbols that would make their sarcophagi as amazing as the ancient Egyptian artisans’. Choosing the right colors was equally important, and the students knew that the ancient artisans relied on materials they garnished from plants and minerals from the earth, as well as semi-precious stones, and the shimmering gold that the artifacts of King Tut are famous for.
We talked about symmetry and dividing the sarcophagus shape into sections so students could plan and organize their symbols and patterns. They used black permanent markers for the details, and markers and crayons for the rich colors that add to the beauty and mystery of the Egyptian sarcophagi.
They made rows of different kinds of Egyptian patterns, adding symbols in some sections that were distinctly Egyptian, and had special meaning to the students. They added details of gold using gold permanent markers, to add the shimmer and excitement that Howard Carter and his team experienced when they realized what their lanterns were illuminating when they opened his tomb.
Once the drawings were completed the students cut them out so that they could mount them on richly colored paper, giving their Egyptian sarcophagi a backdrop worthy of a pharaoh like the young King Tutankhamen.
Third-grade students will …
• discover what they already knew about ancient Egyptian culture.
• learn about the ancient Egyptian mummifi- cation process and its role in the “afterlife.”
• learn about King Tutankhamen’s sarcophagus.
• create their own Egyptian sarcophagus.
• learn to draw Ancient Egyptian symbols, hieroglyphics, and patterns, in order to decorate their sarcophagi like King Tutenhkamin’s.
• 12″ x 18″ white and assorted colors of construction paper
• Crayons, water-based markers
• Scissors, glue
• Boyer, Crispin. National Geographic Kids Everything Ancient Egypt: Dig Into a Treasure Trove of Facts, Photos, and Fun. National Geographic Children’s Books; 2012.
• Carter, Howard and Mace, A.C. The Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamen (Egypt). Dover Publications; Unabridged Reprint edition; 1977.
• Gibbons, Gail. Mummies, Pyramids, and Pharaohs: A Book About Ancient Egypt. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers; 2004.
• Video: King Tut and His Treasures for Kids: Biography of Tutankhamen, Discovery of his Tomb (https://youtu.be/dmkDPaHSBzg).
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Megan Giampietro teaches art at Stephen Decatur Elementary School in Philadelphia.
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