Students will learn how the ancient Egyptians used symbols to express their beliefs, values, and culture on the Mummy Case. They will research information about the ancient Egyptians and explore how their findings are visually represented on the DAM’s case. Students will then design a mummy case that reflects their personal values and beliefs.
Intended Age GroupSecondary (grades 6-12)
Length of LessonOne 55 minute lesson
Standards AreaVisual Arts
Students will be able to:
- identify and describe artistic elements of the mummy case, such as the representation of the face, the adornment of the body with jewelry, and the inclusion of symbols;
- use a two-column note taking process to conduct original research;
- list the beliefs, values, and culture of the ancient Egyptians;
- compare and contrast written information to visual art; and
- create a mummy case that represents their personal beliefs.
- Show students the Egyptian Mummy Case and give them plenty of time to look and share their observations. Tell them that it doesn’t matter if they know what the images represent because they will have time research Egyptian culture in a minute. The point is to take time to notice all that they can in this rich, elaborate object.
- Allow the students time to research the ancient Egyptians and their art on the Internet or with books. Have the students separate their notes into two columns—“Facts About Egyptian Life” and “Facts About Egyptian Art.” The students should write a minimum of five notes for each category. You might want to model one note for each category for the younger grades.
- Come together as a class and explore how the DAM Mummy Case visually represents the values and beliefs of the Egyptians that the students found in their research. Now that they have more background on Egyptian culture, do they notice anything on the case that they didn't see before?
- Ask students if they can find symbols on the Egyptian Mummy Case that they learned about during their research. The “Details” portion of About the Art points out the symbolism of certain parts of the case, such as the wig, lotus, ankh, and scepter.
- Have the students journal about their personal values, beliefs, personality traits, and goals. What is important to them? What would they like to accomplish in life? What makes them unique?
- Explain to students that they will design a mummy case that reflects their personal values. Ask the students to look at their journal entries and begin sketching symbols that could represent things that are important to them. After they have had enough time to design symbols, have them sketch an outline of a mummy case and fill it with their designs.
- When the students have finished, have them pair up and share the cases they have designed with their partner. Discuss the design process. Was it difficult choosing symbols for abstract concepts such as values and beliefs? How did you decide what symbols to use? Were your symbols similar to your partner’s or different?
- Paper or journal for each student to write down thoughts
- Assorted markers and colored pencils of various colors
- One sheet of 11 x 14 inch drawing paper for each student
- Books, journals, or Internet resources on the ancient Egyptians
- About the Art section on the Mummy Case
- One color copy of the case for every four students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen
- Visual Arts
- Invent and Discover to Create
- Observe and Learn to Comprehend
- Relate and Connect to Transfer
- Envision and Critique to Reflect
- Language Arts
- Oral Expression and Listening
- Research and Reasoning
- Writing and Composition
- Reading for All Purposes
21st Century Skills
- Critical Thinking & Reasoning
- Information Literacy
About the Art
Who Made It?
We don’t know who made this case, but we do know that it was made for a man who was thought to be living in Egypt during the 3rd century B.C. Mummification—preserving a person, and in some instances, animals, for the afterlife—was commonly practiced in ancient Egypt. After bodies were mummified, they were placed inside special cases like this one that served to protect the body. This case was carved out of rare cedar wood, which suggests that it was made for a person of high status in Egyptian society. Once the construction of the case was complete, artists painted symbols and hieroglyphs, or “sacred texts,” onto its surface. In the Ptolemaic [TALL-uh-may-ick] period (332–303 B.C.), when this case was made, there was an increase in realism in Egyptian art. There is distinct modeling in the face on the surface of this case, but we don’t know whether those who made the image intended for it to represent a portrait of the deceased, or a more generalized visage.
What Inspired It?
Mummy cases offered physical protection from animals and other intruders, as well as a more spiritual form of protection. Hieroglyphs were painted on both the inside and outside of the case, providing prayers for protection and praise for the individual in the afterlife. Curiously, the Egyptians had standard prayers that they would use, and the text here was not unique to the individual for whom this case was made.
Many ancient Egyptian symbols of death and rebirth are painted on this mummy case. Below the falcon collar is Nut [noot], the sky goddess and mother of Osiris [oh-SIGH-russ], god of the underworld and symbol of resurrection and immortality. It was believed that Nut swallowed the sun each evening and gave birth to the sun each morning. Because of her connection to the solar cycle, she became a symbol of resurrection and rebirth. On either side of the base of the coffin are images of Anubis [uh-NOO-biss], the god of mummification. Anubis is usually represented with the head of a jackal and the body of a man, but is shown here as a full jackal. Anubis is the guardian of the cemetery; he attends to and protects the mummy in his or her tomb. Anubis would also oversee the ritual of embalming (preparing the body to be wrapped).
In ancient Egypt, the beard was seen as an attribute of several of the gods. Although real facial hair was not often admired, Pharaohs (divine rulers) would wear false beards to signify their status as a living god. The false beard on the DAM’s mummy case does not signify that this is the mummy case of a pharaoh, but that the deceased wanted to be associated with Osiris, who also wore a false beard in his role as ruler of underworld. False beards were often braided, signified here by the lines slanting inward in the same gold and green colors as the wig.
Although physical appearance was of great importance to the Egyptians, this was not the sole reason for the use of makeup. Eye makeup was also used for spiritual, magical, and therapeutic purposes. The Egyptians used a mineral called kohl to outline their eyes. Some believe that with this makeup, Egyptians were attempting to associate themselves with the cat, a variety of which were honored in Ancient Egypt. Cats represented beauty and prosperity, among other things. It is also said that the kohl would protect the eye against common infections.
Covering the mummy’s chest is a collar consisting of 16 rows of flowers, petals, and leaves with three different patterns. One row is composed of upside-down lotus flowers and buds. The next row is made up of another flower that seems similar to a daisy. It is hard to tell whether the third pattern represents a type of flower or leaf, or just a design. At each end of the collar is the head of a falcon, which was a symbol of Horus, the god of the sky and a symbol of divine kingship. He is also the god of order and justice, and he protects the deceased in this mummy case.
Lotus flowers grew along the Nile and were symbols of life and regeneration. At night, they close their blossoms and submerge themselves under water. In the morning, they emerge and open once again. Because of this pattern, lotus flowers became a symbol of the sun, with its daily cycles, and of creation and rebirth.
The lower portion of the mummy case is covered with a hieroglyphic inscription. (The word hieroglyph means “sacred text.”) Most funerary inscriptions include spells and prayers that come from the Book of the Dead. The text often asks the gods for protection of the deceased on his journey to the afterlife. On the front of this coffin, the text is written primarily as though the owner of the coffin is speaking. At one point, he says to the gods, “May you rescue me from the aggressors who are in this land of the righteous! May you give me my mouth so that I might speak with it! May you give me my inheritance in your presence…”
There are a number of birds on the DAM’s case, most of which are found in the form of hieroglyphs. There appear to be, among others, a sparrow, an ibis, a desert owl, and a duck.
Below the falcon collar, Nut’s wings are symmetrical, meaning that if you were to draw a vertical line down the center of her body, her wings would be the same on either side. Her wings resemble the cloisonné technique, an enameling process in which shapes are created with a thin metal wire and then filled with colored enamel powder. When heated to a certain temperature, the enamel powder melts, forming a solid area of color. The wire used is often gold, which is the color that outlines the individual feathers of Nut’s wings. Her green clothing is also outlined in gold to separate it from the feathers that surround it.
People and animals were commonly depicted partly in profile and partly from other views. Notice how the lower half of Nut’s body is in profile, while her arms are spread so that her collarbone and wings are facing the viewer. Also, though her face is seen from the side, we see her eye as though we are looking at it from the front.
The hieroglyph ankh, meaning “to live”, was the sign of eternal life in Ancient Egypt. It was a very powerful symbol and can be seen among the other hieroglyphs on the case.
The was scepter was a sign of authority and power and is meant to signify the well-being of the mummy. On the DAM’s case, two was scepters are placed back to back, alternating with the ankh symbol.