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Rite of Passage

Gusti Ratliff uses mummification to bring history to life.

Gusti Ratliff uses mummification to bring history to life.
—Jennifer Friedberg

Talk about preserving history: Last fall, Gusti Ratliff's 10th graders at Fossil Ridge High School in Keller, Texas, didn't just read about the burial techniques of the ancient Egyptians—they tried them out.

Believing that dehydrated bodies provided a home for the spirits of the dead, ancient Egyptians preserved deceased members of their royal families through an elaborate, 70-day process called mummification. Ratliff, a former marketing executive with a penchant for creativity, decided that mummifying an animal would bring the 5,000-year-old culture to life for her world history class.

The kids' first task? Find a body. "All the students were on the lookout for road kill," Ratliff explains. "Any other time, we would find road kill all over the place, but nobody could find anything in its entirety. So we did a store-bought chicken instead."

The class used modern animal- mummification techniques that Ratliff unearthed on the Internet. First, students prepared the chicken, dubbed "King Cluck," by removing its internal organs and storing them in baby food jars. They then packed the bird in rock salt and placed it in a sealable plastic bag for several weeks before wrapping it in linen cloth. They prepared a sarcophagus for the chicken by decorating an Igloo cooler with gold-embossed paper and crystals. For the final burial ceremony, the students placed King Cluck in the cooler and sealed the sarcophagus with a falcon-topped lid they had molded out of clay. For now, the mummy rests in Ratliff's classroom, although it may be displayed, buried, or exhumed in the future.

Even squeamish students say they enjoyed the project. "I didn't want to touch the chicken," 15-year-old Lori Wimmer says with a laugh. "It looked kind of gross, so I worked on the sarcophagus instead. was fun to have something that wasn't routine."

This being Fossil Ridge's first mummification, there were some mishaps. Most notably, the janitorial staff mistook the jars filled with King Cluck's organs for trash and threw them away. But Ratliff's students will get a chance to perfect the technique. After hearing about the class, a local taxidermist contacted the teacher and offered to donate animals for future projects, which will only get bigger: Ratliff is planning on having students mummify a cat next year.

—By LaShell Stratton

Vol. 14, Issue 7, Page 68

Published in Print: May 1, 2003, as Colleagues
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