Creating a First-Hand Detailed Description

Mummy's sarcophagus
Mummy Case
Artist not known, Ancient Egypt
332-302 B.C.

Students will examine the artistic characteristics of the Mummy Case by journeying into an ancient tomb. They will then create a detailed written piece describing a portion of the Mummy Case.

Intended Age Group
Elementary (grades K-5)
Standards Area
Language Arts
Lesson Length
One 50 minute lesson

Students will be able to:

  • examine the artistic characteristics of the Mummy Case; and
  • create a detailed written piece describing a portion of the Mummy Case.


  1. Invite students to imagine discovering an Egyptian burial tomb. Show the short video clip.
  2. Ask students to imagine they are an archeologist and they have been sent to a tomb to discover what artifacts and treasures are inside. When they get to the tomb, which has been there since 332–302 B.C., they will travel deep down into the earth. Other archeologists believe that there is a mummy case inside, but no one has ever seen it. They have selected you to enter the tomb and give a detailed description of the mummy case. Since it is hard to see in the tomb, you will need to bring a flashlight and only describe one aspect of the case. Your fellow archeologists will describe the other parts.
  3. Assign head, necklace/chest, and body to different students, partners, or groups. Explain to students that they will need to write a very detailed description about the part of the mummy case they were assigned. Encourage students to include descriptions of the pictures, colors, shapes, design, and symbols on the case, so that someone could paint a picture of the mummy case in his head upon hearing the description.
  4. Turn off the lights, invite the students into the tomb, display the Mummy Case, and shine a flashlight on the image. Ask students to look carefully and write all their observations in note form on a piece of paper.
  5. Give students 5–8 minutes to record all of their observations, and then turn on the lights. Then give students time to work individually or with classmates to transfer their observation notes into a written description of their assigned part of the mummy case. Remind students to include all the details and allude to anything they think they missed due to only viewing the case by flashlight.
  6. If time allows, provide each group with a large paper cutout of a life-sized mummy case (or their portion of it) and have the students write their description on the mummy case shape. Students can use the outline of the mummy case (or their portion of it) as a guide to format their writing. You may want to combine the work of multiple students or groups to make full mummy cases to hang in your classroom.
  7. Invite each student or group to read their descriptions aloud and discuss the similarities and differences of the various descriptions. As a class, discuss why different students or groups would have different descriptions. How do these observations tell us more about historical record and first-hand accounts?


  • Lined paper and pen/pencil for each student
  • Large piece of paper for each group, cut in the shape of a life-sized mummy case (optional)
  • About the Art section on Mummy Case
  • Online video clip
  • One color copy of the Mummy Case for every four students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen


CO Standards
  • Social Studies
    • History
  • Understand chronological order of events
  • Analyze historical sources using tools of a historian
  • Visual Arts
    • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
    • Envision and Critique to Reflect
  • Language Arts
    • Oral Expression and Listening
    • Research and Reasoning
    • Writing and Composition
21st Century Skills
  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Information Literacy
Mummy's sarcophagus

Mummy Case

332-302 B.C.

Museum Purchase, Collector's Choice, 1965.14 Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2009. All Rights Reserved.

About the Artist

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).


False Beard

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.

Outlined Eyes

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.

The Lotus

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.

Hieroglyphic Inscriptions

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.

Nut’s Wings

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.

Mixed Perspectives

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 Ankh

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.

“Was” Scepter

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.

Funding for object education resources provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.

The images on this page are intended for classroom use only and may not be reproduced for other reasons without the permission of the Denver Art Museum. This object may not currently be on display at the museum.