Nimble Symbols

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

In this lesson students will become familiar with several Egyptian symbols and compare them to symbols in contemporary culture. Students will then design symbols that represent something important in their lives and create a clay or stone tile tablet communicating that information.

Intended Age Group
Elementary (grades K-5)
Standards Area
Visual Arts
Lesson Length
One 45 minute lesson

Students will be able to:

  • explain the function of symbols in Egyptian culture;
  • explain the function of symbols in contemporary culture;
  • design a symbol that represents something important in their lives; and
  • create a mini clay or stone tablet using their symbol.


  1. Warm-up: Introduce students to the concept of a symbol. What is a symbol? What are some examples of symbols? Show a few pictures of symbols that are common today and ask kids what they mean. As a class, come up with a definition for symbol and a list of 5 symbols that all students know (i.e. McDonald’s arches, athletic team symbols).
  2. Show students the Egyptian Mummy Case. Ask them what they see. What do they think it was used for? Have them look closely at the decorations and point out as many images as they can find. It’s not important to know exactly what the objects are; the goal is to recognize the amount and breadth of images Egyptians included on their mummy cases.
  3. Explain that the lowest portion of the mummy case (the foot) contains two powerful symbols in Egyptian culture. (Project the included image of the foot detail or pass out copies to groups of students.) One looks like a cross with a loop on top and the other has a curved line on top with two lines underneath. Invite students to make guesses about what these two things might stand for. Any idea is welcome! This is open brainstorming with no wrong answers. Make a list on the board of every possible thing each symbol might mean. Ask students: What do the symbols remind you of? If they were on a sign, what might they tell you to do or not do (like a stop sign)?
  4. Explain that in ancient Egypt these two symbols meant something specific to the people who lived there. Everyone knew what the symbols meant because they were symbols for their own time. But the ancient Egyptians would not have recognized symbols from our time, like the McDonald’s arches, for example. The two alternating symbols on the mummy case are the ankh, a sign of eternal life, and the “was” scepter, a sign of authority and power. (Refer to the “Details” portion of About the Art for more information about the symbols.) What is it about the lines and shapes that might make these good symbols for those two ideas?
  5. Look at the collar of the mummy case. Ask students what they see (flowers). How many different types of flowers can they find? What could flowers represent? Just like above, this is an open brainstorming session with no wrong answers. Encourage students to come up with lots of different, crazy ideas.
  6. Zero in on one of the lotus flowers (the About the Art section will assist you in finding it.) Share this information: Lotus flowers grew along the Nile River 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.
  7. Have students think of something that is very important to them. This could be something tangible, like a blanket or stuffed animal, or it could be something less concrete, like family, friends, love, or happiness.
  8. Invite the students to design a symbol that represents their important thing. Give them time to brainstorm at least five different symbols in their sketchbook/journal.
  9. Distribute clay, tiles, or stones and the proper drawing or engraving utensils. If using clay or tiles, have the students lightly etch two or three vertical columns and fill in the columns with their symbols. If using stones, have the students draw their symbols with permanent markers on the surface of the stone.
  10. If using clay, give the students time to decorate their symbols with assorted paints and glazes before and after firing.
  11. When everyone has finished, invite the students to present their symbols. Have the other students guess what the symbols on the tablets or stones represent.


  • Paper or journal for each student to write down thoughts and sketch out tile ideas
  • Low-fire ceramic clay in gray or red; alternatively, if clay and a kiln are not available, symbols could be drawn onto a flat stone or tile with permanent markers
  • Used pencils for carving or permanent markers
  • Low-fire kiln
  • About the Art section on the Egyptian Mummy Case
  • One color copy of the case for every four students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen
  • One color copy of the foot detail for every four students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen
  • Optional: Assorted paints or glazes to decorate the clay tiles


CO Standards
  • 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
21st Century Skills
  • Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Information Literacy
  • Invention
  • Self-Direction
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.