Pupils preserve the past

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Daytona Beach News-Journal on February 4, 2000.

DELTONA -- King Chicken began his journey to the underworld Thursday.

After month of preparation, pupils at Discovery Elementary finally laid to rest a chicken -- perhaps one of the most honored chickens in the history of poultry.

For the bird wasn't simply buried. Before going into the ground, it received a full regime of ancient rites.

In a ceremony pleasing, no doubt, to both Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead, and Anubis, the god of embalming, two third-grade classes at Discovery Elementary spent part of their morning anointing, spicing and wrapping a collection of birds destined, they hope, to become chicken mummies.

The project, a brainchild of teacher Deborah Marino, was a way for the pupils to learn more about ancient Egypt and the way the dead were treated.

If the third-graders were any indication, it involved a lot of cinnamon.

The tang of that spice combined with thyme, rosemary and parsley filled the classroom, as the youngsters split into various groups, rubbing desiccated chicken carcasses with oil and perfuming them with herbs. Then, the birds were wrapped in cloth strips, placed in cardboard sarcophagi emblazoned with monikers like Cleo, King Tut and King Kentucky Fried Chicken and buried behind the school.

Most of the work done Thursday will not actually help preserve the bodies. The real work of mummification was done by the 40 pounds of salt poured over the poultry since mid-November.

The salt sucked the moisture out of the birds, drying out the flesh so decay could not set in.

When the project started, the children changed the coating on the seven birds almost every day. Over the Christmas break, several parents took the birds home with them to continue the practice.

But the drying process, which Marino said would take up to 70 days for a human, was completed Thursday. Now the birds had to be cleaned, anointed and wrapped.

Despite having played with the birds for months, the youngsters were still eager to get their hands on and in the chickens. Wrinkling their noses at the pungent smell emanating from the opened plastic bags, the children scrambled for the salted flesh. Eagerly, the third-graders brushed and patted the chickens, striving to remove all traces of salt from the birds' skin.

Marino, meanwhile, showed her group the easy way of cleaning a dead chicken: using the sink and then quickly drying the bird.

The manhandling ... er, chicken- handling ... wasn't quite as respectful, perhaps, as the Egyptians' mummification process.

One pupil, for example, was proud of having shoved his hand into the chicken's body cavity, a claim probably never made by Anubis' priests.

"It was all wet and gooey inside," Ramon Roberts said. "But no one else was doing it, so I had to."

The smell of decaying chicken was quickly masked by the spicy odors of thyme, cinnamon, rosemary and parsley. The result: a bird that looked and smelled like perfumed roadkill.

The birds were buried in separate graves behind the school. Next year around this time, Marino will gather the pupils and unearth the chickens.

When Marino did a similar project with a class a few years ago, two of the four birds "survived" the process, coming out of the ground a few years later as odorless bundles of chicken bones and flesh.

"If it's not done right," she said, we'll find out next year."


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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