Mummy progress log

Slung in strings, the chicken is ready to be dropped into its natron chamber to begin the mummification process.

Day 1 - Friday, March 11, 2011 - 10:15 to 11:30am
The chicken arrives at SMM and the work begins. It's a regular, store-bought frying chicken. First, we thoroughly cleaned it with water and wine (a disinfectant).

As the chicken dried, we mixed natron powder, combining baking soda (2 parts), washing soda (2 parts), and table salt (1 part). We poured the natron mixture into little bags that we packed inside the chicken and also around the outside. We also filled the bottom of the container with loose natron, and poured a little on top of the chicken, too, to make sure we got spots not completely covered by the bags.

Now we just wait and let the natron start sucking the moisture out of the chicken's tissues. We'll check the progress first thing on Monday morning.

Day 5 – Tuesday, March 15 – 5:05 p.m.

Starting to mummify: The chicken is getting maroon/purple as the mummification process gets underway.
Starting to mummify: The chicken is getting maroon/purple as the mummification process gets underway.Courtesy Mark Ryan
The chicken is definitely drying out. And we could smell it the moment we lifted the aquarium cover off. Think of an alley dumpster on a hot, sunny July afternoon. The natron bags are sticking to the chicken flesh pretty strongly, so that’s a great sign that it’s working to dry out the tissues. The chicken flesh is turning into a purple/maroon hue. No need to make any changes today!!!

Day 8 – Friday, March 18 – 1:00 p.m.

Stinky chicken mummy: Friday's museum visitors weren't appreciating the odiferous nature of our in-progress chicken mummy.
Stinky chicken mummy: Friday's museum visitors weren't appreciating the odiferous nature of our in-progress chicken mummy.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Nefertweety got to meet SMM security today. Midway through our check of her progress, a SMM security guard stopped by to find out what was making the horrible smell that was wafting through the museum. On her behalf, we admitted that the mummification process was getting to a pretty nasty stage.

We tried to pull out the natron bag that had been stuffed inside the chicken carcass. But it had absorbed so much moisture, it wasn’t coming out the hole it went in. And it was also rock hard. A few minutes of chipping away at the build-up with back end of a toothbrush broke up the hardened mess so that we were able to dump out enough of the moistened natron to finally get the bag out. We loaded fresh natron into two bags, together not quite as full as the first effort, and stuffed the insides again.

Mummifcation in action: We took the whole mummy out of the natron chamber today to see how the body is mummifying. Not a lot of difference from Tuesday's check.
Mummifcation in action: We took the whole mummy out of the natron chamber today to see how the body is mummifying. Not a lot of difference from Tuesday's check.Courtesy Mark Ryan
The outside of the chicken didn’t appear much different today than on Tuesday. This process might take a little longer than we first estimate.

Despite the stench, our 20 minutes of change out effort drew quite a crowd to the visible lab windows. I guess a mummifying chicken has the same morbid appeal as a car crash.

Day 12 – Tuesday, March 22 – 12:15 p.m.

Clumpy and wrinkly.

Dumping clumpy natron: We did a total change out of natron today, with big, hard clumps being dumped and replaced with fresh, powdery natron.
Dumping clumpy natron: We did a total change out of natron today, with big, hard clumps being dumped and replaced with fresh, powdery natron.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Those were the two operative words from today’s check in with Nefertweety. Plus, she got some fresh air.

After Friday’s odor issues, we decided to open the chicken chamber outside in the museum’s parking ramp rather than in the Collections Gallery. And a very strong smell again erupted from the container when we opened it, but quickly dissapated in the outdoor environment.

The main task today was to do a complete overhaul of natron inside and outside the chicken. All of the natron bags had pretty solid clumps inside them. The unbagged natron at the bottom of the container also had good-sized clumps as well. In some cases with the bagged natron, we had to squeeze the clumps with our fingers to break them apart to be able to get out of the bag. That clumping is a good sign, however, that the natron is drawing moisture away from the chicken. I’m glad no police cars passed by while we were shaking fine white powders out of little bags in the corner of a parking ramp. I don’t know if our mummification alibi would fly in court.

Wrinkly Nefertweety: Here's how the bird looks on day 12, dark and starting to wrinkle up.
Wrinkly Nefertweety: Here's how the bird looks on day 12, dark and starting to wrinkle up.Courtesy Mark Ryan
And as this photo shows clearly, Nefertweety is drying out. Her skin is a lot more wrinkled, but the tissues are still pretty soft. We’re figuring that at a minimum we have at least one more week of mummifying to do. We also changed up our procedures with bagging the natron, putting less natron in each bag, which should allow us to be able to drape the bags over the bird a little more thoroughly.

Day 22 – Friday, April 1 – 1 p.m.

Pancaked chicken mummy: Flipping our bird, so to speak, resulted in a compression of the Nefertweety's torso.
Pancaked chicken mummy: Flipping our bird, so to speak, resulted in a compression of the Nefertweety's torso.Courtesy Mark Ryan
I think we are now working toward a chicken mummy pancake. After our last check-up, we noticed that the bottom of Nefertweety was pretty solid and mummified. So we decided to flip the bird upside down for the next phase of mummification to get the top of the bird deeper into the natron mix. When we opened up the case today, the weight of the chicken botton (now on top) seems to have compressed the bird’s carcass flatter. And I’m guessing that taking away moisture from the inner tissues has weakened bone strength, leading to the crushing action. That’s okay. When Nefertweety enters the afterlife, her tissues will be remoisturized and she will puff right back up, right?

Day 26 – Tuesday, April 5 – 12:30 p.m.

Still not done: The final stages of mummification are taking longer than we expected.
Still not done: The final stages of mummification are taking longer than we expected.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Heading into our mummy check today, we were cautiously optimistic that we might just have a completed chicken mummy. But a quick sniff of the outside of the aquarium before we even moved out to the parking ramp revealed that she was still stinky. We’ve been advised that when there’s no more smell, we have a completed mummy.

Outside of the inner cavity, the natron around Nefertweety didn’t seem to be absorbing too much fluid. We changed out the inside natron and repacked the outside of the bird, still keeping her flipped upside down. I’m beginning to think that mummifying a chicken is a lot like painting a house. The big, broad work of the initial effort takes about the same amount of time as the fine, detailed finishing work.

We did have very interested and appreciative museum visitors wanting to learn more about our project when we rolled the bird back to the Collections Gallery. It’s nice to know that our crazy little project is generating some interest. Due to some other scheduling conflicts, we won’t be checking on the bird this coming Friday. We’ll let the work go on for a whole week to see if that can finish her off. It’s not possible to over mummify something, is it?

Day 33 – Tuesday, April 12 – 12:30 p.m.

Half the chicken she used to be: Checking with a scale today, we've discovered Nefertweety has lost about half of her body weight through the mummification process, going down to 1.75 pounds from her starting weight of 3.5 pounds.
Half the chicken she used to be: Checking with a scale today, we've discovered Nefertweety has lost about half of her body weight through the mummification process, going down to 1.75 pounds from her starting weight of 3.5 pounds.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Summer is coming. Do you need help fitting into that swimsuit or other short, summer clothes? Then try the chicken mummy weight loss program. Call 1-800-CHICKENMUMMY and for the low, low price of $19.95 you can learn the ancient secrets of how to lose half of your body weight in just 33 days!!!!!

Okay, we’re really not encouraging anyone to wrap their body in natron for a month to loss major amounts of weight in one month’s time. But that’s exactly what has happened to Nefertweety, our mummifying chicken. We brought a scale to our check-up today. The 3.5-pound fresh chicken we had at the start of the process has now reduced down to 1.75 pounds. And she appears to be flattening out even more.

Chicken mummy uniforms: You must be wearing light blue in order to work on a chicken mummy on a Tuesday.
Chicken mummy uniforms: You must be wearing light blue in order to work on a chicken mummy on a Tuesday.Courtesy Mark Ryan
When we greeted Nefertweety today (which you must be wearing light blue clothes in order to approach), the smell was not as noticeable, but it’s still there. Poking around, it appears that some of the, um, rear tissues are still being slow to mummify. That darn chicken butt just doesn’t want to mummify. (BTW: I believe the last time I said the words “chicken butt” in succession was in fourth grade.)

We’re going to give Nefertweety another week to finally work through her final mummification issues and hopefully have a fully mummified bird next Tuesday.