A.M. – IANtB Science Editor
It can be tricky to find ways to teach Anthropology to children. Here is a pretty easy one, which also happens to be the one that I have tested the most “in the field.” Since it is a small and easy project to prepare and transport for public science events, and I’ve seen literally thousands of kids look at and interact with this exhibit. Thankfully, only about a handful of children have attempted to eat the hot dog!
The main objective of this project is to learn about the processes of preservation—in particular, the conditions that preserved Egyptian mummies. Archaeologists (the kind of anthropologist who digs for human remains and artifacts) and also paleontologists are interested in preservation because usually bodies and organic matter will decay (break down) before the scientist has a chance to study them. The conditions of the environment that an animal comes to rest in when it dies determines how well it is preserved. The three best conditions are:
1. Wet or swampy (for example, “Turkana Boy”).
2. Really cold (Ötzi the Iceman).
3. Really dry places, like where Egyptian mummies were buried.
This project simulates both artificial mummification and natural mummification, depending on which method you choose. Both of these conditions (artificial and dry) contribute to the preservation of Egyptian remains.
I found this experiment at ScienceBuddies.org, which has a lot of great home science project ideas for kids of all ages. Their procedure involves placing a hot dog in a container of baking soda to extract the moisture from it. This simulates the artificial mummification process used by the Egyptians, where all of the moisture is extracted from the body using natron salt. However, this version takes two weeks. So, in a pinch, I have also tried placing the hot dog in an oven on the lowest temperature for several hours. (Simulating a dry desert climate.) This seems to result in more of a “shriveled up” look, similar to the mummies. The oven method simulates the conditions under which the mummies remained for thousands of years after the initial mummification process. You can do one, or do both and compare them.
Approximately kindergarten through 4th grade, but this one is more about knowing your child. You know your child is old enough for this project if…
1. They are at least beginning to grasp the concept of “a thousand years,” and
2. Are comfortable discussing the death of people and animals.
Death is a part of life that every person must face, but know your child! Understand that even very young children can become aware of their own mortality, and that such feelings should not be ignored. There is some measuring and graphing involved, but is not necessary and may be omitted. I have found that little kids love to draw their “observations” in a lab book. The lab book does not have to be fancy—a notepad and crayons will do. They can draw the hot dog “before” and “after,” or draw some pictures of ancient Egyptians. Also, note that you may need to discuss the idea of climates if the child is not already familiar with it. If you have traveled with your children, perhaps talk about what the climate was like in the places you have visited. Did we have to drink a lot of water in Arizona? Did it feel “muggy” at Disney World? Etc.
Skills this project builds:
the scientific method, conceptualization of large timescales, how climate affects the preservation of organic matter, history and culture, geography, taking measurements of length circumference and weight (optional), writing (optional), making graphs (optional).
The nice thing is that it’s pretty easy to do and requires few supplies. Initial time investment is a few minutes of prep and a few more minutes of introduction. The project sits for 2 weeks and you occasionally need to change the baking soda. The abbreviated version (described above) takes 2-6 hours. (Just keep an eye on it).
- Disposable gloves (3 pairs); available at drugstores
- Paper towels (3)
- Meat hot dog, standard size (I usually use two so I can compare them later, or three if I want to use both mummification methods)
- Ruler, metric (optional)
- Piece of string or yarn — at least 10 cm long (optional)
- Kitchen scale (optional)
- Airtight plastic storage box with lid that is longer, wider, and several centimeters deeper than the hot dog. It will probably need to be at least 20 cm long x 10 cm wide x 10 cm deep.
- Baking soda (enough to fill the box twice, probably at least 6 pounds). You will want to use a new, unopened box each time so you may want to use smaller boxes, such as 8 oz. or 1 lb. boxes.
- Lab notebook (optional)
- Helpful but not necessary: a globe or map (globes are always better), photos of the mummification process, Egyptian pyramids, and wall paintings on the inside of the pyramids. Photos of the dessert and other climates.
Here is the procedure for the “natron salt” version. You can modify/omit parts as appropriate for the age of the child. Be sure to visit ScienceBuddies.org for the full discussion and variations.
- Put on one pair of the gloves and place a paper towel on your work surface. Place the hot dog on top of the paper towel and the ruler next to it. Measure the length of the hot dog (in centimeters [cm]) and record the number in your lab notebook in a data table like Table 1 below, in the row for 0 days.
- Take the piece of string and wrap it around the middle of the hot dog to measure the distance around the middle. You are measuring the circumference of the hot dog. Make a mark on the string where the end of the string meets up with itself. Lay the string along the ruler to measure the distance from the end of the string to the mark (in centimeters). This is the circumference of your hot dog. Write the value down in the data table in your lab notebook.
- Measure the weight of the hot dog on the kitchen scale. Record this value (in grams [g]) in your data table.
- Now prepare for the mummification process. The purpose of this process is to desiccate and preserve the hot dog. Put at least 2.5 cm of baking soda (from a new, unopened box) in the bottom of the storage box. Lay the hot dog on top of the baking soda. Cover the hot dog with more baking soda, as shown in Figure 2 below. Make sure that you have at least 2.5 cm of baking soda on top of the hot dog, and baking soda along the sides of it. The hot dog must be completely covered with baking soda.
When you are done preparing the hot dog, there should be at least 2.5 cm of baking soda below it and 2.5 cm of baking soda on top of it.
- Seal the box with the lid and put the box in an indoor shady location, away from heating and cooling vents, where it will not be disturbed. Note the date that you started the process in your lab notebook. Do not disturb it for one week – no peeking!
- After one week, check on your hot dog. Put on a new pair of disposable gloves and take the hot dog out of the baking soda. Gently tap and dust all of the baking soda off of the hot dog and into a trash can. Place the hot dog on a paper towel and measure the length and the circumference of the hot dog. Use the kitchen scale and weigh the hot dog. Record the data in the data table in your lab notebook, in the row for 7 days.
- Observe the hot dog. It may look similar to the one in Figure 3 below. Has the color of the hot dog changed? Does it smell? How did the hot dog change after a week in the baking soda? Record your observations in the data table in your lab notebook and then set the hot dog aside on a paper towel.
- Now discard the old baking soda and clean out your box. Make sure you dry it thoroughly. Repeat step 4 using fresh baking soda and the same hot dog.
- Seal the box with the lid and put the box back where it was before. Keep the hot dog in the box for one more week, for a total of 14 days of mummification. At the end of the 14th day, take the hot dog out of the baking soda and repeat steps 6 and 7, but this time record the data in the row for 14 days.
- How, if at all, did the hot dog change from the 7th day to the 14th day? If it changed, then on day 7 the hot dog may have only been partially mummified. How did the hot dog change from the 1st day to the 14th day?
On the left is the partially mummified hot dog. Note the difference in color between the partially mummified hot dog and the fresh hot dog on the right.
- Plot your data. You should make three line graphs: one to show the changes in length, another to show changes in circumference, and finally, one to show the change in weight. On each of these graphs label the x-axis “Day” and then the y-axes “Length (in cm),” “Circumference (in cm),” or “Weight (in g).” If you would like to learn more about graphing, or would like to make your graphs online, check out the following website: Create a Graph.
- Analyze your graphs. How did the weight, length, and circumference of the hot dog change over time? Why do you think this is? Do these data agree with the observations you made?
Finally, here is a Mummified Hot Dog PDF that breaks the project down into the steps of the scientific method. As you work through any science project with a child, it is important to teach them the steps of the scientific method. Children (especially babies ) can grasp the scientific method even on a basic level:
1. First we make an observation ask a question about it.
2. Then we devise an experiment to test our question.
3. Finally, we report the results so that other people know what we’ve done and can try it themselves to see if it works.
The Mummified Hot Dog PDF would also be appropriate for display on a poster or for placement in your child’s “Lab Book.”
Did your family try this experiment? Let us know! Post a photo of your completed experiment on I Am Not the Babysitter’s Facebook page, so we can share your work with our readers!