Shortly before the winter holiday I went to my son’s third grade class to talk about mummification. They were studying the Egyptians and had learned that the brains of the dead were pulled through their nose by a hook, their guts were removed, and their bodies were packed with salt to preserve them for the ages. I figured that it might be interesting to see if this worked with chicken, so had the kids prepare several different samples for experimentation.
Hypothesis: If chicken is placed in a chemical environment similar to that used to preserve mummies in ancient Egypt, the chicken will be preserved.
The experiment: Pieces of chicken about 10 x 4 cm were placed in a non-airtight plastic container. Different preservation techniques were used to see if the chicken would be preserved. These techniques included the following:
- Control (light): The chicken would be left in the light without the use of any preservation techniques.
- Control (dark): The chicken would be left in the dark without the use of any other preservation techniques.
- Packed in salt
- Soaked in vinegar
- Soaked in alcohol
- Soaked in brine
I had originally planned on running this experiment in my kitchen, but after about three days the smell became bad enough that it was no longer possible. It was clear that the experiment would need to be brought outdoors.
I kind of forgot about the experiment until last week, at which point it had been sitting outside exposed to all sorts of weather, temperature, and light conditions (with the exception of the dark control). Oops.
The chicken in each container had the following appearance after the experiment:
- The light control had turned black and dried out.
- The dark control was sitting in a puddle of goo. The smell was horrible.
- The chicken packed in salt was in very good condition. It appeared normal and had only a minor smell.
- The chicken packed in vinegar was preserved, but had turned yellow. The vinegar had also turned brown, and the smell was quite bad.
- The chicken packed in alcohol seemed fine, with minimal smell.
- The chicken soaked in brine was in pieces, sitting in a puddle of goo. The smell was horrible.
- Salting the chicken and preserving it in alcohol were very effective.
- Pickling in vinegar was less effective, though the chicken was acceptably preserved from a cosmetic viewpoint.
- Doing nothing to the chicken and leaving it in the sun preserved the shape of the meat, but not the texture or color. It did not look unlike what mummies look like.
- Pickling in brine was not effective, nor was leaving an untreated sample in the dark.
Sources of error:
It is very important to understand that this lab was performed with such imprecision and poor technique that it is impossible to say that the results given above are scientifically valid. Some of the many sources of error are given below:
- One trial for each sample is woefully inadequate.
- External variables were completely uncontrolled, with the exception of the dark sample which had only the light controlled.
- The specific sizes of the chicken were not the same, nor were their pre-preservation masses.
- No quantifiable data were taken after the experiment was over.
It is tempting to state that these results confirm the methodology of the Egyptians. However, from a scientific standpoint it is impossible to draw such a conclusion for the reasons above. I would classify this experiment as being useful mainly because it gives insight as to how the experiment may be more carefully performed in the future (i.e. controlling the smell, managing variables, etc.) Additionally, the data suggest that the environment in which chicken is stored has some effect on its preservation, though it’s impossible to say anything more than that without further study.