Introduction: Life Size Paper Mache Sarcophagus

Each year my 6th grade art students will study a unit over ancient Egypt in their history class. Their enthusiasm and eagerness to learn all things about Egypt inspired me to create this life size paper mache sarcophagus and mummy (mummy instructions to come later). Each year the history teacher will bring this work of art to her room to show it off and each students' eyes will light up with excitement. Not only is it a great item to display in a history class, but it makes a great Halloween decoration. Some steps are a little tedious, but they are definitely worth it in the end.


  • News paper (lots and lots of it).
  • Cardboard (some large pieces and some small).
  • Elmers glue (glueing cardboard pieces together).
  • Paper mache paste (we use Elmer's Paper Mache Art Paste), a mixture of Elmer's Glue and water, wallpaper paste, or ever a mixture of water and flour will work.
  • Masking tape.
  • Scrap Styrofoam and wooden spheres for the flail piece (the tool in the left hand.
  • PVC, Christmas candy cane decor, or even cardboard could work for the crook.
  • Plastic art mask (for the face).
  • Puff Paint.(I used 2 large bottles of black)
  • Spray Primer.
  • Gold spray Paint.
  • Utility knife and cutting mat.
  • Printouts of hieroglyphics.

Step 1: Building the Basic Shape of the Sarcophagus.

I do not have good image of the first few steps, so I drew them out so you could see them. To make this step easier, I would find larger pieces of cardboard (refrigerator or stove boxes). Make sure you have large enough boxes to trace around a person plus 2 inches all the way around. I also used 4 layers of cardboard so it would be thick and sturdy.

  1. Stack, glue, and tape four layers of large cardboard together. (You will do this 3 times, one for the lid, one for the rim or center piece of the lid, and one for the flat bottom of the base) 2
  2. Have some one lay on top of a stacked and glued, and trace their body. Now, add 2 inches all the way around. Make sure the new outline matches the basic shape of a sarcophagus (head slowly slopes into shoulders, shoulders slowly taper into the feet.
  3. Carefully cut out this shape and trace it onto one of the other stacked and glued cardboard pieces. (2 large pieces of stacked cardboard should be cut the exact same.) Then, trace the cut out shape on to the 3 piece, but once traced, move in about an inch our two, you want this one to be a little smaller, so it will fit inside of the other 2 pieces later.
  4. Cut out these two pieces. You should now have 3 large pieces cut (2 the exact same size and one that is 1-2 inches smaller all the way around).

Step 2: Building the Sides.

You will now need to use either large pieces of cardboard or attach smaller pieces together.

  1. Cut strips of cardboard that are 18 inches x whatever length you can get (ex: if you have a really long box you could do an 18 x48" strip or if you have smaller boxes you might only get 18x12") Cut enough strips to go around the sarcophagus 4 times with a little extra on each lap.
  2. Figure out what pieces go where. If the sarcophagus edge is straight leave the cardboard unbent/flat, but if you have a curved area (shoulders, head, etc) you might have to roll each edge on the edge of a table to give you a nice curved piece of cardboard.
  3. Glue and tape the first layer of cardboard to the outside of the base piece (the bottom of the cardboard should be flush with the bottom of the base. Tape any seams where new cardboard is added. Make sure this layer keeps the shape of the base. Brace it with extra tape, stacked books, or whatever else works and let this dry.
  4. Once dry, trim any layers that stand above the outside layers, so that all layers are even.

Step 3: Building the Lid.

First, make sure the smaller "lip piece" of the 2 lid pieces actually fits inside of the base, if not trim it down. If it is too small, glue and tape cardboard pieces to it to expand it.

1. To attach the lid, place the lid on a flat surface and center the smaller "lip piece" on top of it.

2. With another person, turn the base upside down and slowly lower it on to the lid.

3. Move the base around until it is aligned with the lid.

4. Slowly lift the base, and the smaller "lip" piece should be in the right position. Make an outline of this piece.

5. Remove the "lip piece". Add glue to the back side and align the lip piece with the outline. Tape to secure.

6. Carefully, lower the base back on top to see if it still fits into place. Make adjustments to the "lip piece" if needed.

Step 4: Adding Lid Details (part 1)

Now you need to round out the lid and make it look like an Egyptian body.

  1. Cut (7) half ovals to the size and shape that looks proportional to you. The diameter should match the distance across each of the following: the chest, the stomach, the groin, the thigh, the knee, just above the ankle, and then the feet. These arched pieces are supports for the rounded dimensional look of the sarcophagus.
  2. Attach these pieces using clue and tape. Let dry. Other "blocks" or pieces of cardboard may have to be added for support.
  3. Roll pieces of cardboard on the edge of a table to give the cardboard a curve.
  4. Attach these rolled pieces from one arched support to another (ex: from chest to stomach, from stomach to groin, groin to thigh, etc.) Use glue and tape.
  5. Now, you can attach the head and headdress. Stuff the plastic mask with newspaper until you get the desired depth on the lid. Use masking tape to attach it.
  6. Crumple and stuff newspaper above the mask (at a slope) to create the top of the headdress.
  7. To add the decorative "rope" between the head and headdress - Take a half sheet of newspaper and twist it tightly (not so tight that it rips , but tight enough to be about roughly 1/2 inch thick). Tape this rope tightly so it doesn't come loose. Now, using masking tape, tape it over the joint where the head and headdress meet.

Step 5: Adding Lid Details (part 2)

Now that the majority of the sarcophagus (bottom 2/3rds or so) is covered on cardboard, you can finish building up the thickness of the shoulders and headdress.

1. For the shoulders, you will need to tightly crumple newspaper and tape it to the cardboard. You will need to layer these crumpled pieces and stuff newspaper into any gaps. Your goal is to get the shoulder and chest area as smooth as possible.

2. Once the chest and shoulder area is complete you can move on to finishing the headdress.

3. The headdress is built using layers of "rolled" cardboard. I began by cutting a template our of cardboard so that I knew each side our fit the specific area and than "flow" over the shoulders.

4. I traced this template on several other pieces of cardboard and then "rolled" them on the end of a table to get the shape I needed to fit these areas. You will need 3-4 layers to get the appropriate thickness.

Step 6: Adding Lid Details (part 3)

This step is for creating the decorative straps of the lid, the beard, the decorative ropes for the decorative neck piece, the details of the arms, and the flail and crook.

Decorative Straps.

1. There are decorative straps that go across the body and then a strip that goes down the middle for some of the hieroglyphics.

2. These straps are build similarly to the pieces on the headdress. I used 2-3 layers of "rolled" cardboard that was roughly 2 -2.5 inches wide. Each layer was glued on the lid and taped in place individually.

3. A similar process was used for the decorative strip that runs down the body, the only difference is - I used an X-acto knife to cut out hieroglyphics out, so that the "Mummy's" name would be displayed down the front and my students could try to decipher it.

The Beard.

1. I crumple and rolled a full sheet of news paper and shaped it to match the shape of an Egyptian beard.

2. I bent this shape slightly so that it wouldn't hang straight down from the chin, but rather it would curve out a bit.

3. I taped the final shape together so it would stay the way I wanted it.

4. I heavily taped the the beard into place.

Decorative Neck Piece.

1. To add the decorative "rope" on the neck piece - Take a half sheet of newspaper and twist it tightly (not so tight that it rips , but tight enough to be about roughly 1/2 inch thick).

2. Tape this rope tightly so it doesn't come loose.

3. Now, using masking tape, tape it onto the area that you would like to define (such as the end of the neck piece).

4. I used this same technique for the wrist bands and the fingers for the hands.

Arms and details.

1. To form the arms, I tightly crumpled balls of newspaper.

2. I taped these newspaper balls together paying attention to gaps and tried to layer them to show muscle tone in the arms.

3. Using the rope technique listed above, I formed these rope pieces into fingers (I had to combine multiple ropes to form some of the finger).

4. Using lots of masking tape, I then strapped the arms into the position where they belong on the sarcophagus (stuffing newspaper into gaps, or using it to level the arms, etc).

Crook and Flail.

1. Used found objects to create the crook and flail.

2. I carefully heated a plastic Christmas candy cane so that I could mold it into shape.

3. For the flail I cut scrap styrofoam for the "feathers", and used wire to attach them and the the wooden spheres onto a dowel rod.

Step 7: Paper Mache and Details

Paper Mache

Now it is time to move onto the messy, but fun part.

I use Elmer's Paper Mache Art Paste, but any paper mache past will do (yes even homemade paste). Also, you will need a lot of torn paper strips (roughly 2.5 -3 inches x 5-6 inches.

I always start on the bottom of my sculptures and work my way up.

1. Dip a strip of paper into the paste.

2. Using your fingers like scissors, slowly pull the strip through your fingers removing any excess glue.

3. The paper strip should be damp, but not dripping wet.

4. Place the strip on to the sculpture and "massage" into place, removing any air bubbles.

5. repeat these steps, making sure you slightly overlap each strip of paper.

6. Continue this process until the entire sarcophagus is covered (I would recommend 3-4 layers, allowing each layer to dry).


1.After all the layers are placed, I used black puff paint to add the scale/feather details and fill any holes in the hieroglyphics.

2. Be very careful with the puff paint around any edged or curves, it likes to drip if you put it on too thick.

Step 8: Primer.

Once all of your paper mache has been completed and your details have been added, you will need to prime the entire sarcophagus.

I recommend a spay primer.

1. Make sure you are in a well ventilated area.

2. Spray the entire structure.

3. I would recommend at least 2 coats.

4. Allow time for drying between each coat.

Step 9: Gold Color

After the primer coats have been sprayed and each layer has had time to dry completely, it is time to add the gold color.

I recommend a spay paint gold color.

. 1. Make sure you are in a well ventilated area.

2. Spray the entire structure.

3. I would recommend at least 2 coats.

4. Allow time for drying between each coat.

Step 10: Final Detail Painting

For this final step, I used acrylic craft paints.

1. Lightly draw all of your details onto the sarcophagus.

2. Select Egyptian themed paint colors.

3. Paint each detail to give this sculpture its final look.

4. You can choose to seal it with a clear coat, if you would like.

Set back and enjoy all of your hard work!

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