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Despite the lofty purpose of the product, corruption crept into the assembly line, and the occasional pilgrim ended up with something dodgy. "A fakery, a jiggery-pokery," Ikram says. Her x-rays have revealed a variety of ancient consumer rip-offs: a cheaper animal substituted for a rarer, more expensive one; bones or feathers in place of a whole animal; beautiful wrappings around nothing but mud. The more attractive the package, Ikram has discovered, the greater the chance of a scam.

To find out how the ancient embalmers worked—a subject on which the ancient texts are silent or ambiguous—Ikram conducts experiments in mummification. For supplies she visits the labyrinth of Cairo's 14th-century suq. At a small shop just a block from the busy souvenir stands, a clerk uses an old brass balance scale to weigh out kilos of gray crystalline chunks. This is natron, a salt that absorbs moisture and fat and was the key drying agent used in mummification. It's still mined just southwest of the Nile Delta and is usually sold as a washing soda. At the herbalist around the corner, Ikram finds oils that will make dry, stiff bodies flexible again and resinous lumps of frankincense that will seal bandages when melted. No one sells the palm wine that ancient embalmers used to wash out internal cavities after evisceration, so Ikram substitutes locally made gin.

Her mummifications began with rabbits. They're a manageable size, and she could get them at the butcher. "Instead of making them stew bunnies, I gave them life for eternity," she says. Flopsy—Ikram names all her mummies—was buried whole in natron. The body didn't last two days. Gases built up, and it exploded. Thumper had better luck. His lungs, liver, stomach, and intestines were snipped out. He was then stuffed with natron and buried in more of the same. He survived.

Fluffy, the next candidate, helped explain an archaeological puzzle. The natron packed inside her absorbed so much fluid that it became goopy, smelly, and disgusting. Ikram dug out the mess and replaced it with fresh natron tied in linen bags. These were simple to remove once they got soggy, explaining why similar bundles turn up in many embalming caches.

Peter Cottontail's treatment was entirely different. Instead of evisceration, he got a turpentine and cedar-oil enema before being placed in natron. Herodotus, the famed Greek historian, wrote about the procedure in the fifth century B.C., but scholars debate his reliability. In this case, the experiment proved him right. All Peter's innards dissolved except the heart—the one organ ancient Egyptians always left in place.

Like the animals mummified more than 3,000 years ago, Ikram's went to a happy afterlife. Once the lab work was done, she and her students followed protocol and wrapped each body in bandages printed with magical spells. Reciting prayers and burning incense, they laid the mummies to rest in a classroom cabinet, where they draw visitors—including me. As an offering, I sketch plump carrots and symbols to multiply the bunch by a thousand. Ikram assures me that the pictures have instantly become real in the hereafter, and her rabbits are twitching their noses with joy. 

A. R. Williams is a senior writer for the magazine. Richard Barnes's recent book, Animal Logic, offers a behind-the-scenes look at natural history museums.
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