By Heather Pringle
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These they tucked into natron-filled booties. Then the pair locked the corpse in a storeroom set to the temperature of an average Egyptian summer day, 104 degrees Fahrenheit. When they opened the door five weeks later, the room smelled like sea air. Only a trace of a spicy, pepperlike odor lingered on the body itself as they removed the upper natron crust—suggesting exactly why the Egyptians considered natron divine. For ancient embalmers, however, there was still much to do. They washed the desiccated flesh with sterilizing alcohol, thereby killing remaining bacteria, and rubbed the body with fragrant imported spices, such as cassia, a type of cinnamon from Asia, and myrrh, a tree resin from the Horn of Africa and southern Arabia.
These were the leftovers of grave robbers. But in a few tombs, the team found mummified heads, arms, torsos, and occasionally whole mummies, only partially unwrapped and still finely preserved. They called Aufderheide at the University of Minnesota in Duluth, where he heads his own paleobiology laboratory. They asked if he would like to study them before looters caught wind of the discovery. Aufderheide didn’t have to think about the proposition for long. Others had studied mummies in Egypt. Before engineers began raising the level of the Aswan Dam in 1907, for example, the Australian anatomist Grafton Elliott Smith and his associates examined and autopsied eight thousand ancient bodies.
After packing the abdominal and chest cavities, they poured jar after jar of natron over the body to cover it. The amount needed was staggering. qrk 4/6/01 3:12 PM Page 44 44 THE MUMMY CONGRESS replicating the ancient methods on a modern cadaver in 1994, they used 550 pounds of natron on the body and ran out before they could properly cover the feet. These they tucked into natron-filled booties. Then the pair locked the corpse in a storeroom set to the temperature of an average Egyptian summer day, 104 degrees Fahrenheit.