What would you expect to find in a tiny 44 cm (17.3 inch) coffin from ancient Egypt? Most archeologists have historically assumed a sarcophagus that small would contain mummified organs, possibly removed from the mummy whose tomb it was found it. Researchers at the University of Cambridge’s used a CT scanner to examine such a container that had never been opened since it was found in 1907 and found not organs but a human fetus. This is a truly rare find and the smallest mummified fetus found to date. What does this tell us about the ancient Egyptians?
The still-sealed sarcophagus was recently put on display at the Fitzwilliam Museum as part of an exhibit called Death on the Nile: Uncovering the afterlife of Ancient Egypt. The 6,000-year-old cedar box was excavated from Giza in 1907 and delivered to the museum that same year, where it has been kept unopened. X-ray examination had been attempted but the black bundle inside was wrapped too tightly to determine what it was holding. The CT images revealed the secret.
Five digits on both hands and feet and the long bones of the legs and arms were all clearly visible. Although the soft skull and pelvis were found to be collapsed, the categorical consensus was that inside the bundle was a human fetus estimated to be of no more than 18 weeks gestation.
According to the museum’s report, the arms were folded across its chest and it appears it was mummified outside of the womb, not with the mother, who was unidentified. No gender or cause of miscarriage could be determined. The tiny coffin was covered in intricate designs. King Tut’s tomb contained two mummified fetuses that appeared to have died 25 and 37 weeks into the pregnancies, so this one is the youngest by nearly two months.
Julie Dawson, head of conservation at the museum, explains the significance of this discovery:
This groundbreaking find educates us further still in our conception of just how precious the unborn child was in ancient Egyptian society. The care taken in the preparation of this burial clearly demonstrates the value placed on life even in the first weeks of its inception.
What would these ancient Egyptians think of today’s views on conception, gestation and the unborn?