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Astounding Find: Archaeologists Discover Mummy of an 18-week Fetus from Ancient Egypt

About 2,600 years ago someone in Egypt mummified a fetus that had been no more than 18 weeks in the womb before an apparent miscarriage. Researchers had thought the tiny coffin contained embalmed body parts but recently did a CT scan of its contents and found the youngest, but not the only, mummified fetus known from ancient Egypt.

The coffin is just 44 centimeters (17.3 inches) long and was excavated in 1907 in Giza. It has been in the custody of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, since. The coffin had deteriorated some, but the black bundle inside it remained intact, says an article about the astounding news in The Guardian.

The coffin of the mummified fetus. (Jaymes Sinclair/the Fitzwilliam Museum)

 In a separate discovery, two mummified fetuses were found in the past in the tomb of King Tutankhamun, who died in 1324 BC. They were about 25 and 37 weeks of gestation and were in separate coffins.

So, the fetus found recently and the ones found in Tut’s tomb by Howard Carter lived about 700 years apart. Still, the practice of embalming fetuses seems to have been rare because no others have been found yet.

Julie Dawson, the Fitzwilliam Museum’s head of conservation, told The Guardian: “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.”

In this latest case, the micro-CT scans showed a little body that was bundled in bandages and treated with a black resin. From the development of the fetus, which shows bones of the arms and legs and the fingers and toes, the museum’s curators said the fetus had been developing for no more than 18 weeks. The skull and pelvis had collapsed.

The hands and feet of the fetus were clearly visible on the micro-CT scans. (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)

Whoever embalmed the fetus placed its arms crosswise on the chest, says the Guardian, adding it’s “an attention to detail that, along with the intricacy and decoration of the coffin, indicate the importance placed on this burial. The sex of the foetus is unclear, but curators suspect that it was mummified after being miscarried. No obvious abnormalities explained why it could not have been carried to term.”

The little mummy is on display in the Fitzwilliam’s exhibition ‘Death on the Nile: Uncovering the Afterlife of Ancient Egypt.’

Ancient Origins published a dramatic report in March 2016 giving the modern history of research into the two fetuses found in Tut’s tomb, saying:

“Tossed away callously in a dark corner of the lavish treasury in the subterranean tomb of Tutankhamun was possibly the most poignant remnant of the boy king’s short life.

Positioned next to the glittering canopic shrine that Howard Carter referred to as “the most beautiful monument,” was an uncovered and undecorated oblong beetle-ridden wooden box, whose lid was removed by ancient intruders. Inside, the British archaeologist discovered two exquisitely crafted miniature anthropoid coffins of gilded wood lying side by side. Placed head to feet, each one contained a nest of tiny coffins, like Russian dolls; within which were found the fetuses of two stillborn girls.

The occupants were not christened, and so, despite sporting clay seals with the royal impression of the jackal over nine captives, these coffins were merely inscribed “The Osiris.” Carter opined that they were “without doubt” the unfortunate daughters of the boy pharaoh and his consort Ankhesenamun.”

Detail; Gold plate depicting Pharaoh Tutankhamun and consort, Ankhesenamun. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Dr. Robert Connolly, an anatomist who analyzed the mummified remains of Tutankhamun and the stillborn children in 2008 observed:

“The two fetuses in the tomb of Tutankhamun could be twins despite their very different sizes, and thus fit better as a single pregnancy for his young wife. This increases the likelihood of them being Tutankhamun’s children. I studied one of the mummies, the larger one, back in 1979, determined the blood group data from this baby mummy and compared it with my 1969 blood grouping of Tutankhamun. The results confirmed that this larger fetus could indeed be the daughter of Tutankhamun. Now we believe that they are twins and they were both his children.”

Over the years, some scholars have wondered whether the fetuses were tokens of purity that were placed in the tomb to journey with Tutankhamun into the afterlife. This notion seems rather far-fetched, especially because the practice of human sacrifice to accompany royal burials was abandoned more than two millennia before the teenage pharaoh died.

The iconic Golden Mask of Pharaoh Tutankhamun. (CC BY 2.0)