The mummified remains of a teenage girl who died during childbirth in ancient Egypt have been analyzed by researchers, revealing that the young mother-to-be was in the process of delivering twins when she passed away. Sadly, the labor took a negative turn when the head of the first baby became stuck in the birth canal, resulting in the deaths of both infants as well as the mother.
Thought to have been around 14 to 17 years old when she died, the young woman was originally unearthed in 1908 at the El Bagawat cemetery in Egypt’s Kharga Oasis. Field notes from the time reveal that she was found with a fetus and placenta between her legs, leading to the conclusion that she had died from obstetric complications.
Revisiting the mummy after more than a century, the authors of a new study conducted computed tomography (CT) scans of the body in order to determine exactly what might have gone wrong. To their surprise, the scans revealed the presence of a second fetus within the woman’s chest cavity, indicating that she was pregnant with twins.
More startling revelations were to come when the researchers noted that the infant placed between the woman’s legs was missing its head. Upon closer examination, they realized that the baby’s head was still lodged in the mother’s pelvis, leading them to suspect that the fetus had become decapitated during the birthing process.
The most likely explanation for this horrific outcome is that the baby was born in a breech position – meaning it came out feet first. During breech births, babies can sometimes untuck their head from their chest, making it harder to pass through the birth canal.
According to the study authors, this can lead to “traumatic fetal decapitation” in rare cases, with this example being one of those terrible occasions. “The cause of death is determined to be the entrapment of the baby's head in the birth canal due to breech presentation of the fetus during delivery,” they conclude.
As for the second fetus, the researchers suspect that the embalmers may have been unaware that the woman was pregnant with twins and therefore simply failed to remove it from her body before mummifying her. As the mummy’s diaphragm dissolved, the unborn fetus may have moved up from the womb to the chest cavity.
“This examination of the mother and her children at birth reconfirms how dangerous pregnancy, labor, and delivery was, especially during this time period,” write the study authors. In particular, twin births were seen as highly undesirable in ancient Egypt and were often guarded against with spells and incantations.
One such spell found on an ancient papyrus known as the Oracular Amuletic Decree highlights this fear of twosomes, stating that “we shall keep her safe from a Horus-birth, from an irregular birth and from giving birth to twins.”
The study – including images of the mummy – is published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology.