The first known pregnant Egyptian mummy has been discovered, surprising researchers studying the body of what was thought to be a male priest. Not only is this the first known deliberately mummified pregnant woman, but it also raises fascinating questions about who this woman was, whether this practice was rare, and even what it might mean for Egyptian beliefs about the afterlife.
Researchers from the Warsaw Mummy Project were just about wrapping up (sorry) research on about 40 mummies at the National Museum in Warsaw, Poland, when something in a scan of a mummy thought to have been a priest named Hor-Djehuty caught their eye: a tiny foot.
At first, they thought it might be the remains of the mummification procedure, like stuffing the lower abdomen with filling material, lead author Wojtek Ejsmond, co-founder of the Warsaw Mummy Project, told IFLScience.
Carrying out a more detailed analysis using tomography and X-rays to study the pelvic area and determine the sex of the mummy, they could see the whole fetus – which, unusually, had not been removed. Describing the unique discovery in the Journal of Archaeological Science, Ejsmond and colleagues reveal this has never been seen before.
This particular mummy had been confusing archaeologists for over a century already before this latest plot twist.
The mummy had been donated to the University of Warsaw in 1826 and kept on loan in the National Museum in Warsaw since 1917. It was originally thought to be female, due to the elaborately decorated sarcophagus, and was even dubbed the “mummy of a lady”. However, sometime around 1920, translations of the hieroglyphs on the sarcophagus revealed the name of a priest, Hor-Djehuty. Radiological scans in the 1990s also suggested the remains were male.
Then in 2016, the Warsaw Mummy Project researchers, using non-invasive computer tomography, discovered the “priest” had a rather delicate skeletal structure and male genitalia were missing, leading them to suspect it was in fact female. "[T]hanks to the visualization of CT scans, we could immediately see the breasts, long hair, and no penis," Ejsmond said.
Further scans have now revealed the mummy dates to the first century BCE, was between 20 and 30 years old, and was 26-30 weeks pregnant when she died. It's not known why she was buried with the fetus, as it was standard practice to remove organs during mummification, and there are no other examples to compare it to. But there is other information that can be deduced from the remains.
The mummy was reportedly found in the royal tombs of Thebes in Egypt, though the authors point out that 19th-century correspondence may not have been trustworthy; anyone finding a mummy wanted it to be of royal origin. As this case has demonstrated too, sarcophagi and their inhabitants often don't match up. However, she would have been of high status, as mummification wasn't available to all. The scans also revealed she was buried with a rich set of amulets.
There are, of course, many questions left unanswered, including: was this a rare practice, or have we just not found any other pregnant mummies yet?
"It's hard to say because it is rather challenging to detect a fetus in a radiological examination due to low density of its bones and the fact that it is a body within a body," Ejsmond said. "Maybe there are more cases like this, thus more research is needed."
As for why the fetus was not removed and what this may tell us about ancient Egyptians, so little is known about prenatal care in ancient Egypt, this discovery may kickstart a new exploration of the subject.
"This discovery brought our attention to the issue of the status of pregnant women and unborn children in ancient Egyptian religion and funerary beliefs," Ejsmond told IFLScience. "New questions emerged, like: did an unborn child have a soul? Could it go to the Netherworld and be reborn there since it wasn’t born yet? Perhaps it was not possible to remove the fetus at this stage of pregnancy, or perhaps the pregnancy was concealed?"
"These and many more questions make our mummy unique and thus the name "Mysterious Lady'," he added.
The researchers are hoping their world-first discovery will attract interdisciplinary research from a wide range of fields, from physicians looking into the health of the woman and how she died, to anthropologists who may be able to illuminate what this means for ancient Egytpians' beliefs concerning unborn babies and the afterlife. Despite being dead for over 2,000 years, this mummy has plenty more insights to offer about life long ago.