A miniature coffin buried almost 2,600 years ago has been discovered to contain a surprising find. Within the wrap of material inside, the coffin houses a tiny human fetus, now thought to be the earliest known example ever unearthed.
The wooden coffin was actually discovered in 1907 by the British School of Archaeology during an excavation in Giza. Gifted to the Fitzwilliam Museum in the same year, it was assumed for all this time to contain the organs of an adult that were removed prior to the mummification process. When X-rayed, the results were inconclusive, and only when it was placed in a CT scanner did the actual contents of the box become clear.
The researchers were able to see the fetus' arms and hands – including all 10 digits – crossed over its chest, as well as its leg bones. The soft skull and pelvis were found to be collapsed, but there was enough for them to conclude that it was indeed the remains of a fetus, and judging from the size, it was no older than 18 weeks when miscarried. This makes the tiny remains the youngest known Egyptian mummy of a human fetus.
The coffin, made from cedar wood, measures just 44 centimeters (17 inches) in length, and shows great craftsmanship. The details of the box, with its intricate carvings and engravings, along with the fetus' crossed arms, imply that a lot of care and effort went into preparing the fetus for burial. This in itself tells us a lot about how the ancient Egyptians viewed fetuses.
“Using non-invasive modern technology to investigate this extraordinary archaeological find has provided us with striking evidence of how an unborn child might be viewed in ancient Egyptian society,” explained Julie Dawson, the head of conservation at the Fitzwilliam Museum. “The care taken in the preparation of this burial clearly demonstrates the value placed on life even in the first weeks of its inception.” It seems, then, that even unborn fetuses were given a chance to enter the afterlife.
This is not actually the first fetus to have been found mummified from ancient Egypt. In fact, in the tomb of Tutankhamun, archaeologists discovered two that were estimated to have been 25 and 37 weeks old. But this new find is by far the youngest ever found, and adds to our understanding of how the ancient Egyptians' belief system incorporated early life.
Image in text: The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge