An Egyptian mummy who for decades was considered a male priest was recently discovered to be a pregnant woman, making her the first known case of its kind, scientists have said.
Polish scientists made the discovery while conducting an extensive study, which began in 2015, of more than 40 mummies at the National Museum in Warsaw, said Wojciech Ejsmond, archaeologist and director of the Warsaw Mummy Project, which led the research.
The results were published last month in The Journal of Archaeological Science. “It was absolutely unexpected,” said Dr Ejsmond.
“Our anthropologist rechecked the mummy pelvis area to establish the mummy’s gender and check everything, and she observed something weird in the pelvis area, some kind of anomaly,” he said. .
The anomaly turned out to be the tiny leg of a fetus, estimated to be around 26 to 30 weeks old at the time, according to the team’s findings. Computer scans and additional x-rays revealed the woman had died between the ages of 20 and 30.
Based on their non-invasive research, scientists deduced that the mummy was made around the first century BC.
Although burials of pregnant women in ancient Egypt have already been discovered, this is the first known discovery of a mummified pregnant woman.
“It’s like finding treasure while you are collecting mushrooms in a forest,” said Dr Ejsmond. “We are overwhelmed by this discovery.”
The mummy, which was donated to the University of Warsaw in 1826, was eventually kept at the National Museum in Warsaw. The mummy was called the “mummy of a lady” in the 19th century, the researchers wrote.
However, that changed in the following century when the translated hieroglyphics on the casket and the mummy cover revealed the name of an Egyptian priest, Hor-Djehuty. Radiological examinations carried out in the 1990s have also led some to interpret the gender of the mummy as being male.
According to 19th-century correspondence, the mummy was found in the royal tombs of Thebes in Egypt, but scientists were reluctant to characterize it as the official origin of the mummy.
During the 19th century, people were “liberal in declaring the real” sites where archaeological artifacts were found, said Dr Ejsmond. There were times when the mummies did not match the coffins they were placed in. Dr Ejsmond said this happens about 10% of the time.
In the case of the pregnant mummy, the scientists wrote in their research: “One can only assume that the mummy was placed in a bad coffin by accident in antiquity, or was placed in a coffin at random by antique dealers in the 19th century.
Alexander Nagel, associate researcher in the anthropology department at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, called the pregnant mummy a “unique find.”
“In general, few women have been studied in Egyptology,” he said.
Ancient text provides insight into practices surrounding pregnant women in ancient times, Dr Nagel said, but more research would be illuminating. Papyrus from around 1825 BC, revealed that materials such as honey and crocodile dung were used as contraceptives.
Yet very little is known about antenatal care in ancient times, said Dr Ejsmond.
Dr Nagel said about 30% of infants died in their first year of life in ancient times. After learning of the discovery of the pregnant mother, he said he was intrigued by what further studies might reveal about Egyptian beliefs regarding the afterlife of unborn children.
More research is needed to learn more about the health of pregnant moms. This might require taking soft tissue micro-samples, Dr Ejsmond said.
“It’s a very small amount of soft tissue, so we won’t see any difference on the mummy, but we still question the structure of the object,” he says.
The scientists hope that the publication of their results can attract the attention of doctors and experts in other fields to help them in the next stage of research.
“This is a good basis to start a bigger project on this mummy,” Dr Ejsmond said, “because it will require a lot of experts to do decent interdisciplinary research.