Scientists Discover First Ever Pregnant Mummy
Quite the surprise since experts thought she was a male priest.
I love when we think we’re so sure of something, and then new information reveals the truth as something vastly unexpected. Especially when the discovery makes our eyes widen, and our minds whirl in new ways.
Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like we’re experiencing plenty of these moments over the last few years — many of which we’ve talked about in this newsletter. Along with a growing interest in exploring new perspectives and testing the boundaries of what we think we know, like our history.
Around 200 years ago, the University of Warsaw acquired a mummy believed to be an Egyptian priest named Hor-Djehuty from the first century BCE—at least, that’s what his coffin indicated. In 2016, scientists from the Warsaw Mummy Project in Poland were studying it when Marzena Ożarek-Szilke, anthropologist and archaeologist from the Faculty of Archaeology of the University of Warsaw, and her husband noticed the mummy isn’t a male.
Not only is the mummy female, but she appears to have died sometime between 20 and 30 years old and was between 26 and 30 weeks pregnant — the sex of the fetus was not identified.
According to the paper published in April of 2021 in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the seller claimed she was discovered within the royal tombs in Thebes, Upper Egypt. So, she may have belonged to the elite or upper-class. Especially considering she was “carefully mummified, wrapped in fabrics, and equipped with a rich set of amulets.”
However, there is no proof the mummy came from where the sellers claim. After all, it’s common for dealers to lie about the origins of artifacts to increase their profits. Regardless of where she was found, or her role in society, this is still a first of its kind. Never before in known history has a mummy been found pregnant.
How it Happened and Why it Hasn’t Before
Scientists in Warsaw, Poland, were using radiological examination — a way of visualizing body spaces and organs — to study the mummy when they realized it has no trace of a penis but does have mummified breasts.
When imaging her pelvic area, they spotted the shape of a tiny foot, then a hand, in her uterus, confirming the mummy is, in fact, female. It’s a miraculous find and makes us wonder why we haven’t found any pregnant mummies earlier.
But when considering the science of pregnancy and the embalming process, it’s not too surprising that scientists haven’t noticed this before. To begin with, they point out in the paper that the mother and fetus went through two different mummification processes.
The mother was covered in a type of sodium called natron which is natural to Egypt and is used to dry out the body. One effect is significantly lowering the pH of blood in a corpse — including the contents of the uterus — making it more acidic. As time goes on, concentrations of formic acid and ammonia form.
This process also seals off her uterus, cutting off oxygen to the fetus. The researchers compared this process to what happens to a body left in a swamp-type environment — also known as bog bodies.
During the first two trimesters, the fetus lacks bone density so this bog environment would dissolve most of the fetus’s bones. Eventually, though, the natron reaches the uterus and dries it out with the rest of her body, leaving behind a pickled fetus.
Granted, it’s not the cutest analogy, but it makes the most sense to describe what they found. However, there’s another reason spotting a pregnant mummy is difficult. Not only do young fetuses lack bone density, but they have little physical tissue. Without dense bones or tissue, the odds of enough material surviving the embalming process to spot in an X-ray is slim to none.
The first thing is to reevaluate other mummies that have already been discovered to see if any of them were misidentified or pregnant. The researchers in this study believe the odds are high other pregnant mummies are sitting in museum collections worldwide.
When we find more, imagine what we might learn about ancient Egyptian beliefs regarding unborn babies, pregnancy, prenatal health, and perhaps the role of unborn children in the afterlife.
And, of course, with new findings come new questions. It appears that whoever embalmed the mother performed the usual act of removing four organs —believed to be the lungs, liver, stomach, and heart — then embalmed them before putting them back in her body, as is typical. So why didn’t they do the same to the fetus? Or mummify the fetus separately and bury it with the mother, like they typically did with stillborns?
Wojtek Ejsmond, one of the three co-founders of the Warsaw Mummy Project, offered several possibilities in an interview with CNN.
"This whole discovery brought our attention to the question of why it was not removed. We don't know why it was left there. Maybe there was a religious reason. Maybe they thought the unborn child didn't have a soul or that it would be safer in the next world. Or maybe it was because it was very difficult to remove a child at that stage from the womb without causing serious damage."
Experts also don’t know how or why the woman died. Thankfully, at least this mystery will be solved once scientists analyze trace amounts of blood found in her soft tissue.
This is why it’s so important to keep an open mind. Who knows what we’ve missed due to limiting our perceptions of what’s “normal” or “possible.” It’s easier said than done to set aside our bias or predictions when evaluating something new, especially when we’re unaware of them. What’s normal now hasn’t always been so.
Finding this pregnant mummy changes things while also inspiring new avenues to explore. What other incorrect assumptions have we made about our past? How have these assumptions shaped the world we live in today? The good thing is, as technology improves, it illuminates these oversights so we can correct ourselves. Hopefully.
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