Researchers examining an ancient Egyptian mummy thought that they were looking at the body of a male priest. Instead, they were shocked to discover the body was actually a woman — who had been seven months pregnant at the time of her death.
According to a new study in the Journal of Archaeological Science, X-rays and computer tests finally revealed the mummy’s true identity, showing the small hands and feet of a fetus. Researchers in Poland said it’s the first and only known case of a well-preserved mummified pregnant woman.
The mummy dates back to the first century B.C. and is believed to come from royal tombs in Thebes in Upper Egypt. It first arrived in Warsaw in 1826.
An inscription on the coffin specified that it was a male priest named Hor-Djehuti — and no other examinations have shown otherwise. However, mummies often do not match their coffins, due to mix-ups during robberies.
“Our first surprise was that it has no penis, but instead it has breasts and long hair, and then we found out that it’s a pregnant woman,” Marzena Ozarek-Szilke, an anthropologist and archeologist, told The Associated Press. “When we saw the little foot and then the little hand, we were really shocked,”
Researchers believe the woman was between 20 and 30 years old when she died. The size of the baby’s skull suggested she was about 26 to 28 weeks pregnant. The cause of death is not known.
The woman was very carefully mummified, wrapped in fabrics and buried with a plethora of amulets, suggesting high social standing. She was buried with other items as well, but researchers say the tomb was partially robbed in the 1800s.
The superior quality of the embalming suggests it actually could have been performed long before the first century B.C.
“Above all, it is unknown who she was,” researchers wrote. “Her mummy represents a fine example of ancient Egyptian embalming skills, thus suggesting her high social standing.”
The specimen sheds new light on ancient burial customs surrounding pregnancy. Researchers said the mummy expands possibilities for pregnancy studies and burial customs related to maternity in ancient times.
“This is our most important and most significant finding so far, a total surprise,” team member Wojciech Ejsmond of the Polish Academy of Sciences told the AP. “It opens possibilities of learning about pregnancy and treatment of complications in ancient times.”