A small coffin that archaeologists discovered in Giza, Egypt, approximately 100 years ago is now being re-examined, and giving insight into how ancient Egyptians may have viewed and valued human life. The 17-inch-long coffin was originally thought to contain some type of human entrails or perhaps products of ancient embalming. The contents, which are wrapped in cloth and then resin, have been virtually untouched since their placement, which is thought to be 664 to 527 B.C., according to The Washington Post. The tiny coffin has been sitting in a Cambridge museum since its discovery.New CT-scans show the contents are actually the smallest and youngest fetus known to be mummified from ancient Egypt. The fetus is estimated to be between 16-18 weeks gestation, which even by today’s medical standards would have no chance at life outside of the womb. The fetus was likely miscarried. Although fetuses in the fourth month of pregnancy are not compatible with life outside of the womb, they are visibly human to the naked eye, with all body parts formed, simply very small. It was likely possible to determine the sex of the fetus at the time of miscarriage. The CT-scan shows visible long bones to indicate human femurs, along with a human skull and tiny heads and feet. The fetus appeared to be intact when placed in the tiny coffin, and had its arms folded across its chest, which is common for most Egyptian mummies that have been unearthed, and is generally thought to be a result of reverence and a sign of respect to ancient Egyptians, according to archaeologists. Julie Dawson, head of archaeology at the Fitzwilliam Museum, says the identification of the remains are an important finding.
“It’s an extraordinary archaeological find that has provided us with striking evidence of how an unborn child might be viewed in ancient Egyptian society. The care taken in the preparation of this burial clearly demonstrates the value placed on life even in the first weeks of its inception. The fetus had its arms crossed over its chest, which coupled with the intricacy of the tiny coffin and its decoration, are clear indications of the importance and time given to this burial in Egyptian society.”
King Tut had several fetuses buried with him, thought to possibly be his children, but they were 25 to 37 weeks gestation, meaning they may have lived briefly after their premature births. This fetus would likely have been born without any signs of life at all. This raises a question of religious and cultural ideas regarding the unborn and what ancient Egyptians considered to be the inception of human life, as well as the fact that the fetus was revered by someone, or multiple people, as being worthy of preservation.
This was not the first time the contents of the coffin had been examined through X-ray, but previously there had been inconclusive results. The coffin was scanned again because the museum is preparing for an event that celebrates ancient Egyptian culture and heritage, and the little coffin was not well understood. The results are an incredible find for the archaeology community and history buffs everywhere.
It has not been shared if the possible identity of the fetus was that of royalty, but the intricacies of the coffin indicate that the family likely was of the upper class in Egypt with the means to ceremoniously mummify a fetus. Many similar mummies have been discovered with items of worth, such as jewelry. This fetus remains undisturbed in its wrappings and resin; all studies were conducted without disturbing the fetus, so the tiny being rests the way it was entombed by a society, or a segment of society.
[Photo by Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images]