An Egyptian mummy previously believed to be a priest has turned out to be a pregnant woman.
The surprise discovery, the first of its kind anywhere in the world, was made by Polish scientists at the Warsaw Mummy Project.
The team, who since 2015 have been working to thoroughly examine human and animal mummies from Ancient Egypt at the National Museum in Warsaw, uncovered the body’s true identity after spotting a tiny foot in the abdomen on a scan.
According to Marzena Ożarek-Szilke, anthropologist and archaeologist from the Faculty of Archaeology of the University of Warsaw, she and her colleagues had already summarized their research and were preparing to submit their findings for publication.
She told Polish state news agency PAP: “With my husband Stanisław, an archaeologist of Egypt, we had the last look at the images and noticed a familiar image for parents of three children in the deceased woman’s abdomen: a tiny foot.”
Wojtek Ejsmond, one of the three co-founders of the Warsaw Mummy Project, told CNN the mummy was first brought to Poland in 1826 by Jan Wężyk-Rudzki.
At that time it was believed to be a woman, but the view changed during the 1920s when an inscription on the sarcophagus was translated to reveal the name of an Egyptian priest, Hor-Djehuty. Though it belongs to the University of Warsaw, the mummy has been on loan to the museum since 1917 where it has been on display.
During the course of its research, the team revealed some interesting clues. Using computer tomography, which meant the mummy’s bandages did not have to be removed, they found that the body had a delicate skeletal structure. More detailed analysis convinced the researchers the body was female as there was no sign of a penis. A 3D visualization of the body clearly showed long, curly hair and mummified breasts, according to the team.
Ejsmond told CNN that the woman is thought to have died aged between 20 and 30 and that the fetus would have been between 26 and 30 weeks gestation.
“We do not know the cause of death – it will be the subject of further investigations,” he said.
One of the biggest questions the scientists have is why the fetus – whose gender has not been determined – remained in place as internal organs were routinely removed prior to mummification.
“This whole discovery brought our attention to the question of why it was not removed,” said Ejsmond. “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.”
When Wężyk-Rudzki originally brought the mummy to Poland in the 19th Century, he suggested that it had been found in the Royal tombs in Thebes.
But the archaeologists are uncertain about this or any of the mummy’s background.
Ejsmond explained: “We are not sure if it’s true. It was quite common for people to provide false provenance to archaeologists to increase their value and significance because it looked better, so we should be very careful about such statements. There is no grounds to confirm it.”
This could also go part way to explaining why the mummy as encased in a tomb with the priest’s name.
“This is one of the most complex matters,” said Ejsmond. “We know that in ancient times coffins were reused. Sometimes tombs were robbed and stolen so that they could be reused.
“During the 18th and 19th centuries mummies’ tombs were robbed and antiquity dealers were stealing precious items and replacing bodies.”
According to Ejsmond, it is estimated that some 10% of mummies in museum collections might actually be in the wrong coffins.
The team, who are investigating a collection of around 40 human and animal mummies, now hope to take micro samples of the body to establish a cause of death.
Their findings have been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.