Like today, maternity and pregnancy in ancient Egypt were of utmost importance in life of every person, just more dangerous, due to high mortality. Childbirth in ancient Egypt also took place differently than today.
Maternity in the past differed depending on the social status. Queens, princesses, and rich ladies had a number of servants and nursemaids to feed and care for the baby. Caring for the royal newborn was even a political function, as it is known that the nursemaids of the ruler’s offspring were of high social status, as attested by, for example, the large and beautifully decorated tomb of Maia, wet nurse of pharaoh Tutankhamun. It can equal the tombs of the most important dignitaries in the country. Women of lower status had to face the arrival of a new family member alone. Both rich and poor Egyptians were helped by numerous protective deities such as Hathor, Bes and Toeris. Nevertheless, the expectation and arrival of a new person into the world were fraught with high risk. In medical papyri we find descriptions of various cases and methods of treating ailments related to pregnancy. Various herbs were used, and amulets were worn to protect the pregnant woman. As we know from iconography and texts, childbirth was completely different than today. The woman gave birth to a child crouching on two large bricks, each of which was colorfully decorated with scenes depicting deities and symbols intended to ensure protection, health and a successful birth. Although this fact has been known for decades, it was not until 2001 that the first such brick artefact was found.
Unfortunately, pregnancies did not always end happily – women often died. When examining ancient Egyptian cemeteries, we find burials of pregnant women, such as the skeleton of a pregnant dwarf found near the Great Pyramid of Giza. Mummified fetuses and remains of premature babies, as well as fetuses are also known, including those of Tutankhamen. However, in this case, we do not know whether one of them was born alive or dead, and the other child probably died while still in the womb. However, there are very few such cases. The state of research on this aspect of life and death in ancient Egypt leaves many questions about the health of pregnant women and the medical practices they were subjected to.
Finding a needle in a haystack
Research on mummies has been conducted for over 200 years. The mummies were unwrapped, but also analyzed using non-invasive techniques such as X-rays and computed tomography (CT). However, no case of a pregnant mummy was found, which is very puzzling, as the mortality associated with pregnancy in ancient times was higher than today. The breakthrough came in November 2018. By analyzing X-rays and CT-scans of the so-called Mummy of the Mysterious Lady, an experienced mummy researcher has observed a suspicious object in the pelvis.
At first, knowing the numerous computed tomography images of mummies from the world’s collections, she thought that, as usual, she was dealing with filling the abdominal cavity, especially since fragments of bandages and separately mummified, wrapped and reinserted internal organs were identified in the body of the examined mummy. After a time-consuming analysis of x-rays, cross-sections and three-dimensional images obtained from CT scans, she recognized the head, hands, and foot. There was no longer any doubt that in the body of the „Mystery Lady” was the fetus of an unborn child. After almost two years of unsuccessfully searching for similar cases of other pregnant mummies in the world, it turned out that this is the only known case of an ancient pregnant mummy.
Through the cooperation cooperation with an obstetrician-gynecologist, we learned that the woman we examined died between 26 and 30 weeks of pregnancy. Whereas an anthropological analysis based on bone images obtained through non-invasive tests showed that at the time of death, the woman was about 20-30 years old.
In late April 2021, our team published a scientific article and announced their discovery to the world, introducing the „Mysterious Lady” – the first known Egyptian pregnant mummy. With our discovery, a question arose why no other mummified woman has been found so far and why the analyzed scans of the fetal bones are almost invisible. Thanks to further research, we have already learned the answer to these questions. Our next article will be coming out soon to cover these issues.
This is not the end of the research. The Mysterious Lady still has many secrets. We still do not know what caused the death and why the fetus was not removed and embalmed separately as was done with the insides.
The Mysterious Lady still holds many secrets to uncover.
Pregnant mummy discovery team:
Marzena Ożarek-Szilke – Co-director of the Warsaw Mummy Project, mummy researcher, anthropologist, palaeopathologist and archaeologist of Egypt.
Wojciech Ejsmond – Co-director of the Warsaw Mummy Project, Egyptian archaeologist
Stanisław Szilke – Egyptian archaeologist.
Marcin Jaworski – archaeologist, bioarchaeologist, specialist in the field of non-invasive research in archeology.
Katarzyna Jaroszewska – obstetrician gynecologist.
Visualizations and pictures were created thanks to Affidea Polska and General Electric Company.
The project was created thanks to the support of the University of Warsaw, the National Museum in Warsaw, Affidea Polska, General Electric Company and Grey Group Poland.