Discovery of Pregnant Egyptian Mummy Is a First, Researchers Say

An Egyptian mummy, believed to be a male priest for decades, was recently discovered as a pregnant woman, making it the first known case of its kind, scientists said.

Scientists in Poland made the discovery when they conducted a comprehensive study of more than 40 mummies at the Warsaw National Museum, which began in 2015, said Wojciech Ejsmond, archaeologist and director of the Warsaw Mummy Project, which led the research.

The results were published in the Journal of Archaeological Science last month. “It was absolutely unexpected,” said Dr. Ejsmond.

“Our anthropologist checked the mummy’s pelvic area one more time to find out the mummy’s sex and double-checked everything, and she saw something strange in the pelvic area, some kind of anomaly,” he said.

The anomaly turned out to be the tiny leg of a fetus, which the team said was an estimated 26 to 30 weeks old at the time. Additional computer scans and x-rays revealed that the woman died between the ages of 20 and 30.

Recognition…Warsaw Mummy Project, via Agence France-Presse – Getty Images

Based on their non-invasive research, scientists concluded that the mummy was made around the first century BC. The body belonged to a woman of high status who was wrapped in linen and canvas and accompanied “with a rich set of amulets,” the researchers wrote in their results.

Although burials of pregnant women have been found in ancient Egypt, this is the first known discovery of a mummified pregnant woman.

“It’s like finding a treasure trove while collecting mushrooms in a forest,” said Dr. Ejsmond. “We are overwhelmed by this discovery.”

The mummy, donated to the University of Warsaw in 1826, was eventually housed in the National Museum in Warsaw. The mummy was called the “mummy of a lady” in the 19th century, the researchers wrote.

However, this changed in the following century when translated hieroglyphics on the coffin and ceiling of the mummy revealed the name of an Egyptian priest, Hor-Djehuty. Radiological examinations conducted in the 1990s also led some to interpret the mummy’s sex as male.

According to 19th century correspondence, the mummy was found in the royal tombs of Thebes, Egypt, but scientists were reluctant to characterize it as the official origin of the mummy.

During the 19th century, people were “liberal in indicating the real” places where archaeological artifacts were found, said Dr. Ejsmond. There were times when mummies did not match the coffins they were placed in. Dr. Ejsmond said this happens about 10 percent of the time.

In the case of the pregnant mummy, scientists wrote in their research: “One can only speculate that the mummy was accidentally placed in a wrong coffin in antiquity or that it was placed in a random coffin by antique dealers in the 19th century.”

Alexander Nagel, a research fellow in the anthropology department of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, described the pregnant mummy as “a unique find.”

“In general, not many women were the focus of studying Egyptology,” he said.

The ancient text offers a glimpse into the practices that surrounded pregnant women in ancient times, said Dr. Nagel, but further research would be instructive. Papyrus from around 1825 BC Revealed that materials such as honey and crocodile dung were used as contraceptives.

Still, very little is known about prenatal care in ancient times, said Dr. Ejsmond.

Dr. Nagel said that approximately 30 percent of infants died in their old age in ancient times. After learning of the discovery of the pregnant mummy, he said he was intrigued by what further study of Egyptian beliefs regarding the afterlife of unborn children might reveal.

More research is needed to learn more about the health of the pregnant mummy. That could require microsampling of soft tissue, said Dr. Ejsmond.

“It’s a very small amount of soft tissue so you don’t see any difference on the mummy, but we’re still asking about the structure of the object,” he said.

Scientists hope that the publication of their results can attract the attention of doctors and experts in other fields to aid in the next phase of research.

“This is a good base from which to start a major project on this mummy,” said Dr. Ejsmond, “because it takes many experts to do decent interdisciplinary research.”