Foetus in first ever pregnant Egyptian mummy was preserved as it ‘pickled’ in woman’s body, say scientists

Mummification made foetus environment similar to one which preserves ancient bodies in swamps

Vishwam Sankaran
Wednesday 26 January 2022 16:51
Archeologists Find ‘Pickled’ Fetus Inside an Egyptian Mummy
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The foetus discovered in the first-ever example of an embalmed pregnant Egyptian mummy was preserved as it “began to pickle” within the decomposing woman, scientists say.

In April last year, researchers in Warsaw, Poland, found the first and only known case of a pregnant ancient Egyptian mummy that for decades was thought to be a male priest from the first century BCE.

The woman likely died between 26 and 30 weeks of pregnancy, according to the study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, which raised further questions on how tissues from the unborn child were preserved in the mummy, and whether there might be more such cases of preserved foetuses in museum collections across the world.

In a new paper, the scientists say the foetus was preserved as it remained in the untouched uterus and began to “pickle.”

“It is not the most aesthetic comparison but conveys the idea. Blood pH in corpses, including content of the uterus, falls significantly, becoming more acidic, concentrations of ammonia and formic acid increase with time,” the scientists write in a blog post.

The mummification process, according to the researchers, “almost hermetically sealed the uterus,” and significantly limited the access of air and oxygen to the foetus – enclosing it in an environment comparable to the one which preserves ancient bodies to our time in swamps.

They say this resulted in two different mummies, one of the woman, and the other of her unborn child, due two different mummification processes.

The foetus, the researchers say, was in an acidic, “bog-like” environment which dried-up later during the embalming of the mother.

They say the deceased woman was covered with natron – a naturally occurring in Egypt sodium to dry the body which also subsequently led to drying of the uterus and foetus.

However, the researchers say foetuses preserved in such a manner in embalmed mummies may not have well-preserved bones and thus they may not be visible in X-ray and computed tomography images.

In this case, the change from alkaline to an acidic environment, they say led to partial decomposition of the foetal bones but the shape of the soft tissue survived.

This is similar to what’s seen in bog bodies where bones are rarely found due to demineralisation in an acidic environment.

And since mineralisation is very weak during the first two trimesters of pregnancy and only accelerates later, the scientists say almost all of the bones and other minerals in the foetus were washed out.

Based on the new findings, the scientists say when radiologists examine mummies, it is important to study the shape of soft tissues in the pelvic area.

They believe there is a high probability that there may be many mummies of pregnant women in other museum collections across the world that have not been analysed in this aspect yet.

“Now, considering our findings, it is only a matter of time before the next mummified pregnant woman is discovered,” they wrote in the blog post.

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