The youngest human fetus to have been embalmed and buried in ancient Egyptian society has just been discovered. For more than 2,500 years the tiny mummified body, which is believed to have been between 16 and 18 weeks old, has been resting in a small wooden sarcophagus, with its arms crossed over its chest.
The coffin, which measures just 17 inches (44 cm) long, was excavated at Giza in 1907 by the British School of Archaeology. It was donated to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, U.K., the same year, after it was assumed by the archaeologists to contain the mummified organs that were removed from the dead prior to burial.
The cedar wood sarcophagus dating from around 600 B.C. has deteriorated, however, the small black bundle inside has remained intact; the museum said in a statement:
“It is a perfect miniature example of a wooden coffin of the ancient Egyptian Late Period, dating from 664-525 B.C. The lid and box are both made from cedar wood.
“Although the coffin is deteriorated, it is clear that the wood was carefully carved on a painstakingly small scale and decorated.”
The discovery was made after curators from the Fitzwilliam had asked the Cambridge University’s Department of Zoology to CT scan the coffin for an upcoming exhibition. However, instead of organs they were confronted with images of a tiny human, making it the only academically verified specimen to exist at only sixteen to eighteen weeks of gestation.
Experts believe the fetus of unknown gender died as the result of a miscarriage, and even though the skull and pelvis had collapsed, five digits on both hands and feet and the long bones of the legs and arms are clearly visible.
The tiny human body was wrapped in bandages sealed with black resin with the arms crossed over the fetus’s chest, which is an attention to detail that, along with the intricacy and decoration of the coffin, indicates the importance placed on this burial.
This discovery shows remarkable evidence of the importance that was placed on official burial rituals during this time. Julie Dawson, head of conservation at the Fitzwilliam Museum, said the discovery indicates:
“This ground breaking find educates us further still in our conception of just how precious the unborn child was 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.”
Two other fetuses were removed from Tutankhamun’s tomb, which were mummified and placed in separate coffins. However, both were substantially older than the Fitzwilliam fetus, at 25 and 37 weeks into gestation. After DNA analysis in 2010 it was revealed that the fetuses may have been Tutankhamun’s daughters.