The first known example of a pregnant ancient Egyptian mummy has been discovered in the collection of the National Museum in Warsaw.
The mummy was donated to the University of Warsaw in 1826 and has been housed at the National Museum in Warsaw since 1917/1918. It was acquired by Jan Wężyk-Rudzki in Egypt, but its exact findspot is uncertain. Wężyk-Rudzki claimed that it was found at the ‘royal tombs in Thebes’, but while it does seem likely that the mummy was discovered in the wider Theban necropolis it may not have come from the royal tombs. It was fairly common for 19th-century antiquarians to attribute objects to famous places to increase their value.
The mummy was long believed to be male because of the inscription on the sarcophagus, which indicated that it belonged to a man named Hor-Djehuty, described as a ‘scribe’ and ‘priest of Horus-Thoth’. However, non-invasive tests carried out by the Warsaw Mummy Project team, including computer tomography (CT) and X-ray scans, have now revealed that the individual inside the coffin was actually a pregnant woman. It is thought that either Wężyk-Rudzki or someone else in the 19th century placed the mummy inside a different coffin to make the whole set appear more valuable, or that the mummy was placed in the wrong coffin by accident in ancient times.
Tests indicate that the woman was between 20 and 30 years old and was 26-28 weeks pregnant at the time of death. She was carefully mummified, with a rich collection of amulets, and was evidently a high-status individual. It is not known why she was mummified with the foetus, as other examples have been found of stillborn children that were mummified separately, while no other embalmed pregnant Egyptian women are known. Researchers suggest that it may have been for religious reasons as, according to ancient Egyptian beliefs, without a name the unborn child could not have travelled on to the afterlife except as part of their mother. However, the alternative explanation is simply that at this stage of pregnancy it would have been very difficult to remove the foetus without causing extensive damage.
The coffin has been dated to the 1st century BC. However, this information cannot be used to date the mummy inside. Carbon dating of the mummy’s wrappings is also not possible, as the bitumen and resins used as part of the embalming process affect the results. Consequently, the mummification techniques and other stylistic aspects of the burial have been used to date its creation to between the 11th and 1st centuries BC, and most likely to the 1st century BC.
This discovery offers a unique opportunity to study pregnancy in ancient Egypt, as well as raising interesting questions about the status of foetuses in ancient Egyptian religion and society. The research has recently been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, and it is hoped that future research will be able to determine the woman’s cause of death and whether it was related to her pregnancy.