Technology & Science

Tiny coffin containing fetus shows ancient Egyptians valued unborn: expert

Using cutting-edge imaging techniques, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, has discovered that a small coffin holds what was a fetus at just 16 to 18 weeks gestation.

For more than 100 years, the Fitzwilliam Museum had thought the tiny coffin contained internal organs

The 44-centimetre-long coffin at the Fitzwilliam Museum was found to contain a tiny fetus dating back to Ancient Egypt. (University of Cambridge)

For more than 100 years, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, has been in possession of a 44-centimetre-long ancient Egyptian coffin containing a mysterious package.

Bound in bandages and coated with black resin, the contents of the coffin were long thought to be internal organs, removed during the embalming process.

Recently, using cutting-edge imaging techniques, the museum discovered the truth: the coffin holds what was a fetus at just 16 to 18 weeks gestation, by far the youngest academically verified fetus to be found at an ancient Egyptian burial site.

At first, the museum used X-ray imaging to try to determine the coffin's contents. It was inconclusive, but suggested the box could hold a tiny skeleton. Next, Cambridge University's Department of Zoology used micro CT (computed tomography) to scan the coffin's contents.

This resulted in detailed cross-sectional images, which showed a small body.

Though the soft skull and pelvis had collapsed, five digits on both feet and hands, as well as long arm and leg bones, can be seen in the images.

The fetus's tiny arms are crossed over its chest.

This micro CT scan image shows the fetus's upper limbs. (University of Cambridge)

The fetus was likely the result of a miscarriage, but there are no glaring abnormalities to explain the cause. It's also impossible for scientists to determine the gender.

Although the cedar coffin has deteriorated, it's clear to the museum's experts that it was painstakingly carved. It's considered a perfect miniature example of a Late Period (664-525 BC) ancient Egyptian wooden coffin.

The museum's head of conservation, Julie Dawson, says this discovery shows the importance of unborn children in Egyptian society at the time.

"The care taken in the preparation of this burial clearly demonstrates the value placed on life even in the first weeks of its inception," she said in a press release.

The coffin was excavated in Giza by the British School of Archaeology in 1907, and joined the Fitzwilliam Museum's collection within the year.

This isn't the only example of a fetus from ancient Egypt receiving a burial.

The pharaoh Tutankhamun's tomb held two mummified fetuses in individual coffins. However, those were much more developed, at 25 weeks and 37 weeks of gestation.

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