Technology & Science

Canadian researcher helps shed light on 'hawk' mummy that was really human

A small Egyptian mummy initially thought to be a hawk is actually a malformed, stillborn baby — a rare finding revealed thanks to high-resolution scans from a Canadian-led team.

Micro-CT scans provide one of the most detailed images ever of a mummy

Believed for years to be a mummified hawk, this mummy has now been determined to be a stillborn male with severe abnormalities. (Western University)

The small Egyptian mummy has laid tightly wrapped in a British museum since 1925, adorned with the image of a hawk in gold leaf: "EA 493 – Mummified Hawk, Ptolemaic Period."

Except the artifact wasn't a bird: it was actually a rare stillborn male fetus.

And new scans from a Canadian-led team reveal that the fetus — just 24 centimetres long and stillborn at 23 to 28 weeks of gestation — had a rare condition called anencephaly, a disorder where the brain and skull fail to develop in the embryo, and spina bifida, where the bones of the spine don't form properly around the spinal cord.

The misidentification at the Maidstone Museum in Kent, England was first discovered in 2016, after a medical institute offered to scan the museum's resident adult female mummy. Ultimately, the museum's whole collection of roughly 30 mummies was scanned, revealing the startling surprise.

This scan of the mummified fetus reveals its malformed skull and spine. (Western Univerisy)

That's when the museum reached out to bioarchaeologist Andrew Nelson, an anthropology professor and mummy expert at Western University, in London, Ont., who had been in contact with the museum just years before.

Nelson worked with Nikon Metrology, a company that provides high-resolution scanning, to conduct a micro-CT scan of the mummy at a resolution that was 10 times higher, all without damaging the precious artifact.

The result is one of the highest-resolution images of a mummy ever obtained.

There are only about nine known mummified fetuses, and only two that suffered from anencephaly, making the discovery an extremely rare find.

Learning from the past

Mummification was common practice in ancient Egypt — a careful, time-consuming process to protect the body and ensure safe passage to the afterlife.

With advancements in technology, scientists can increasingly learn more about life and death in ancient Egypt through non-invasive measures like CT scans.

In this case, the scans reveal details about the health of the mother: anencephaly and spina bifida are linked to a lack of folic acid, found in dark, leafy greens and other food.

This image shows the top part of the fetus's skull, where the brain did not form. (Western University)

They also teach us about the family: to mummify the remains would have been a costly endeavour, suggesting the likely grief-stricken family wanted to honour their child, stillborn an estimated 2,100 years ago.

"That's part of the process … that it isn't entirely a loss, that the child is commended to the gods," said Andrew Wade, an anthropologist at Hamilton's McMaster University who also contributed to the research.

"You can see the way it was wrapped up, and the association with the falcon form, that perhaps it was then also a messenger to the gods as well.… There's more than just wrapping it up in a bundle and saying a few words over it."

Small museum, big reward

The Maidstone Museum is a modest, local museum with roughly 600,000 artifacts. (Compare that to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, which has more than 12 million.) It's rare for a museum of this size to be able to do something like a CT scan on its artifacts, let alone house such an amazing discovery.

The fetus wasn't initially going to be part of its display.

"But knowing what we now know, it means that it's on display in our gallery, and we can tell the story about him a little bit as well," collections manager Samantha Harris told CBC News. "I think it's one of the most unexpected finds, definitely."

As for Nelson, he says he gets a thrill out of learning more about ancient Egypt — of which little is still understood — and its people, our ancestors, like this fetus.

"I study people, so I study skeletons or mummies from ancient societies. And to me, it's an immediate connection to people and cultures of the past," Nelson said. "I find that very powerful."

About the Author

Nicole Mortillaro

Senior Reporter, Science

Nicole has an avid interest in all things science. As an amateur astronomer, Nicole can be found looking up at the night sky appreciating the marvels of our universe. She is the editor of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the author of several books.

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