Researchers from the University of Warsaw examined a 2,000-year old Egyptian mummy from Thebes that was discovered in the sarcophagus of a male priest called Hor-Djehuty. Turns out, it was actual a female … who was around 26-30 weeks pregnant when she died of cancer. And in fact, the fetus is still present in the
mommy's, mummy's womb.
From the Journal of Archaeological Science:
Radiological examination of an ancient mummy said to have been found in royal tombs in Thebes, Upper Egypt, has proved it is the body of a pregnant woman. She came from the elite of Theban community and was carefully mummified, wrapped in fabrics, and equipped with a rich set of amulets. Closer examination has revealed that the woman died between 20 and 30 years of age together with the fetus in age between the 26th and 30th week of the pregnancy. This find is the only known case of an embalmed pregnant individual.
This mummy provides new possibilities for pregnancy studies in ancient times, which can be compared with and related to current cases. Furthermore, this specimen sheds a light on an unresearched aspect of ancient Egyptian burial customs and interpretations of pregnancy in the context of ancient Egyptian religion.
The researchers expanded on the details surrounding the fetus in a recent blogpost, explaining that the reason it remained so well-preserved is that it had, in fact, pickled, thanks in part to the embalming process:
The foetus remained in the untouched uterus and began to, let say, "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 placement and filling of the body with natron significantly limited the access of air and oxygen. The end result is an almost hermetically sealed uterus containing the foetus.
As Smithsonian Magazine points out, this is essentially the same thing that happens when you soak an egg in vinegar, and the process that leads to "bog bodies":
A similar process naturally preserved Europe's famed "bog bodies," whose pristinely preserved skin shrank in peat bogs' high-acidity, low-oxygen environments. Sometimes, conditions in the bogs completely dissolved skeletons.
In the blog post, the researchers liken bone demineralization to soaking an eggin vinegar; placing the egg in an acidic environment for a few days makes the mineral components (the shell) dissolve, leaving the inside of the egg (the albumen and yolk) intact in a springy, ball-like state.
A pregnant ancient egyptian mummy from the 1st century BC [Wojciech Ejsmonda, Marzen Ożarek-Szilke, MarcinJaworski, and Stanisław Szilkec / Journal of Archaeological Science]
Why the foetus of the pregnant mummy is preserved? [Warsaw Mummy Project]
What Preserved This Pregnant Egyptian Mummy's Fetus for Millennia? [Jane Recker / Smithsonian Magazine]
2,000-year-old ancient Egyptian mummy likely had cancer – study [Jerusalem Post]