Scientists find 2,000-year-old Egyptian mummy foetus was ‘pickled like a gherkin’
Scientists working on the world’s first known pregnant mummy have discovered that the embalmed foetus managed to survive for 2,000 years up to today by a process similar to making pickled gherkins.
In April 2021, the Warsaw Mummy Project at the University of Warsaw revealed to the world the first known case of a pregnant Ancient Egyptian mummy.
The mummy was previously thought to be the remains of the priest Hor-Jehuti, until it was discovered in 2016 to be an embalmed woman.
A closer examination using tomographic imaging revealed that the woman was between 20-30 years old when she died and was in her 26th to 30th week of her pregnancy.
Now, the scientists have taken a close look at the foetus and how it survived to our time.
Publishing their findings in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the researchers explained that it was ‘pickled’ in an acidic environment in a process similar to how ancient bodies in swamps are preserved.
Anthropologist, archaeologist and co-director of the Warsaw Mummy Project Marzena Ożarek-Szilke said: “During the mummification process, the deceased was covered with natron, or natural soda, which was intended to dry the body.
The foetus, however, remained in the uterus and began to ‘pickle’ in the acidic environment.”
He added that the process was similar to the “gherkin in a barrel effect”.
The foetus was difficult to spot because the normal way to see it is to look for tell-tale bones that are mineralised during the mummification process.
However, in the case of the mummy dubbed as the Mysterious Lady, no trace of bones remains.
Ożarek-Szilke explained that the deceased was covered with natron, a naturally occurring mixture of sodium carbonate decahydrate, to dry the body.
During this process, the foetus was still in the uterus and began to “pickle” in an acidic environment. Formic acid and other compounds formed after death in the uterus due to decomposition changed the Ph inside the woman’s body.
The change from alkaline to an acidic environment caused minerals to leach out of foetal bones.
This process “explains why we can hardly see any foetal bones on CT images. It is true that you can see, for example, hands or feet, but these are not bones, but dried tissues,” Ożarek-Szilke said.
For reasons that still baffle the team the foetus was not taken out of the uterus during mummification. However, the internal organs of the Egyptian woman were pulled out.
Ożarek-Szilke suggested that the foetus may have remained in the abdomen because there were difficulties in pulling the foetus out as the uterus is very hard during this period of pregnancy.
“Or perhaps it had some significance related to beliefs and re-birth in the hereafter,” she said.
“It is difficult to draw any conclusions yet, as we do not know whether this is the only pregnant mummy. For now, she is certainly the only recognised Egyptian pregnant mummy,” she added.
The gender of the foetus, which is curled up in the embryo position, is not known. According to the article co-author, obstetrician-gynaecologist Dr Katarzyna Jaroszewska, the birth canal of the deceased woman was not open, which indicates that the woman's death was not childbirth or related complications.
The mummy belongs to the University of Warsaw and has been on deposit at the National Museum in Warsaw since 1917.
It was long believed that the mummy was a woman. This is what 19th century documents say. And the necklace and delicate features modelled on the cardboard covering the mummy also indicate this.
However, in the interwar period the hieroglyphs on the sarcophagus were read, which strongly suggested that it contained the priest Hor-Jehuti. It was only during research in 2016 that it was found without doubt to be a woman.
The mummy and the sarcophagus are on display at the recently opened permanent Gallery of Ancient Art at the National Museum in Warsaw.