In a bold marriage of medical technology and archaeology, researchers have unlocked the mystery of a particularly unique and tragic specimen from ancient Egypt. A tiny mummy belonging to the UK’s Maidstone Museum has been revealed to contain a totally different and far more tragic animal than archaeologists first expected, researchers recently reported at the Extraordinary World Congress on Mummy Studies (a real thing). Scientists used to think the mummy was a hawk. But now it’s clear they were grotesquely mistaken.
A private collector gave the mummy to the museum in 1925, at which time it was designated “EA 493 – Mummified Hawk Ptolemaic Period.” It wasn’t until 2016, when researchers at the museum performed CT scans on the mummy, that they realized the remains inside the wrapping belonged not to a large bird but to a premature male human fetus. Now, after using high-resolution micro-CT scans that penetrated the mummy’s wrappings without damaging them, they know that the mummy contained a fetus, between 23 and 28 weeks old, that had been stillborn. It had a rare congenital disorder called anencephaly, which left its brain and skull severely underdeveloped.
Anencephaly affects about three pregnancies in 10,000 in the US, and, just as it was in this roughly 2,000-year-old specimen, it is almost always fatal. “The whole top part of his skull isn’t formed. The arches of the vertebrae of his spine haven’t closed. His earbones are at the back of his head,” Andrew Nelson, Ph.D., the associate professor of anthropology at the University of Western Ontario who led the investigation, said in a statement released Thursday. As the condition can be caused by a lack of folic acid during pregnancy, Nelson and his colleagues suspect that the mother did not receive proper nutrition.
In the ancient Egyptian Empire, humans weren’t the only ones who were turned into mummies after they died. Priests mummified all sorts of animals — cats, crocodiles, shrews, baboons, snakes, ibises, falcons, frogs, hawks — and some sites contain literally millions of animal mummies. Some researchers hypothesize that these mummies were “votives,” religious offerings made as requests to the gods. For a long time, EA 493 was thought to just like the rest of the mummified animals; now, its clear that it wasn’t your ordinary votive.
“It was believed to be a votive hawk mummy because of the cartonnage,” the decorated linen and papyrus wrappings, Nelson told Live Science. Nelson and his colleagues hypothesize that this particular stillborn baby could have been seen as an especially likely candidate for a religious object.
“It would have been a tragic moment for the family to lose their infant and to give birth to a very strange-looking fetus, not a normal-looking fetus at all,” he says in the statement. “So this was a very special individual.”