When archaeologists re-examined the mummified remains of a young mother who died in childbirth 1500 years ago, they came to surprising conclusions.
The young mother was only 14 or 17 years old.
What makes the finding simultaneously horrifying and extraordinary is that there was a fetus and placenta found in the pelvic area and another in the chest.
By analyzing the mummified remains of a young girl who died in childbirth in ancient Egypt, researchers revealed that the young mother-to-be was in the process of giving birth to twins when she died. Unfortunately, the birth took an unfavorable turn when the first baby’s head got stuck in the birth canal, resulting in the death of both babies and the mother.
In Egypt’s Kharga Oasis, the young mother was discovered in the El Bagawat cemetery in 1908. Researchers noted that she was heavily layered with “large amounts of salt”, an ancient Egyptian practice known for its desiccant properties that effectively dried the entire body. The corpse was dated to the Late Dynasty in ancient Egyptian history, dating from 404 to 343 BC.
Field notes from the time reveal that she was found with a fetus and placenta between her legs, leading to the conclusion that she died from obstetric complications.
Using computed tomography (CT) scans of the corpse, the George Washington University team re-examined the mummy more than a century later to determine exactly what went wrong during childbirth. The scans revealed the presence of a second fetus in the woman’s chest cavity, indicating she was carrying twins.
More startling findings came when researchers realized that the baby’s head, placed between the woman’s legs, was missing. Upon closer inspection, they realized that the baby’s head was still stuck in the mother’s pelvis, leading them to suspect that the fetus had been decapitated during the birth process.
The study authors describe this outcome as a case of “traumatic fetal decapitation”, a rare consequence of breech presentations, meaning that the feet come first during labor.
“This is a rare finding,” Francine Margolis, one of the study’s authors, told McClatchy News. “There are a few examples of women dying in childbirth in the archaeological record (one was a twin pregnancy). But it has never been found in Egypt.”
The second fetus discovered in the woman’s chest cavity has created some mystery. According to the researchers, it is possible that the embalmers were not aware of the twin pregnancy and forgot to remove the second fetus before embalming. According to IFL Science, the unborn twin may have passed from the uterus into the chest cavity while the mummy’s diaphragm was being dissolved.
“This examination of the mother and her children at birth reconfirms how dangerous the birthing process is, especially during this time of pregnancy,” the study authors write.
Ancient Egyptians had a deep respect for symbolism, balance and order, and these beliefs extend to their views on reproduction and childbirth.
In the Divination Talisman prayer, a spell found on ancient papyrus, it says, “We will conceive sons and daughters. We will protect her from Horus birth, from irregular birth and from giving birth to twins.”
Spells like this one reveal a cultural aversion to twin births, seeking protection from “irregular birth”. The tragic story of this young mother and her unborn twins is a tragic reminder of the difficulties ancient women faced during childbirth.
The study, including images of the mummy, was published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology.
Cover Photo Source: Francine Margolis, David R. Hunt/onlinelibrary.wiley.com