In 1907, a miniature coffin from the 6th–7th century BC was excavated at Giza and acquired by the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England. For years, experts thought the 17-inch wooden box might contain the remains of internal organs that were routinely removed in the embalming process. Not so: a recent CT scan of the mummified bundle exposed the tiny bones of a fetus.
After an inconclusive round of X-rays, which vaguely hinted at the presence of a small skeleton, the team at the Fitzwilliam Museum decided to give micro CT imaging a try. Radiologists were brought in to help analyze the results. The size of the bones and their degrees of ossification indicated that the infant spent no more than 16 to 18 weeks inside its mother, and was most likely miscarried, since no abnormalities could be spotted. While the sex could not be determined, the scan revealed ten fingers and toes, the long bones of the arms and legs, and the soft skull and pelvis, which were collapsed. One could also make out that the body had been straightened out, with the arms folded over the chest.
That detail, along with evidence of intricate decorations carved on the coffin, shows just how carefully the unborn child was handled. "Using non-invasive modern technology to investigate this extraordinary archaeological find has provided us with striking evidence of how an unborn child might be viewed in ancient Egyptian society," said Julie Dawson, Head of Conservation, in a museum announcement. "The care taken in the preparation of this burial clearly demonstrates the value placed on life even in the first weeks of its inception."
“Non-invasive modern technology” is key here. While the same can't be said of past practices (hell, we even used to use ground-up mummies for paint), unwrapping a mummy today would be considered “totally unethical,” comments Dawson in an email to The Creators Project. Thanks to CT scanning, the young fetus remains unperturbed.
As for preserving mummies in museum environments, Dawson says it is mainly a matter of controlling temperature and humidity levels. “Today we try to preserve them principally by providing good physical support and by maintaining suitable environmental conditions around them,” she explains. “We do use treatments, but these would normally be those requiring minimal intervention, for example, securing loose bandages.”
While the Fitzwilliam’s incredible discovery isn't the only fetus mummy we know of, it is the youngest academically verified specimen. More developed fetuses, estimated to be at 25 and 37 weeks gestation, were previously found in King Tut’s tomb, and are probably the most famous of the few other examples we have of this practice in ancient Egypt.
Meanwhile, there is some debate over whether this is, in fact, the absolute youngest Egyptian mummy ever found, as this mummified fetus from the Egypt Centre at Swansea University is thought to be 12-16 weeks old (because of its unknown provenance and the fake hieroglyphs on its coffin, however, it remains a bit controversial).
Age contests aside, the real takeaway here is the importance ancient Egyptians placed on these extensive preparations for the afterlife—even before actual life truly began.