A fetus inside a 2,000-year-old pregnant mummy found last year, known as the Mysterious Lady, was preserved by the oxidation of the woman’s body as it decomposed, according to a new study by Polish scientists as part of the Warsaw Mummy Project. An article about this was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
In April 2021, Polish archaeologists presented for the first time the discovery of a mummified fetus in the abdomen of its mummified ancient Egyptian mother. Who this woman was and how she died is still a mystery, but now it has been possible to find out how the fetus was preserved. According to the researchers, this process is akin to pickling an egg. “The fetus remained in the untouched uterus and began to, let’s say, “pickle”. This is not the most aesthetic comparison, but it conveys the main idea, bioarchaeologist Marzena Ozarek-Szilke from the University of Warsaw and archaeologist Wojciech Eismond from the Polish Academy of Sciences write in their blog. – The acidity of the blood in corpses, including the contents of the uterus, increases over time, as the concentrations of ammonia and formic acid increase. The placement and filling of the body with natron [a natural mixture of salts collected from the bottom of a dried-up lake, which the ancient Egyptians used to dry and disinfect bodies] significantly limits the access of air and oxygen. The end result of this process is an almost hermetically sealed uterus containing the fetus.”
The fact that Polish archaeologists actually found the fetus was previously doubted by radiologist Sahar Salim from Cairo University in Egypt, who noted that no bones were visible in the pictures of the mummy, so the identification of the fetus looks doubtful. But Ozharek-Shilke and her group assure that there is nothing unexpected in this. Fetal bones are very poorly mineralized, which means that they are difficult to detect after undergoing taphonomic (preservation) processes. Fetal bones are rarely found even in conventional archaeological excavations. In addition, the oxidative processes that should have taken place inside the corpse of the Mysterious Lady as her body decomposed further demineralized the already delicate bones of the fetus. This is similar to the natural mummification process that occurs in peat bogs, where the highly acidic environment “pickles” the soft tissues but demineralizes the bones.
Previous analysis has shown that the Mysterious Lady was between 20 and 30 years old when she died, and her pregnancy lasted 26 to 30 weeks, and death did not occur during childbirth.