The mummy with a pickled fetus: another example of wishful thinking

In the spring of last year, the media around the world circulated sensational information about the discovery of a fetus in a female mummy held at the National Museum in Warsaw. The authors of this discovery, from the Warsaw Mummy Project team, found that the woman died in the 26th–30th gestational week, i.e. at the beginning of the third trimester, and the fetus was not pulled out during embalming – contrary to the treatment of the viscera of the female, which were removed through an incision in the lower part of the abdomen. They also observed that the mummified fetus had broken bones (not shown on the published radiograph) and was found in two parts, which was interpreted as the result of the postmortem fracture of the female pelvis.

Typical ancient Egyptian mummification process drawing by SimplisticReps, published on licence CC BY-ND 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Typical ancient Egyptian mummification process;
drawing by SimplisticReps, published on licence CC BY-ND 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In December 2021, the discovery by the Warsaw Mummy Project team was challenged in the Journal of Archaeological Science by Sahar Saleem, a radiologist who not only has extensive experience in the study of Egyptian mummies, but is also a co-author of many important articles on the diagnosis of fetuses using radiological methods. Prof. Saleem pointed out, first of all, that the structure considered to be a fetus is too dense for mummified human soft tissues and very much resembles bundles with mummified viscera that were often inserted inside mummies, including their pelvic area. In addition, no bones are visible inside this object, although the fetal skeleton at the beginning of the third trimester is already so well-formed that at least the bones of the skull and long bone shafts should be visible on the radiograph. Finally, it is unlikely that the head of the mummified fetus would retain its original round shape, because the bones of the skull are not yet fused together and should collapse inwards after decomposition or drying out of the brain tissue.

The authors of the discovery took advantage of the opportunity to publish an answer to the letter of Prof. Saleem, but did not respond to the first and third points, focusing their attention on the lack of bone visible on the radiograph and reiterating the argument that if an object found inside a woman’s pelvis looks like a fetus, it must be a fetus. Although it is clear in the attached images that the supposed legs look like a bundle, the alleged head has no facial structures and it is an oval structure surrounded on all sides by a slightly denser material, while the alleged right hand may simply be a scrap of cloth.

In their response, the members of the Warsaw Mummy Project team paid most attention to the lack of bones inside the alleged fetus. Referring to an analogy with the so-called bog bodies, i.e. human bodies preserved in the acidic peat bogs of northern Europe, they claimed that the fetal bones had been dissolved by acids that were the products of the decomposition of the body (which was compared to the pickling process). In the media reports, they usually added that it was primarily formic acid.

It is true that when the body decays, the pH of many tissues changes from neutral or slightly alkaline (like blood) to acidic. However, the proportion of formic acid, which is a low-concentration product of putrefactive processes, is not very significant, except for those who died as a result of methanol poisoning. In addition, formic acid poorly dissolves apatite (the main mineral component of bone) and is therefore used by palaeontologists to clean biogenic apatite structures from the surrounding limestone bedrock.

The main factor contributing to the acidification of the decomposing body is the cut-off of the supply of oxygen to the tissues, as a result of which anaerobic biochemical processes (including lactic fermentation, the product of which is lactic acid) begin to dominate. Lactic acid dissolves apatite, which is experienced by all people suffering from dental caries, a disease caused by bacteria living in the oral cavity and fermenting sugars into lactic acid. However, even in the case of such weakly mineralized bones as those of a fetal skeleton at the beginning of the third trimester of pregnancy, it would take quite a long time to dissolve them completely; this is also because the bones are partially protected by protein membranes, which would first have to be decomposed by autolysis and putrefaction processes. The analogy with the so-called bog bodies is completely misleading, as these were placed in a more acidic environment (often below 5 pH) for hundreds or thousands of years, and here we are talking about days or at most weeks (assuming that the decomposition process had not been disturbed), during which the pH should not fall below 5.

The members of the Warsaw Mummy Project team also did not take the entire context into account. The body of the allegedly pregnant woman did not decompose freely, but was instead mummified by a team of embalmers. It is difficult to imagine that those specialists who removed the viscera and carefully preserved the body with natron, at the same time allowed the fetus to freely decompose surrounded by amniotic fluids in the deceased woman’s uterus. Even if such an advanced pregnancy was not visible, the postmortem bloating must have attracted attention. Even if the embalmers for some reason ignored it, the accumulation of gases and the resulting increase in pressure inside the uterus could lead to the so-called coffin birth, i.e. the sudden expulsion of the fetus from the uterus that usually happens 2-3 days after the death of a pregnant woman. On the other hand, even if the intervention of embalmers was minimal and limited to the removal of the amniotic fluid, the mere drying of the fetus would make dissolution of the bones outside the humid environment impossible.

There is a lot of wishful thinking in this whole affair, leading to less and less likely scenarios to be proposed to defend the preconceived interpretation. However, it is likely now that the identification of the object in the National Museum’s mummy’s pelvis as a fetus cannot be defended, and what was found there is probably nothing more than two visceral bundles.

This article may be reprinted free of charge, with the picture and with acknowledgement of the source.

Author:

Arkadiusz Sołtysiak – bioarchaeologist, employed in the Department of Bioarchaeology, the Faculty of Archaeology at the University of Warsaw. He studies human remains found at archaeological sites in the Near East, from Lebanon through Syria to Iran. Recently, he has been mainly involved in the study of diet and mobility using isotopic methods, exploring also the possibility of combining isotopic and histological approaches in bioarchaeology. Editor-in-chief of the journal Bioarchaeology of the Near East.

Language correction: Stephanie Aulsebrook

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2 Replies to “The mummy with a pickled fetus: another example of wishful thinking”

    1. @Sahar Saleem: thanks for visiting the blog!

      The Warsaw Mummy Project has posted a comment to the parallel Polish version of this text. It is quite lengthy, but perhaps it is worth to summarize it here for the readers who do not speak Polish. First of all, they are still fully convinced that they see a fetus there, with two arms, the head, one leg, one foot and one hand with five fingers. In their opinion, density of the “fetus” differs from density of the mummified viscera, pieces of cloth or sand (but no details are given). They claim the research is consulted with the best scholars doing research on the mummies, identification of the dead, criminal studies and archaeology from Poland, Italy, UK, France and USA (however, no names specified). They also think the critical comments to their paper prove that the output of their research is significant.

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