In 2016, archaeologists finally accepted that a 2,000-year-old mummy was not a male priest when CT scans revealed the embalmed corpse seemed to be carrying a baby! It was declared the ‘only known case of an embalmed pregnant individual’. But subsequent discussion has disputed this. Now, forensic scientists have reconstructed the face of the elite Egyptian woman. But have they got it right? And do we know yet if she was pregnant?
Breaking the ‘Pregnant Mummy’ Story
Last year Ancient Origins covered the story of a team of Polish archaeologists, known as the Warsaw Mummy Project , who in 2015 X-rayed a 2000-year-old Egyptian woman’s mummified body. They determined that she had died between 20-30 years old when she was between 26 and 30 weeks pregnant, based mainly on the presence of material clearly visible in the CT and X-Ray scans of the pelvis.
These scans show what appeared to be a fetus in the pelvis region. ( Journal of Archaeological Science )
Measuring what was believed to be the fetus’ skull, the term of the pregnancy was determined to be 26-30 weeks. The mummified skeleton of the lady also exhibited other characteristics that seemed to suit those of a pregnant woman.
But in January 2022, a radiology professor, Sahar Saleem opened up the debate , by offering a ‘radiological reassessment’. He claimed that as the composition of the actual material visible was not known, it could not be assumed to be a fetus, and noted that “Structures detected by CT in the pelvis of a mummy are usually embalming materials.” ( Saleem, 2022 ).
Saleem also rejected the proposal that the lack of skeletal bones visible was due to them shrinking and suggested that alternative explanations for the matter visible on the CT-scan should be considered, naming “visceral packs/condensed embalming materials, or a calcified pelvic tumor”.
Further evidence was then provided by Ejsmond et al of the Warsaw team to support the pregnancy theory.
Whilst this debate began, a team of forensic scientists began to build 2 and 3D reconstruction of the so-called “Mysterious Lady’s” face.
The pregnant mummy sarcophagus and scans. ( Journal of Archaeological Science )
Legacy Of “The Mysterious Lady”
The Mysterious Lady’s mummy is believed to have been discovered in the early 1800s in a royal tomb in the Valley of the Kings , opposite Thebes (modern Luxor) in Upper Egypt. It was transported to Warsaw, Poland in December 1826. Carefully wrapped in luxury fabrics the anonymous corpse was buried with magical amulets. Therefore, until 2016, when the Warsaw Mummy Project discovered evidence that the mummy was a pregnant woman, it was assumed that the body was that of the priest Hor-Jehuti.
Having been a first century elite in the Theban community this anonymous woman might even have rubbed shoulders with Queen Cleopatra, who reigned when the woman was alive. And in July this year The Warsaw Mummy Project discovered that the mummified woman had most likely died from a rare type of throat cancer known as “nasopharyngeal cancer,” that affects the throat where the back of the nose meets the mouth.
Further Analysis by the Warsaw Mummy Project Team
At the same time, another study was published by a member of the Warsaw Mummy Project team and others, which further explored the mummy using different scanning techniques and enhanced software to analyse the results. Their conclusion, published in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences , reads as follows:
The new CT analysis by a diagnostic imaging professional, illustrated extensively with radiological images, bolstered by a review of archaeological Egyptian literature on mummies and feti, provides grounds for dismissing the fetus interpretation in lieu of a more probable identification of the relevant structure as a bundle that is more readily expected within the pelvis of a mummified body .
It would seem that the Warsaw Mummy Project is quite willing to check their science and adjust their conclusions to find the truth.
This year, the “Mysterious Lady” mummy was the subject of discussion at the 10th World Congress on Mummy Studies .
The Warsaw Mummy Project now has a blog page on the site which lists and details all the reasons why this might not be a fetus in the pelvis of a mummified woman. It seems that the conclusions are leaning to this not being the mummy of a pregnant woman . But the answer is not yet definitive.
So let’s get to the next question of what she looked like.
The Mysterious Lady of Thebes, as reconstructed in 2D by Hew Morrison. Is this her face? (Hew Morrison / Warsaw Mummy Project )
Re-humanizing The Dead
Daily Mail spoke with Professor Chantal Milani, the Italian forensic anthropologist who leads the team at the Warsaw Mummy Project . The researcher said two forensic specialists, alongside scientists from the University of Warsaw, wanted to “re-humanise the mummy” using both 2D and 3D techniques to reconstruct her face.” The reconstruction was based on the shape of the woman’s skull, which Malani described as being “anatomically unique” in that it revealed the proportions that appear in the final face.
The Dynamics of Reconstruction
Forensic artist Hew Morrison told Daily Mail that facial reconstruction techniques are mainly used in forensics to “help determine the identity of a body when more common means of identification such as fingerprint identification or DNA analysis have drawn a blank.” The scientist added that reconstructing an individual’s face based on their skull dimension is often considered “as a last resort in an attempt to establish who they were” because the final product is greatly based on educated guesses.
Does this 3D imaging give a better impression? (Chantal Milani / Warsaw Mummy Project )
Dr Milani explained that the most important aspect of any such 3D reconstruction is determining the thickness of the soft tissues at numerous points on the surface of the facial bones. To achieve what she believes is an accurate model of the ancient Egyptian woman, “statistical data” taken from various populations across the globe was used in the calculations. Milani concludes that while the reconstruction cannot be considered “an exact portrait,” the 3D model is “a very accurate” rendition of the Mysterious Lady’s 2000-year-old face.
Top image: The Mysterious Lady of Thebes, as reconstructed in 2D by Hew Morrison. Source: Hew Morrison / Warsaw Mummy Project
By Ashley Cowie
Braulinska, K., et al. 2022. ‘ The “pregnant mummy” from Warsaw reassessed: NOT pregnant. Radiological case study, literature review of ancient feti in Egypt and the pitfalls of archaeological and non-archaeological methods in mummy studies’. Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1007/s12520-022-01598-z
Ejsmond, W et al., 2021. ‘ A pregnant ancient egyptian mummy from the 1st century BC’ . Journal of Archaeological Science. Elsevier. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2021.105371
Ejsmond, W et al., 2022. ‘ Further evidence to confirm the ‘pregnant mummy’: A reply to Saleem (2021)’. Journal of Archaeological Science. Elsevier. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2021.105504
Saleem, S. N. 2022. ‘ A radiological reassessment of the ‘pregnant mummy’ : A comment to Ejsmond et al., 2021. Journal of Archaeological Science. Elsevier. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2021.105508