When you think of mummies in ancient Egypt, you think of
pharaohs and their queens wrapped in bandages, lying in gilded sarcophaguses.
But not all mummies are big or buried in elaborate tombs. A tiny mummy has
recently been identified in a sarcophagus that could almost fit in a shoe-box.
It’s more than two thousand years old, but the story it carries is as almost as
familiar today as it must have been way back then.
It’s a story of tragedy and loss. The tiny mummy holds the
bones of a foetus that was about eighteen weeks old. An Egyptian mother
miscarried more than twenty centuries ago and a child lost its life without
even drawing a first breath. Such losses happened long before ancient Egypt and
are still happening today, but time has obliterated the memory of almost all of
them. This tiny mummy represents countless more early deaths that are now
The sarcophagus and its contents were first discovered more
than a century ago by British archaeologists working in 1907 at the famous site
of Giza, where the pyramids have reared their giant bulk against the sky for
more than four thousand years. It was made of cedar, carefully carved and
decorated, with a bundle of bandages inside that has been well-sealed with
resin. Those who discovered it assumed that it contained the internal organs of
an adult, removed as part of the usual mummification process and then buried
But when modern archaeologists checked this assumption, they
discovered that it was wrong. Colleagues at the Department of Zoology at
Cambridge University placed the mummy in a CT scanner and the scans revealed
miniature bones inside, those of a foetus that had been buried with its arms
crossed on its chest in a traditional burial gesture. Despite the tininess of the
corpse, that long-ago death was not dismissed as unimportant. The parents of the foetus believed that it had a soul and
that they must ensure the safe passage of their child to the afterlife.
Who were they? Were they an important couple, perhaps a high
court official and his wife, even a pharaoh and his queen? It’s impossible to
say: the sarcophagus, despite its careful manufacture and decoration, doesn’t
carry enough information to identify those who oversaw its creation and burial.
Certainly the parents must have been rich, because the sarcophagus was
well-built and the mummy carefully wrapped and sealed. It survived more than
two thousand years of burial, after all. But whatever their wealth and
importance, the parents plainly mourned their child and must have carried the
memory of their loss to their own graves.
The mummies of foetuses are rare discoveries in Egyptian
archaeology, but two were discovered in the most famous tomb of all: that of
Tutankhamun, the boy-pharaoh who seems to have lost two daughters to
miscarriage before his own early death. They were buried with him, sealed into
tiny sarcophaguses beside the vast golden sarcophagus of their father. But
those foetuses were older, which is why it was possible to identify their sex
from the shape of their bones.
The foetus discovered at Giza is a lot younger and its bones
can’t be identified as male or female. This is another way in which this tiny
tragedy takes on a universal significance. We can’t say whether the child would
have become a boy or a girl if it had lived: we know only that it was a human
being that died in the womb and entered the world lifeless. Then it was
mummified, buried, and in the passage of time forgotten. When its parents and
their friends passed away, who else would have remembered it? More than two
thousand years later it would be unearthed and reveal its story to a hugely
altered world. But different as we are from the ancient Egyptians, we can still
understand the grief of losing a child, the importance of burial and the need
to remember those who have passed away.