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A Tiny Tragedy

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 forgotten.

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 separately.

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.