Thursday, 1 May 2014

A Mummified Baby?

Addendum: since this article was written a slightly older foetus has been found at the Fitzwilliam, Cambridge, What both show is that we should not rely on X-rays but rather CT scans for such tiny mummies. I wonder how many more are extant in museums.

W1013 (left) is part of the Wellcome collection at Swansea University’s Egypt Centre. It came to Swansea in 1971. Unfortunately we do no not know from where Henry Wellcome obtained it. It measures 52 cm long and is carefully, though not over elaborately, painted. The style fits with what might be expected of a 26th Dynasty (c.600BC) mummy. However, the inscriptions on the front and back are meaningless. Could this suggest that this means that the artefact is a fake?

In fact, it is not unusual for sham hieroglyphs to be placed on coffins. For example, several of the Twenty-first Dynasty intrusive coffins (c. 900BC) found in the Nineteenth Dynasty tomb of Iurudef at Saqqara, the Memphite necropolis, are also inscribed with mock hieroglyphs (Martin 1992: 144-145). Petrie (1893: 124-5) discusses sham inscriptions of 22 to 25th Dynasty on coffins at Lahun and suggests they were due to maker not being literate. Evidently it was important to put hieroglyphic signs upon coffins, perhaps as a magical aid to the afterlife.

W1013 is the size of a very small child and is a case made of cartonnage (layers of linen stiffened with plaster or glue). The cartonnage case would have been made by forming the wet cartonnage around a disposable core (possibly clay and straw).  A hole could be cut in the back and under the feet in order to removed the core and place the mummy therein. Once the cartonnage was dry and stiff the piece could be covered with another thin layer of plaster and painted. On some cartonnage cases of this date you can see where the case was laced up. EC1064b, for example shows lacing holes.

The mummy is shown wearing a heavy, yellow and blue striped wig and a wide collar. Striped wigs are most common on male coffins, but are not uncommon on those of women (Taylor 1984: 51). The face is painted reddish-brown, a colour usually associated with men in ancient Egypt.  The body is decorated with a criss-cross pattern of rhombus shapes perhaps imitating the bead net placed over some other mummies. It has also been suggested that this pattern is reminiscent of feathers, or even the stars of the night sky. The pattern can be seen on several mummy related artefacts in the Egypt Centre, for example: EC232 (a Sokar hawk); W2001 (a Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure); Osiris himself is can be seen wearing a rhomboid patterned garment on W1042 (a pink Roman Period coffin) and some of our Soter-type shroud fragments of the Roman Period.

But the question remains, is there a child in this mummy case? In 1998 Singleton hospital kindly agreed to X-ray the cartonnage case but the results were inconclusive. Then on 28th April Swansea Univerity’s Paola Griffiths of Clinical Imaging College of Medicine kindly CT scanned the artefacts. This showed most of the interior was taken by folded of a material, presumably linen bandages and within that an area is a darker area about 10cm long which appears to be a foetus (in foetal position and with placental sac) and what could be a femur. The length of the femur together with the size of the dark patch is consistent with that of a 12-16 week old foetus. Another dark patch suggests and amulet and there are several areas with dark circles resembling strings of beads or tassels. It is not unusual for strings of beads to be placed loose in mummy wrappings of this date. For example, the British Museum mummy EA6676.

Here are the scans:

In contrast to the usual practice in the west today, it seems that the foetus could often be treated with care in ancient Egypt. Two coffins holding the foetuses were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. In New Kingdom (c.1550-1070BC) Deir el-Medina, a part of the Eastern cemetery seems to have been set aside for child burials but also foetuses and even placentas in bloody cloths (Bruyère 1937; Anthes 1943). The placenta was believed to represent the twin of the self (Pinch 1994:130) and so was disposed of with care too.

It is sometimes claimed that because there were so many deaths of young children, as well as miscarriages, in the ancient world, that the ancients became ‘hardened’ to such tragedies. However, it is clear from the fact that foetuses and infants were buried with care, that such losses were not treated casually. We can imagine that the probable foetus within W1013 represents someone’s terrible loss; an occasion of great grief and public mourning.

A little bit more on the mummy here.

Adams, C.V.A. `The manufacture of ancient Egyptian cartonnage cases', Smithsonian Journal of History, vol. 1, no. 3 (Autumn 1966), 55-66.

Anthes, R. 1943. Die Deutschen Grabungen auf der Westseite von Theben in den Jahren 1911-1913. Mitteilungen des Deutschen Instituts für Ägyptiwschen Altertumskunde in Kairo 12 (1): 1-72.

Bruyère, B. 1937. Rapport sur les Fouilles de Deir el Médineh (1934-1935), Deuxième Partie FIFAO 15. Cairo: Imprimerie de l’Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale.

Martin, G.T. The Hidden Tombs of Memphis: New Discoveries from the Time of Tutankhamun and Ramesses the Great. London: Thames and Hudson. 

Petrie, W.M.F. 1893, Ten Years Digging in Egypt 1881-1893. London: The Religious Tract Society.

Pinch, G. 1994. Magic in Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Trust.

Taylor, J. 1984 ‘A Priestly Family of the 25th Dynasty’, Chronique de Égypte, 59: 27-57