The Twin Tragedy of Tutankhamun: Death of a Dynasty
Tossed away callously in a dark corner of the lavish Treasury in the subterranean tomb of Tutankhamun was possibly the most poignant remnant of the boy king’s short life.
Positioned next to the glittering canopic shrine that Howard Carter referred to as “the most beautiful monument”, was an uncovered and undecorated oblong beetle-ridden wooden box, whose lid was removed by ancient intruders. Inside, the British archaeologist discovered two exquisitely crafted miniature anthropoid coffins (Carter Nos. 317a and 317b) of gilded wood lying side by side. Placed head to feet, each one contained a nest of tiny coffins, like Russian dolls; within which were found the fetuses of two stillborn girls.
The occupants were not christened, and so, despite sporting clay seals with the royal impression of the jackal over nine captives, these coffins were merely inscribed: "The Osiris". Carter opined that they were “without doubt” the unfortunate daughters of the boy pharaoh and his consort Ankhesenamun.
Detail; Gold plate depicting Pharaoh Tutankhamun and consort, Ankhesenamun. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Right from 1925 when the fetuses were first discovered, researchers have examined the remains many times over in a bid to determine their gestational ages and characterize any congenital abnormalities the children could have possibly inherited from their father.
Mummy of a child with a gilded face mask. Alexandria, Egypt. (Flickr/ CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Scholars, Studies and Scans
The first person to engage in such a study was Carter himself. He unwrapped the smaller fetus that measured less than 30 centimeters (11.8 inches) in height and estimated it to have been around five months into maturity; but was confounded by its state of preservation and the absence of an abdominal incision, which meant that the body was not mummified. Also, the archaeologist discovered a mask of gilded cartonnage over the head of the child and recorded that it was “several sizes too large”. In fact, a funerary mask seems to have been destined for the other fetus too, but was presumably discarded into a pit that contained embalming debris when it was found to be too small to fit over the head of the linen wrappings. This mask was discovered by Theodore Davis in 1907.
Cartonnage Mask. Egypt, 2nd century AD. ( Public Domain )
In 1933, Dr. Douglas Derry, professor of anatomy at Cairo University, received the second mummy which was covered by a linen shroud fastened by transverse and longitudinal wrappings; beneath this lay a second shroud. Upon careful examination, the ace anatomist noted a further layer of “criss-cross bandaging and a series of pads which had been inserted for stiffening and shape,” Nicholas Reeves, notes in his book ‘The Complete Tutankhamun’ .
- The tragedy of Queen Ankhesenamun, sister and wife of Tutankhamun
- Egyptian Child Mummy Dumped in Garbage in France, Now Restored and Protected
- Researchers Use Modern Technology to Uncover Secrets of Ancient Egyptian Child Mummies
The English Egyptologist adds that the same padding was used on the sides, legs and chest of the little mummy. Beneath yet more layers of large, transversely wound, and somewhat charred covering sheets lay a final layer of delicate linen, under which lay the body of a child measuring 36.1cm (14.2 inches) in length. Derry concluded that it was probably an embalmed female fetus.
The method employed to embalm this mummy was evident; for the skull had been packed with salt-soaked linen inserted through the nose, and an incision made in the groin to introduce more salted linen before sealing the opening with resin―though Alfred Lucas, expert forensic chemist whom Carter enlisted to help preserve artifacts recovered from the tomb, believed it was modified animal tissue of some sort.
In his report, which recorded many physical features, Derry noted that he saw “very fine downy-looking hairs” on the child’s head, and added, “The eyebrows are distinct and a few eyelashes remain.” This was proof of the extraordinary skill of ancient embalmers, according to Dr. Bob Brier, the world’s leading expert on mummies. This baby, Derry believed would, “… have been about seven months at the time of birth”. It is interesting to note that both the royal fetuses had their hands placed by their side, and not in the formal Osiride position.
Egyptian god Osiris, with hands in Osiride position. ( Public Domain )
When Technology Met the “Twins”
Curiously, the little girls disappeared in the mid-1930s, and few experts were certain if they were in the Department of Anatomy in the Cairo University (where they were first kept in storage) or in the Egyptian Museum.