The calcified uterus resting in the pelvic bone of a skeleton.

Seven-Pound Calcified Uterus Unearthed in British Cemetery

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Archaeologists carrying out excavations at a cemetery in southeast England discovered an unusual object resting in the pelvis of an old skeleton, which they first believed to be a skull that had rolled into that position. Analysis soon revealed that the object was actually a solid, 7-pound (3kg) calcified uterus, the largest of its kind in the archaeological record.

Mental Floss reports that the uterus belonged to a woman over 50, who had been buried in a shroud at St Michael’s Lytton, a late Medieval to 19 th century cemetery in Chichester, which is being excavated by University College London in advance of a housing scheme.  Nearly 2,000 burials have been recorded, including shroud burials, coffined burials, as well as a number of brick tombs.

The calcified uterus is believed to be at least 200 years old.

“It’s one of the largest masses found archaeologically,” Carolyn Rando, a forensic anthropologist at University College London told Mental Floss. “I’ve never seen anything quite like that before, nor have my colleagues, and we were very excited.”

Excavation in progress on a late Medieval and early Modern cemetery site in Chichester where 1,764 burials were recorded in advance of a housing scheme.

Excavation in progress on a late Medieval and early Modern cemetery site in Chichester where 1,764 burials were recorded in advance of a housing scheme. ( Centre for Applied Archaeology / UCL)

“The uterus belonged to a woman who was over 50, had lost all of her teeth and had developed osteoporosis by the time she died, likely sometime between the 1600s and 1800s,” reports Mental Floss. “The mass probably started out as a number of leiomyomas, sometimes called uterine fibroids, which are benign growths that occur in up to 40 percent of women of reproductive age. Most of the time, these masses remain soft tissue and don’t calcify. But some leiomyomas can get so large that they outstrip their blood supply and start to harden.”

During her life, the woman would have had a large bulge in her abdomen, as though she were carrying a baby. However, it is not known whether the growth contributed in any way to her death. Modern science has found that women with similar conditions, such as lithopedion - a calcified fetus – can live to old age with very few problems.

The calcified uterus found in Chichester cemetery.

The calcified uterus found in Chichester cemetery. Photo courtesy of G. Cole, C. Rando, L. Sibun, and T. Waldron, UCL Institute of Archaeology.

The diagnosis of a calcified uterus was made following an analysis of its interior structure and CT scans. While the uterus did not contain a fetus, there have been many recorded cases of lithopedion (also called ‘stone baby’ syndrome), in which a fetus that dies during pregnancy, hardens outside the uterus. It occurs when the dead fetus is too large to be reabsorbed by the body. It then calcifies outside the womb as part of a foreign body reaction, which protects the mother’s body from the dead tissue of the fetus. Women with a calcified fetus have been known to go on to have normal births, while the ‘stone baby’ remains inside them.

A lithopedion. This highly unusual specimen remained in the abdomen of a woman for 55 years. During this time the mother had five additional uncomplicated pregnancies.

A lithopedion. This highly unusual specimen remained in the abdomen of a woman for 55 years. During this time the mother had five additional uncomplicated pregnancies. ( Wikipedia)

In June this year, a 91-year-old woman from Chile was admitted to hospital following a fall. An x-ray revealed she had a large mass in her abdomen, which turned out to be a calcified fetus that she had carried for more than 50 years. In this case, the 4.4 pound (1.9kg) stone matter had formed inside the uterus, so she had never been able to give birth to living children.

Featured image: The calcified uterus resting in the pelvic bone of a skeleton. Photo courtesy of G. Cole, C. Rando, L. Sibun, and T. Waldron; UCL Institute of Archaeology

By April Holloway

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