Medieval Woman Gave Birth AFTER Her Death
A team of scientists in Italy have revealed that the 1,400-year-old remains of a woman and a fetus discovered in Bologna, is a rare case of a ‘coffin birth’, in which the pregnant woman gave birth to a baby after her death.
According to a new report published in World Neurosurgery, the tiny remains of a fetus of 38 weeks gestation were found between the legs of a woman found in a Medieval grave dated to the 7 th century AD in the town of Imola, Bologna.
The fetus was partially delivered with its head and upper body outside the pelvic cavity and the leg bones still inside it. Although possible that the woman died mid-birth, she had been purposefully buried, so it is unlikely she would have been placed in a grave with a baby half-delivered. Bioarchaeologist Siân Halcrow of the University of Otago, therefore believes it is more likely a case of post-mortem fetal extrusion or ‘coffin birth’.
Coffin births occur when natural cases, which build up during decomposition of a body, cause squeezing of the uterus, forcing the fetus out of the body. The process of fetal extrusion is not well understood, however, because it does not occur in all cases of a deceased pregnant woman.
Only a handful of cases are known to have occurred in modern times, the most recent being January, 2018, when a deceased 33-year-old woman from Mbizana, South Africa, gave birth to a stillborn baby in her coffin.
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A possible example of a ‘coffin birth’. (Bones Don’t Lie)
Another clue to the puzzle
Another unique feature of this particular burial is that the woman had a 5mm circular hole in her skull, suggesting she had undergone trepanation, a surgical procedure in which the skull is drilled, chiselled, or scraped to expose the membrane that surrounds the brain. The earliest known records of trepanned skulls date back 12,000 years, and come from North Africa, and examples have been found all across the world since then.
Based on signs of healing around the hole in the skull, scientists have ascertained that the woman lived for at least a week after the surgery. The researchers propose that the woman may have undergone trepanation due to the condition of pre-eclampsia (high blood pressure related to pregnancy which often caused maternal death), as historical records have determined that trepanation was often used to reduce blood pressure in the skull.
The researchers theorize that the trepanation was not enough to cure the pregnant woman of her serious condition and she died one week after surgery. Then, after her burial, her body expelled the fetus from her womb.
A skull exhibiting signs of trepanation from the Celtic museum in Hallein, Salzburg (CC by SA 3.0)
Historical cases of coffin birth
As reported by Katy Meyers Emery in the article ‘New Morbid Technology: Coffin Birth’, from historical records, we have a number of documented cases- though their reliability isn’t known.
From the 17th century, a parish register notes “April ye 20, 1650, was buried Emme, the wife of Thomas Toplace, who was found delivered of a child after she had lain two hours in the grave”.
Historical records by Bonet describe a woman, who died during pregnancy in Brussels in 1633. Three days later the dead fetus was found “hanging between the thighs”.
Other occurrences are noted by doctors and historians: “Richter of Weissenfels, in 1861, reported the case of a woman who died in convulsions, and sixty hours after death an eight months’ fetus came away.
Stapedius writes to a friend of a fetus being found dead between the thighs of a woman who expired suddenly of an acute disease.
Veslingius tells of a woman dying of epilepsy on June 6, 1630, from whose body, two days later, issued a child.
Wolfius relates the case of a woman dying in labor in 1677. Abdominal movements being seen six hours after death, Cesarean section was suggested, but its performance was delayed, and eighteen hours after a child was spontaneously born” (Gould and Pyle 1981).
The remains of a fetus are found between the thighs of a female skeleton. (Cerpen Horor)
One of the oldest known examples may be the discovery of a Stone Age Siberian mother and her newborn twins, one still in utero, found in a Paleolithic graveyard near Lake Baikal. Although reported at the time as a case of a woman dying in child birth, the circumstances of the burial suggest it may have been a case of fetal extrusion.
The bones of the Siberian woman’s twin fetuses are visible near her pelvis and thighs. (Photo credit: Vladimir Bazaliiskii)
Top image: Medieval burial showing the remains of a woman and a fetus in Bologna, Italy. Pasini et al. 2018 / World Neurosurgery