Tiny, 2,300-Year-Old Egyptian Mummy Believed to be a Hawk is Actually a Human Fetus
Recently, surprised researchers discovered that a 2,300-year-old mummy that was once believed to be the remains of a hawk is actually a human fetus. Their estimation of the age of the fetus meant the Maidstone Museum helds the youngest mummified human remains found to date. The research team was also shocked to find that a mummy known as Ta-Kush, believed to be a 14-year-old girl when she died 2,700 years ago, was much older.
Kent Online reported in 2016 that the researchers had used CT scanning to discover that a tiny sarcophagus which was thought to hold a hawk is really a miscarried 20-week-old fetus from the Egyptian Ptolemaic period (323 BC – 30BC). The researchers also used the same technology to discover that a mummy named Ta-Kush was at least in her mid-20s when she died, not her early teens.
Without the CT scan results, it would have been impossible to discover this small sarcophagus holds a miscarried baby, not the hawk it was previously believed to contain. (Maidstone Museum)
Technology used to perform unintrusive scanning is being updated almost as fast as cellphones are updated. Following on from the original discovery, new micro-CT scanning from Nikon Metrology (UK) has now been employed on the fetus formerly known as ‘Hawk Mummy’, and it has revealed previously unimaginable detail of the fetus. It is now known to be of ‘a male, stillborn at 23 to 28 weeks of gestation, and with a rare condition called anencephaly in which the brain and skull fail to develop properly.’ as revealed by a press release from Western University, Canada.
Lead examiner, Andrew Nelson, in consultation with a multi-disciplinary team of analysts, has now provided a detailed description of the slightly-older-than-previously-thought fetus, from what is now ‘the highest-resolution scan ever conducted of a fetal mummy.’ according to the report.
The images show well-formed toes and fingers but a skull with severe malformations, says Nelson, a bioarchaeologist and professor of anthropology at Western. “The whole top part of his skull isn’t formed. The arches of the vertebrae of his spine haven’t closed. His earbones are at the back of his head.”
There are no bones to shape the broad roof and sides of the skull, where the brain would ordinarily grow. “In this individual, this part of the vault never formed and there probably was no real brain,” Nelson says.
This is one of only 2 mummified individuals discovered to have suffered from this condition, the other having been described in 1826.
“It would have been a tragic moment for the family to lose their infant and to give birth to a very strange-looking fetus, not a normal-looking fetus at all. So this was a very special individual,” Nelson says.
Nelson recently presented the team’s findings at the Extraordinary World Congress on Mummy Studies in the Canary Islands.
The 2016 Ta-Kush Scans
In 2016, the now superceded advances in scanning tech allowed Mark Garrad, CT lead radiographer at KIMS Hospital, to provide more information on Ta-Kush’s scan results: “The scans conducted indicate evidence of well-worn teeth, loss of enamel, cavities, abscesses in the jaw and fully erupted wisdom teeth. Although we cannot place her age exactly, the evidence we have managed to glean from the initial scans would suggest a person who is at least mid-twenties, possibly much older. It has been fascinating to be part of the early stages of discovery and we are looking forward to what other insights the experts can gather about Ta-Kush.”
The mummy of Ta-Kush. (Maidstone Museum)
Ta-Kush has also been called ‘The Lady of the House’ and the daughter of Osiris - god of the afterlife. The young woman’s mummy was brought to England in the 1820s. Before analysis began on her remains, the mysterious mummy was already one of the most popular sights at the Maidstone Museum. The researchers hope that their work will help to fill in more blanks about her life and death.
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A collaboration of researchers from Liverpool John Moores University, KIMS Hospital, the Heritage Lottery Fund, Maidstone Museums’ Foundation, the Egyptology Department at the British Museum, the Petrie Museum at University College London, Western Ontario University, and the Egypt Exploration Society have been working on the CT scanning project.
While speaking to Kent Online, Samantha Harris, collections manager at the Maidstone Museum, explained how modern technology allowed the research team to make their startling revelations. She said, “Thanks to the CT scanning, we are able to learn much more about the collections in a non-invasive way, without damaging the integrity or condition of the artefacts. For example, without access to the technology, identifying and learning about the baby mummy would’ve been impossible without causing irreversible damage from unwrapping.”
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The research team also scanned other artifacts, such as an ancient Egyptian ram’s horn. The scan results of the horn are puzzling: they found the object was stuffed with mummy linen and items including a necklace and some buttons which date to the Victorian age and later.
The mummies and other artifacts which are being studied are on display in a larger Ancient Egyptian and Greek World collection at the Maidstone Museum.
Top Image: This little sarcophagus was thought to contain a mummified hawk, but actually holds the remains of a miscarried baby. Source: Maidstone Museum