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Mummification was an important part of the ancient Egyptian culture where the ritual was understood as the ceremonial prelude to entering the afterlife. Since the early 20th century, many of these Egyptian sarcophagi have been discovered and documented, but this most recent discovery might still have more to reveal about the ancient Egyptians.
Helen Strudwick, an egyptologist working at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, talks to BTRtoday about the recent discovery of a tiny coffin holding the youngest mummified fetus ever discovered. We learn about the serendipitous events that occurred in the unveiling of this rare Egyptian artifact.
Interview by Lisa Autz.
BTRtoday (BTR): So how did you first become interested in this line of work?
Helen Strudwick (HS): Well, when I was a school kid I was really into ancient Egypt. It was the time when the first Tutankhamun exhibition was in London, and people were queuing around the block, and I got really excited about it and wanted to see it. But I was too young and my parents didn’t want to take me there to see it. So I didn’t get to see it, but I bought all the books I could.
Then when I went to university I took a course that had an option in Egyptology. So I headed off down that line from there.
BTR: Did you specialize in this region because this was uncovered for a certain special exhibition at the museum?
HS: Yeah, I was studying Egyptology in general at that point. When I came to the Fitzwilliam Museum, which was in 2001, I began working on the collection we have there. And then, very recently, we’ve been working on our ancient Egyptian coffin collection, which is extremely good. We decided to do an exhibition about them because it’s our 200th anniversary of the founding of the museum. We thought it would be a good way to celebrate the history and the strength of the collection.
That’s really how I got into looking at the coffins and creating an exhibition around them and about what they tell us about how the Egyptians saw death. But also, very particularly, how the Egyptians’ funeral industry worked in making objects for burial. It’s a really interesting subject. It’s a slightly different way of looking at the objects.
BTR: So this tiny coffin was first excavated in Giza in 1907 by this British school of archaeology. What prompted you to revisit this artifact in particular?
HS: It’s been in the collection since, as you say, 1907. The museum used to subscribe to the excavation of this particular archaeologist. He was called Petrie. It came to the museum as a result of his excavations. It’s actually, at first glance when you look at it, not terrifically interesting. It’s very small and there has been some damage to it caused by rot. So it doesn’t look like the best quality of object. It’s been in our storeroom really, and not looked at particularly for a very long time. I don’t think it’s been looked at at all since it came in and was registered.
We were putting together the exhibition and I thought it would be very interesting to include a tiny coffin like this. The coffin’s about 44 centimeters long. These coffins on the small scale sometimes contain the internal organs from a mummy that has been mummified and prepared for burial. I thought it was likely that this was what that was because inside the coffin, when we took the lid off, we saw a small package that had been wrapped in bandages made of linen and some kind of black resin which is quite common. And so we thought that’s probably what that is.
I talked to my colleague and co-curator Julie Dawson about this and said I thought it would be great to show this. She’s been in charge of the list of examinations from the technological side of things and confirmation of these objects and she said that we needed to x-ray it before we put it on display, just in case there’s something interesting in it.
So we had a lot of work to do to get the exhibition ready and so we didn’t get the opportunity to do that x-raying until fall of last year. When we finally did, the x-ray didn’t look like very much to either of us. But we showed it to Dr. Tom Turmezei, who was our honorary consultant radiologist at our local hospital, called Addenbrooke Hospital. He looked at it and said immediately, “Oh, this is interesting. There are some tiny bones in here and I think it looks like a fetus, but I’m not entirely sure.”
BTR: Wow, that’s fascinating. What a remarkable discovery that you guys probably didn’t expect.
HS: Absolutely not. I have to tell you we were both looking at each other going, “Oh my God.” This was just a real shock, actually.
BTR: You described the coffin as “deteriorating” but it’s been said that there are some intricate carvings on the coffin and it seems like there was an importance placed on this coffin. Is there usually an importance on burying the young, possibly even an unborn child?
HS: Well, it’s very unusual. To just go back to what you were saying about the intricacies of the coffin, yes, it is very intricately carved, although the surface is quite deteriorated. But you can see around the face the care that they’ve taken to carve the facial features, although their colors remain a bit garish, but beautifully well preserved. And the tiny, little carved ears and nose are also there. Because the body inside is thought to be a little version of Osiris, who was a god and a king of the dead, the face is the face of a king. So it’s got the weird beard, and there’s a bit of an inscription on it as well, which we still want to look at more to see if we can read a bit more of it.
It is very unusual to find burials of infants in this kind of coffin. There are two very famous examples from the tomb of Tutankhamun, and they were found inside elaborate coffins. In fact, each one was inside two coffins, one inside the other. And the bodies were wrapped again in linen. But they were much bigger and better preserved. One was probably 25 weeks into gestation, and the other was 27 weeks into gestation. Apart from that and a couple other examples, there are very, very few known cases of preterm babies being buried in Egypt in this way. So there is some clear significance to this.
BTR: You guys have an indication that it’s possibly a fetus, maybe from a miscarriage. I’m curious, does this mean that they felt that this fetus had a right to an afterlife and would go into the afterlife even though it didn’t necessarily live?
HS: Yeah, I think that’s definitely clear. The body is about 12 centimeters long, which is tiny. It’s less than the length of my hand. Experts like Tom Turmezei and Owen Arthurs, who’s a consultant pediatric radiologist at the very famous children’s hospital in London, have been able to guess at the age. Owen’s an expert at looking at these kinds of bodies and by looking at the length of the bone he can decipher the age.
Now this little body, tiny as it is, has been laid out correctly for burial. It’s straightened out and all the bones are there even though they’re absolutely tiny. And the little arms have been crossed on its chest. So someone has prepared this little body really, really carefully, and then wrapped it in linen and then put it inside a coffin. It’s clear that there was a belief that even though this life never actually came to fruition, it was important to Egyptians that it had an afterlife, which I think is fascinating.
BTR: That is fascinating. It’s almost like the age old question that we still debate today of when does a child or unborn fetus have rights.
HS: It’s exactly that. It really does raise those kinds of questions. It’s very interesting to see that an infant that age has been treated in this way. We are still very much in the preliminary stages of looking at this. We want to do more imaging. Taking the data that we have from the fetus scanning and doing some imaging to see if we can see more in detail of what it is. The exhibition that this has been displayed in has just closed today so we’ve not had access to the material to look at this in any more detail. But we will be doing that as soon as we can, and maybe we can tell more about it.
In fact, I had an interesting conversation in the exhibition itself with a visiting doctor who commented that we might consider checking whether in fact the body looked like this. It might have been carried a little bit longer after the baby had died, so the mother might have continued to carry it a little bit longer than the 16 to 18 weeks that it obviously died. It may have actually been born slightly later. We’ll have to talk to our experts about that and see what their feeling is on that. It’s just a supposition at the moment, but really interesting to hear from somebody else who had experience in this kind of thing.
BTR: And the context of this coffin. Is it perhaps associated with any sort of empress? What is the context or the history around this small coffin?
HS: When it came to us, it was simply listed as one object that was presented with no context provided to us about it. We need to do more work on looking at what Petrie recorded about this coffin and that’s going to be part of our further studies to see if there is any more context provided for it. Certainly in his published work about the excavation he did at the site at this date he doesn’t mention it at all. But we know he kept very good records about these things so I’m hopeful we’ll be able to find a little bit more at least about where the tomb was, where it came from, whether there was anything else in that tomb, and try to contextualize it, as you say.
BTR: What are some other modern, non-invasive technologies that are being used or that you hope to use in the future to further investigate?
HS: Well, one of the things that we’re finding incredibly useful are the different kinds of imaging techniques using different light sources which produce remarkable results. So we use ultraviolet, infrared, and there’s a fantastic technique, which is one of my favorites, but unfortunately hasn’t worked on this coffin. It’s a thing which produces a very bright image from a very particular pigment called Egyptian Blue, and it was probably the first manufactured pigment in the world, created by the ancient Egyptians very early on. When you subject it to a particular lighting and then photograph it with particular filters on your camera, it shines a very white color.
Those kinds of techniques are fantastic and useful for showing amazing results. Another really interesting technique is using different light at different angles across the surface of an object, and when you change the light sources when you’re looking at the images, you can trace the brush strokes very often. So we’re going to try that as well where the inscription and decoration have been painted on and see if we can read the hieroglyphics better.
So those kinds of things we can look at a bit more. Maybe we can pick out more words in the inscription and see if we can find if there was a name for this child, which would be amazing. I doubt that there’s enough space for there to be anything about the parents, but who knows until we have more of a chance to look at it.