3,700-Year-Old Remains of Egyptian Woman Reveal She Was Very Pregnant When She Died

The nearly intact grave held the remains of a woman and her unborn child. Egypt Ministry of Antiquities

Archaeologists made a haunting discovery in a newly unearthed — and almost perfectly intact — gravesite: the remains of a woman who died 3,700 years ago on the verge of giving birth.

The woman was found in Kom Ombo, an agricultural site about 30 miles north of the city of Aswan. Archaeologists determined that she was likely in her mid-20s and that she had suffered a broken pelvis.

According to a press release from Egypt's Ministry of Antiquities, her skeleton was resting in a contracted position, her head wrapped in a leather shroud. The grave also held two pottery vessels — an artfully made, but well-worn jar and a fine bowl with a red polished surface and black interior.

Ancient Egyptian pottery
The pottery and burial preparation suggest the woman likely came from a middle-class household. Egypt Ministry of Antiquities

The items were typically produced by nomadic people and conformed to the Nubian style. But it was the woman and her unborn child who painted the most fascinating picture.

"The fetus had settled into the head-down position," Nigel Hetherington, an Egypt-based archaeologist and heritage consultant, tells MNN. "It suggests the woman may have died during childbirth.

"There's something very poignant and quite sweet about it, but also very sad."

A woman of means

The small cemetery where the remains were discovered was likely used by communities that moved to Egypt from Nubia during the Second Intermediate Period, which spanned from 1750 to 1550 BCE.

"Not a very high-status burial or anything like that," Hetherington says. "But she did have some objects placed with her, including beads."

Those would be ostrich eggshell beads — not the regal bling you might find with a more illustrious personage, but certainly valuable enough to suggest she was a woman of means.

Various shells found in an ancient Egyptian grave.
The grave was also strewn with beads made from ostrich shells. Egypt Ministry of Antiquities

"Any kind of burial really that includes any kind of grave goods and a certain amount of preparation hints at people being at least middle-class," Hetherington explains. "The most common burials literally were in the desert using the natural preservation of the sand."

The discovery, announced Nov. 14 by the Ministry of Antiquities, was made by a team of Italian and American archaeologists.

Hetherington, who promotes the work of fellow archaeologists through the organization Past Preservers, calls the find "pretty unique."

"Foetuses are repeatedly found in burials," he explains. "We know that Egyptians did mummify foetuses... for very high-status people. They would try to take the babies with them into the afterlife.

"You could confer from that that there's a belief this child can go to the afterlife, and also a belief that this is a fully formed person as such, and that it's important to preserve the body."

But the latest discovery was obviously very different.

"In this situation like this, and the mother like that, and the fact that the baby was found within the pelvic area, it's very unusual," he says.

A season of discovery

If you're getting the feeling that these discoveries are being made at a rather torrid pace, you're right. Just this week, archaeologists uncovered a necropolis at Saqqara hosting dozens of mummified cats, as well as rare scarab beetle mummies. And Egypt's Ministry of Antiquities is promising another major announcement this Saturday. The fact is, it's new discovery season in Egypt.

"The way that archaeology works here is that the majority of the work done from September to Christmas time and then again from January to May," Hetherington explains. "So announcements tend to get made in this period."

Factor in a strong mandate from the Egyptian government to keep digging — in hopes of propping up the country's ailing tourism industry — and it's shaping up to be a blockbuster season, at least as far as ancient, dark and dusty things go.

Keep those classic hits coming, ancient Egypt. But maybe go easy on the mummified cats.