Ancient Egypt: Misidentified Hawk Mummy Is Actually a Human Baby

Archeologists once thought that item EA 493—a mummy that may have sat in an English museum for more than a century—held the bound remains of a bird. A hawk, to be precise, preserved and painted some 2,100 years ago in ancient Egypt.

But now, sophisticated micro-CT scans have proved its exquisitely painted plaster cover holds not a bird, but the remains of a human baby that suffered from a rare and deadly condition.

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Item "EA 493 Mummified Hawk, Ptolemaic Period" is displayed. Archaeologists believed the painted plaster case held the mummified remains of a bird. Maidstone Museum

Researchers led by Western University bioarchaeologist Andrew Nelson believe the baby is male and suffered from anencephaly, which is where an embryo develops without a large portion of its brain and skull. Nelson recently presented the new results at the Extraordinary World Congress on Mummy Studies in the Canary Islands.

The mummy is housed in a plaster case embellished with the face of a hawk and hieroglyphics discussing Horus, an ancient Egyptian god of kingship and the sky bearing the head of a falcon. Careful inspection reveals, however, markings that look like human sandals at the bottom end of the case.

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Unsuspecting Maidstone Museum officials imaged the mummy back in 2016 using a standard clinical CT scan, Western University reported. A pair of arms folded across the mummy's chest indicated something was amiss, but the results were not conclusive.

"It was very difficult to see what was going on from these clinical CT scans, because it's a very small object and the resolution is not that great," Nelson said in a statement. "What we needed were better-resolution scans and more experts."

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The latest micro-CT scan—which Nelson said is likely the highest resolution scan of a fetal mummy ever taken—showed the remains in great detail. As well as a poorly-developed skull, the mummy had major spinal abnormalities. Scientists think the baby was likely stillborn at 23 to 28 weeks.

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Micro-CT scans reveal the remains of a stillborn human male beneath the mummy's plaster case. Maidstone Museum UK/Nikon Metrology UK

"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," Nelson said. "The family's response was to mummify this individual, which was very rare. In ancient Egypt, fetuses tended to be buried in pots, below house floors, in various ways. There are only about six or eight known to have been mummified. So this was a very special individual."

According to Maidstone Museum, this "hawk" is one of just two known ancient Egyptian fetal mummies discovered with anencephaly. Researchers are unsure why the mummy's case was painted with bird symbols, but an investigation is continuing.