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It's not a hawk mummy

A most unexpected discovery
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When a hawk mummy is not a hawk mummy

Samantha Harris
2nd Feb 2018
By Samantha Harris

As part of the exciting Ancient Lives project at Maidstone Museum (displaying the ancient Egyptian and Greek collections), much research was undertaken by the museum team in partnership with other academics, universities and specialists. One particular area was the collection of Egyptian mummified remains. These are mostly animal mummies, such as crocodiles, cats, snakes, and birds, but it does include the only human mummy in Kent, Ta-Kush (or so we thought!).

To learn more about this collection and add to the display, all of the mummies were CT-scanned at KIMS Hospital. The resulting scans were viewed and interpreted by specialists from the University of Western Ontario, Cairo University, Yale University and Manchester University’s Ancient Egyptian Animal Bio Bank.

The aim was to identify what the contents were, their possible date, place of origin and mummification methods. The majority are in wrapped packages with no way of knowing what was inside, other than past estimates based on their size and shape. In the Victorian period it was common to unwrap mummies, which was a highly destructive and invasive method. But now the non-invasive CT scans enable us to see what is beneath the wrapping while keeping them intact.

Ta-Kush, the adult human mummy, had been unwrapped in the Victorian period, so much was already known about her mummification. However, the CT scans gave valuable information about her life, humanising her and telling more of her life story than just her mummification in death. It was this ability to look within the packages, and challenge previous information which had been accepted as ‘fact’ about the items, which led to the most unexpected discovery of all . . . . . . . . . .

Item 'EA 493' labelled as 'Mummified Hawk, Ptolemaic Period' was hiding a historic secret

During the routine scanning of the animal mummy collection, item ‘EA 493’, labelled as ‘Mummified Hawk, Ptolemaic Period’, was scanned. This wrapped package, with a decorative plaster cover or ‘cartonnage’, was hiding a historic secret. As the scan images appeared on the radiographer’s screen, it became quickly apparent that it had been misidentified when it arrived at the museum, possibly over a century ago. Instead of the expected image of a bird, the scan of a small human foetus came in view. We now had the only two human mummies in Kent, and considerations around the respectful care, research and display of them both.

The scans of EA 493 are now the subject of much international research and debate

The scans of EA 493 are now the subject of much international research and debate, particularly with Dr Andrew Nelson of University of Western Ontario and Dr Sahar Saleem of Cairo University (who investigated Tutankhamun’s baby mummies). Findings are ongoing, but currently the mummy is believed to date to c.300BC, and be a 23 – 28 week gestation male foetus. His birth and death would have been a tragic moment for the family, so this gesture of mummification is a truly poignant one, not least as the Egyptians believed that the soul developed in the womb, so an unborn child could still pass into the afterlife in the same way as adult mummies.

With high infant mortality rates in ancient Egypt, it may be assumed that the same level of love, care and attention wouldn’t be paid in their mummification, with few baby or foetus mummies having been identified. However, this example was mummified with his arms across his chest, and wrapped in mummy linen, with a decorative plaster coffin, with details such as tiny sandals painted on the feet of the cartonnage.

The scans also show evidence of the possible reason why the foetus sadly did not reach full term – anencephaly. This is a rare but severe, generally fatal, defect of the skull which leads to errors in the formation of the brain and cranium, and other skeletal deformities. It is known to have genetic causes, but most recently has been associated with the Zika virus. EA 493 is one of only two known Egyptian foetuses with the condition, and the only one to undergo CT scanning and analysis.

This ongoing research, including a recent micro CT scan by Nikon Metrology, is an effort to learn more in an ethical and respectful way, about this fascinating individual, who, in his afterlife, has the opportunity to tell us much about birth and death in ancient Egypt.

With international research continuing on this fascinating mummy, Dr Andrew Nelson of Western Ontario University shows new visualisations from the CT scans, and discusses new findings in this video:

©Western Ontario University