Known as W1013 this tiny coffin is part of the Wellcome collection at Swansea University’s Egypt Centre in the United Kingdom that houses more than 5,000 objects. Most of them were collected by the Victorian archaeologist Sir Henry Wellcome and came to Swansea in 1971.
The artefact measures 52 cm long and is carefully, though not elaborately, painted. The style fits with what might be expected of a 26th Dynasty (c. 600 BC) mummy. However, the inscriptions on the front and back are meaningless and it was suspected that the artefact was a fake.
It is not unusual for sham hieroglyphs to be placed on coffins. For example, several of the 21st Dynasty coffins (c. 900 BC) found in a 19th Dynasty tomb at Saqqara, the Memphite necropolis, are also inscribed with mock hieroglyphs.
W1013 is the size of a very small child and is made of cartonnage (layers of linen stiffened with plaster or glue).
The mummy is shown wearing a heavy, yellow and blue striped wig and a wide collar. Striped wigs are most common on male coffins and the face is painted reddish-brown, a colour usually associated with men in ancient Egypt.
The body is decorated with a criss-cross pattern of rhombus shapes perhaps imitating the bead net placed over some other mummies. It has also been suggested that this pattern is reminiscent of feathers, or even the stars of the night sky.
However, the question remains, is there a child in this mummy case? In 1998 the cartonnage case was x-rayed but the results were inconclusive. Then last month Swansea University’s Paola Griffiths CT-scanned the artefact.
This showed most of the interior contained a material, presumably linen bandages and within that is a darker area about 10 cm long, which appears to be a foetus (in the foetal position and with placental sac) and what could be a femur.
The length of the femur together with the size of the dark patch is consistent with that of a 12-16 week old foetus. As the foetus is not in a perfect state of preservation, it is impossible to say with any certainty if it is a boy or girl.
Another dark patch suggests an amulet and there are several areas with dark circles resembling strings of beads or tassels. It is not unusual for strings of beads to be placed loose in mummy wrappings of this date.
Two coffins holding foetuses were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. In the New Kingdom (c.1550-1070 BC) Deir el-Medina, a part of the Eastern cemetery seems to have been set aside for child burials, but foetuses and even placentas in bloody cloths have been found. The placenta was believed to represent the twin of the self and so was disposed of with care too.
It is sometimes claimed that because there were so many deaths of young children in ancient Egypt, that they became ‘hardened’ to such tragedies. However, it is clear from the fact that foetuses and infants were buried with care, that such losses were not treated casually.
We can only imagine that the probable foetus within W1013 represents someone’s terrible loss.
Source: Egypt Centre blogspot, Swansea University, UK