These 3,700-Year-Old Remains Of A Pregnant Woman Starkly Lay Bare The Dangers Of Ancient Childbirth

It’s 2018 and archaeologists are working in a cemetery near the ancient Egyptian temple of Kom Ombo. They’ve just discovered the body of a young woman, which, given the site of their research, isn’t all together surprising. But careful investigation reveals something more about this find that’s both highly unusual and achingly poignant.

In fact, this woman was buried many centuries before the construction of the ruined Kom Ombo temple we see today. There had been a temple on this same site long before, during the era of the New Kingdom, which existed between the 16th century B.C. and the 11th century B.C. The beginning of that period is just around the time when the woman is thought to have died.

The Kom Ombo temple is found near the banks of the River Nile, some 530 miles south of Egypt’s modern capital Cairo. It was built between 180 and 47 B.C., during the period of the Ptolemaic dynasty. Egypt at this time was under the influence of ancient Greek culture, after Alexander the Great had conquered the region in 332 B.C.

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Kom Ombo is unique because it contains facilities for worshipping two different gods. These two deities were Sobek the crocodile god and the falcon god Haroeris. Sobek was the god of fertility and one of three gods responsible for creating the Earth. Haroeris, also known as Horus the Elder, was the god of light.

Haroeris and Sobek’s temple was not only divided into two parts – one for each god – but was also entirely symmetrical. The Pharaoh Ptolemy VI Philometor, who lived from 180 to 145 B.C., started the construction of the Kom Ombo temple structure we can see today.

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The Kom Ombo temple suffered much damage over the centuries from Nile flooding and earthquakes. Moreover, locals removed much of the masonry for use as building material, and some of its exquisite features were vandalized by Coptic Christians, who adopted the temple for their own use as a place of worship.

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However, in 1893 French archaeologist and enthusiastic Egyptologist Jacques de Morgan extensively restored Kom Ombo. In fact, he’s credited with saving the temple from obliteration. De Morgan was director of Egypt’s antiquities department from 1892 to 1897 and founded the Greco-Roman Museum in the Egyptian city of Alexandra.

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The efforts of de Morgan have allowed for a clearer idea of Kom Ombo, and thus for further investigation. The archaeologists working near the temple today are affiliated to the Aswan-Kom Ombo Archaeological Project. Leading the team are Dr. Maria Carmela Gatto, from England’s University of Leicester, and Dr. Antonio Curci, from the University of Bologna. Other members of the team come from Yale University.

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The main aim of the Aswan-Kom Ombo project is to increase knowledge about how the ancient Egyptians and the Nubians related to each other. At various points in history, the Nubians were part of Egypt and at other times were considered rivals. The region where the researchers are working marks the boundary between the two peoples at a point when they had separated from one another.

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The archaeologists are working, specifically, on an ancient cemetery, which was in use from around 1750 to 1550 B.C. Those buried there were a nomadic people who would have traveled from the region of Nubia northwards into Egypt. It is here that the archaeologists uncovered the woman’s remains, which they dated to be around 3,700 years old.

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The researchers found that the woman had been buried with various grave goods, including some remarkably intact ceramic pots. One of these had red coloration on the outside and black on the inside, a characteristic favored by the ancient Nubians. Also interred with the woman were beads fashioned from ostrich egg shell.

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Interestingly, some of the ostrich-shell beads were only partially finished. Dr. Gatto offered an explanation for this to Forbes magazine. “It is possible that in life she was a well-regarded bead-maker and her family placed such a large amount of unworked material in the grave to honor her memory,” she said.

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But what caught the attention of the researchers were neither the pots nor the beads. It was something else altogether rarer and, in its way, much more macabre. Because this woman was not alone in her grave. Buried with her was a fetus. The woman would have been around 25 years old when she died. And at the time of her death, it seems, she was pregnant.

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Indeed, the position of the fetus in relation to her skeleton suggests that she may well have died during childbirth. The tiny bones of the fetus were in the woman’s pelvis and the head of the fetal skeleton was in a downward direction in relation to its mother’s body. This provides strong evidence that the woman was in the act of bearing her child when she died.

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Forbes quoted the words of one of the team, a St. Lawrence University bone expert called Dr. Mindy Pitre. “While it is impossible to determine the cause or timing of death of both the woman and child, it is clear that the woman’s pelvis showed signs of misalignment, suggesting possible injury or health issues during life,” she said.

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So it seems possible that this unfortunate woman may have sustained an injury or suffered an illness at some point in her life which made childbirth dangerous. For example, a fracture, a condition like osteoarthritis or an infection may have affected this woman’s pelvis, causing a difficult childbirth. In any case, however, giving birth was perilous for even the healthiest of women at a time before the advent of modern medicine.

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Yet even though childbirth is thought to have once been an extremely dangerous process, this discovery of a mother dying while pregnant is nonetheless a rare one within the field of archaeology. There are perhaps merely around two dozen cases of such finds.

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This scarcity of archaeological evidence of women’s deaths during childbirth is something of a puzzle, since experts believe that this was far from unusual in ancient times. Some researchers, however, believe there are simple reasons for this lack of evidence. By their nature, fetal bones are tiny, and so even careful excavators may overlook or mislabel them.

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In any case, it’s a haunting thought that this woman in her mid-20s probably died during childbirth. After death, she was buried with great care. Her body was covered in a leather shroud, her knees drawn up tightly and she was surrounded by grave goods from her life.

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From this thoughtful burial we can plausibly assume that her death was a cause of great grief to those who survived her. And now, the best part of four millennia later, in death she has added to our knowledge of what childbirth was like in ancient times.

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